My Response to Thomas Friedman

In his best seller “The World is Flat”, Thomas Friedman identifies ten “flatteners” that are leveling the global economy; forces such as outsourcing, offshoring, supply chaining, and the collapse of the Soviet empire. His fourth flattener is open source software. None of his issues are particularly new, but it is Friedman’s treatment of them, notably both his and Bill Gates’s shocking misunderstanding of free software, that raises some of the most provocative questions of a provocative book.

To be fair, Friedman does attempt to present a balanced view of free software, even quoting an article in The Economist which noted that “some zealots even argue that the open-source approach represents a new, post-capitalist model of production”. Yet somehow he still seems to miss the mark; perhaps it’s the pro-capitalist bias that pervades the entire book. He asks:

    Why would so many people be ready to write software that would be given away for free? Partly it is out of the pure scientific challenge, which should never be underestimated. Partly it is because they all hate Mircrosoft for the way it has so dominated the market and, in the view of many techies, bullied everyone else. Partly it is because they believe that open-source software can be kept more fresh and bugfree that any commerical software, because of the way it is constantly updated by an army of unpaid programmers. And partly it is because some big tech companies are paying engineers to work on Linux and other software, hoping it will cut into Microsoft’s market share and make it a weaker competitor all around. There are a lot of motives here, and not all of them altruistic. When you put them all together, though, they make for a very powerful movement that will continue to present a major challenge to the whole commercial software model of buying a program and then downloading its fixes and buying its updates.

Let’s see. What are his explanations for free software again?

  1. “the pure scientific challenge”,
  2. “they all hate Microsoft”,
  3. “open-source software can be kept more fresh and bugfree”,
  4. “some big tech companies are paying engineers to work on [it]”.

Like a darter who keeps shooting around the outer ring, Friedman just can’t seem to hit the bull’s-eye. Let me try. Because capitalism is an immoral philosophy. Nowhere in his list does Friedman suggest a moral motivation for the open source phenomenon.

Richard Stallman, of course, came much closer to the target, hit the bull’s eye really, in the GNU Manifesto:

    I consider that the golden rule requires that if I like a program I must share it with other people who like it.

What’s the golden rule? The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as “a rule of ethical conduct referring to Matthew 7:12 and Luke 6:31: do to others as you would have them do to you”.

    Always treat others as you would like them to treat you: that is the law and the prophets.
    Matthew 7:12
    Treat others as you would like them to treat you.
    Luke 6:31

This, in my opinion, is the crux of free software. This is why, “of all the issues [Friedman] dealt with in [his] book, none evoked more passion from proponents and opponents than open-source”. It’s the same reason abolition evoked such passion a hundred and fifty years ago; because the issue at hand is fundamentally moral in nature, and the society as a whole is generally on the wrong side of it.

Yet even more interesting than Friedman, in my opinion, is Gates! Friedman quotes him:

    “You need capitalism [to drive innovation.] To have [a movement] that says innovation does not deserve an economic reward is contrary to where the world is going. When I talk to the Chinese, they dream of starting a company. They are not thinking, ‘I will be a barber during the day and do free software at night.’ … When you have a security crisis in your [software] system, you don’t want to say, ‘Where is the guy at the barbershop?”

This is, to put it mildly, amazing. My reaction upon reading it was roughly comparable to Lawrence Lessig’s reaction to the U.S. Federal Government’s 2003 quashing of a proposed World Intellectual Property Organization meeting on open source:

    What was surprising was the United States government’s reason for opposing the meeting. Again, as reported by Krim, Lois Borland, acting director of international relations for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, explained that “open-source software runs counter to the mission of WIPO, which is to promote intellectual-property rights.” She is quoted as saying, “To hold a meeting which has as its purpose to disclaim or waive such rights seems to us to be contrary to the goals of WIPO.”
    These statements are astonishing on a number of levels.
    First, they are just flat wrong. As I described, most open source and free software relies fundamentally upon the intellectual property right called “copyright.” Without it, restrictions imposed by those licenses wouldn’t work. Thus, to say it “runs counter” to the mission of promoting intellectual property rights reveals an extrodinary gap in understanding – the sort of mistake that is excusable in a first-year law student, but an embarrassment from a high government official dealing with intellectual property issues.
    Free Culture (pp. 265-266)

As Lessig’s reaction to Borland, so went my reaction to Gates. His description of free software, “[a movement] that says innovation does not deserve an economic reward” is just flat wrong. I don’t know of a single free software advocate who holds this view; I certainly do not. If anything, our position is exactly the opposite – innovation does deserve a reward, all innovation, irregardless of whether access to it is restricted by a credit card entry form.

Nor do I know of anyone who dreams of working in a barbershop by day and slaving over a computer at night. I’d certainly like to have an office, a salary, employees, a budget to develop my free software. Unfortunately, I live in a society totally rigged in favor of capitalism. Reject Christianity. Reject Christ’s command to “give to all those who beg of you”. Adopt instead this immoral philosophy of refusing to do for anyone who doesn’t pay you, and the world is your oyster. Oppose it, do the exact same work as the capitalist, but insist upon a Christian model of distribution, and every door is slammed shut in your face. This is the truth about capitalism.

To hear these claims coming from Gates is both unsettling and reassuring. Unsettling that someone with so much authority so fundamentally misunderstands one of the major issues of his industry. Reassuring to those whose fear Microsoft’s threat to free software; they are unlikely to successfully combat that which they do not understand. One wonders if he is being completely truthful, but he has little enough reason to dissemble. People generally mean what they say. He could always have answered along the lines of Steve Balmer, who has simply observed that Microsoft will not embrace free software because it would put them out of business. Perhaps Gates doesn’t understand because he doesn’t want to understand. Free software threatens too fundamentally his worldview.

As for The Economist‘s “zealots”, they are simply echoing a message carried by evangelists for two millennia – Christianity is genuinely new. “Give to all those who beg of you” definitely “represents a new, post-capitalist model of production”. Two thousand years on, a gospel of love, peace, and generosity is still fundamentally at odds with main stream human society.

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