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Software and Community in the Early 21st Century
Alex Steffen, 19 Dec 06
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Eben Moglen, Professor of Law & Legal History at Columbia, recently delivered the single best talk I have ever heard about the meaning of free/libre/open source software and its role as both a model and a means for righting social inequalities (or, as we have put it, redistributing the future).

Moglen makes the point that in a world moving into collaborative production, the rules by which we govern the distribution of benefits from the use of ideas will have enormous implications in the lives of billions -- that in a world where innovation, technological progress, and access to resources, energy and materials all flow from access to knowledge, the kind of access communities have will largely decide whether or not the people there eat:

"Now we live in a different world. For the first time, all the basic knowledge, all the refined physics, all the deep mathematics, everything of beauty in music, in the visual arts, in literature, all of the video arts of the 20th Century, all can be given to everybody everywhere at essentially no additional cost beyond the cost required to make the first copy.

"And so we face, in the 21st Century, a very basic moral question: If you could make as many loaves of bread as it took to feed the world by baking one loaf and pressing a button, how could you justify charging more for bread than the poorest people could afford to pay? ...

"We live there now."

If we have a central premise here at Worldchanging, it is this: that spreading tools, innovations and new models through democracy, collaboration and increased interconnectivity in a spirit of planetary responsibility and human solidarity is the best way to transform the massive crises we face into a world in which we'll all want to live. Moglen in this talk does the best job I've yet heard of explaining why collaborative software is a critical part of that work.

You can listen to his talk on audio or watch it as video. I think even people who are not all that interested in technology will fin it compelling.

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I totally agree with your assessment, this talk made my hair stand up.

It's pretty clear that the network is going to cover the planet within our lifetimes. So it's fantastic that people like Moglen are out there spreading the message Free Software is more than just a fun project (although seeing Linux run on a laptop with a crank is *absurdly* fun). He's given us an argument that is simple and clear: spreading information will be is going to be a moral obligation within the foreseeable future, for all of us.

Incidentally, a kind soul named Geoff took the trouble to write out a transcript of the talk: Eben Moglen on Free Software and Social Justice, and he's also got an annotated version which has some useful background explanations of technical issues.

Posted by: Patrick Hall on 19 Dec 06

"And so we face, in the 21st Century, a very basic moral question: If you could make as many loaves of bread as it took to feed the world by baking one loaf and pressing a button, how could you justify charging more for bread than the poorest people could afford to pay? ...

That sounds like TOO basic a moral question. It might be posited more like this: you take the golden-egg production system, make the golden eggs free, give copied eggs to everybody, and then stop feeding the golden goose.

So everybody gets all the coolest stuff the 20th century ever created: but if the goose goes unfed, where are tomorrow's eggs supposed to come from?

I don't doubt that some non-profit open-source productions will show up that call themselves "non-golden eggs." People have been laboring this for a long time: it's got a track record. There's tons of nonprofit openware around today. Is that repurposed stuff actually "eggs"? Some of it's eggs. A lot of the openware stuff I've seen looks and smells like mash-up cholesterol-free egg-substitute. You taste it and... ugh.

If open-source production systems made amazing platinum eggs, there would be no need to legally transform today for-profit property system. Just design and make much better, clearly superior stuff for no money, and drive 'em all right out of business. That would rock. I'd be all for it. Instead of legally expropriating somebody else's efforts, why not supply your own products? Wouldn't that be the most basic sign of a superior means of production? It would be more advanced, and, that would look obvious.

If you can't supply better products efficiently, yet you still want to liquidate the bourgeois class and the silk-hatted Wall Street exploiters, there would seem to be a very basic 20th century lesson there. "We did it for the sake of the poor." Okay. Were the poor thrilled about what you did for them? For how long?

Posted by: Bruce Sterling on 20 Dec 06

Okay, I just watched Eben's video there, and I see that he deftly deals with my last paragraph of commie-baiting. He specifically declares that Firefox is clearly superior to Microsoft's new release of its browser, that the same will soon be true of every software product that makes Microsoft any money, and that the world's largest monopoly will collapse entirely in "a couple of years" because of the clear design superiority of open-source software.

Okay, great! After 18 years of the free software movement, another couple of years shouldn't be too long to wait. If Eben proves right in that prediction, then Eben's the man. Should that happen, I certainly won't argue with him. In the contrary, if that really happens, I'd strongly suggest that he ought to be made Secretary of Commerce.

Posted by: Bruce Sterling on 20 Dec 06

Here is another cool Eben Moglen talk.

Red Hat magazine recently published an article and video of a discussion between Eben Moglen and Paul Jones ( / Univ. of North Carolina at Chapel Hill). They were talking along the sidelines of the recent Knowledge Symposium held at New Delhi.

Disclaimer: I am a recent graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill and have worked as a Research Assistant for ibiblio.

Posted by: Sayan on 20 Dec 06

I'm not sure how well the underfed golden goose analogy stacks up against Eben Moglen's magical bread-replicating button analogy. The underlying assumption is that all the money being spent on proprietary software is driving the process of software innovation. This is probably true to some extent, but certainly the need for software also drives the creation of software.

To improve Eben's analogy a little bit: Each one of us cooks or bakes in our kitchens because we need to eat. We also have a magical button that will replicate what we make for everyone else in the world at no cost to us. And, of course, we push it because why not. You could argue that this would cause us to eat a lot of low quality food that we could get for free, but we'd still want better food. So we'd make better food and replicate it again. And the desire for good food would be driving the innovation. Some who had a lot of money and no cooking skills could still hire trained chefs to cook and they would because they want better food. If that food were in turn replicated, the quality of food that everyone was eating would improve.

This may still seem like pie in the sky (to continue in culinary language) but I think you do have to ask yourself why a gift economy like this couldn't work.

I say this as someone who is hoping to make a living using free software and has seen how it can drive innovation in Latin America better than proprietary software ever could. (More on what I do can be found here: ) Our little team recently took some time to watch Eben Moglen's talk in the office and there were cheers.

Posted by: Josh Kidd on 21 Dec 06

"...If you could make as many loaves of bread as it took to feed the world by baking one loaf and pressing a button, how could you justify charging more for bread than the poorest people could afford to pay? ..."

Simple; because it COST ME money to make that initial bread. Software has a huge R&D upfront cost, which you then expect to recover on the sales of that product (bread). Just because the duplication and distribution cost has gone down (it's cheap, but not zero), the production of that *first* bread still has to be paid for in some way.
This is a business, not a charity. And if I (or others) starve while trying to make that first bread, or the next bread, etc.; then you don't get anymore bread either.

This is a BUSINESS case, not a MORAL one.

His cheap rhetoric covers too many topics and confuses matters with ideoligies about Law, Social construct, and of course, open software. Additionally; pushing the GPL as a core foundation for such examples; without mentioning that it is also one of the most popular licenses that people love to hate; is also a spin off his bias (being that he works with Stallman).

The whole thing just doesn't sit well with me. He needs to simplify his (well rehearsed) speech and drop the sensationalizing attitude. Even if Microsoft did everything wrong for the next 5 years, they still have enough money and momentum to stay alive for another 20. The paradigm changes Moglen speaks of aren't anything new; and should be better articulated, especially with analogies to software and his use of "free".

Posted by: Sebastian Dwornik on 21 Dec 06

Firefox may feel like a gift, we might think that it's a "free" piece of software created by cooperative peer production, but a friend of mine from IBM was reminding me of the significant dollars that company has contributed to the Mozilla foundation. Somebody really is paying for this stuff, and those dollars are flowing because there's an economic incentive - IBM gives money to Mozilla and Linux because these Open Source alternatives are good for IBM's business, and without dollars flowing somewhere, I would argue t hat we wouldn't have a viable Firefox - or Linux, or Open Office.

While I appreciate Moglen's idealism, as Bruce suggests, free software depends on the goose: if he's not somehow fed and thriving, no more gold, no more eggs. So I think we have to be careful how we interpret the economics here... I'm pretty idealistic, myself, and I have a nonprofit that puts technology together for other NPOs. We use Open Source, but we don't work for free. Like everybody, we have bills to pay.

Moglen's colleague, Richard Stallman, likes to say "free as in freedom, not free as in beer". We can't abandon economics - and we can't abandon human nature: most of us do our best work where there's an economic incentive.

Maybe the real problem with Moglen's argument is in his metaphor. In fact, feeding people is never as simple as pushing a button, and the poor can't eat code.

Posted by: Jon Lebkowsky on 24 Dec 06



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