The Proper Place of Technology In Our Lives

It’s now the middle of December, which signals the end of my first semester of grad school. I took two classes, both focused on HCI: cognitive psychology and social implications. The paper I just finished writing for the social implications course was about answering the question of whether all software should be free, and required a lot of research into open source, the Free Software Foundation, and a lot of deep thinking about what I felt was right.

The definitions of freedom offered by the Free Software Foundation act on the assumption that computers are central to a persons well being, and that the user of a computer should have full and complete access to the source code of the computer based on a natural right of well being. However, it is my position that computers, or any other form of technology, only serve to increase personal freedom of the user in proportion to the increase in overall quality of life of the user of the technology.

Richard Stallman, in his essay entitled “Why Software Should Not Have Owners” claims that authors of software can claim no natural right to their work, citing the difference between physical products and software, and rejecting the concept of a tradition of copyright. Stallman uses an example of cooking a plate of spaghetti to explain the difference between software and physical products:

When I cook spaghetti, I do object if someone else eats it, because then I cannot eat it. His action hurts me exactly as much as it benefits him; only one of us can eat the spaghetti, so the question is, which one? The smallest distinction between us is enough to tip the ethical balance. But whether you run or change a program I wrote affects you directly and me only indirectly. Whether you give a copy to your friend affects you and your friend much more than it affects me. I shouldn’t have the power to tell you not to do these things. No one should.

However, what Stallman does not address what gives the second person who receives the software the right to benefit from the authors work without giving something in return.

Before the industrial revolution, most people learned a skill and worked for themselves in small communities. A single village would have all of the skill sets necessary to sustain itself, and each member of the community would apprentice into a particular skill set to contribute and earn a living. The industrial revolution pushed skilled workers into factories and assembly lines, work that was both distasteful and disdainful to an artisan in the craft. However, corporations were able to reduce cost and increase profits, and the platform has persisted into current work environments.

In the information age, the assembly line mindset has created oceans of cubicles filled with programmers who use their skills in small parts of large software projects, sometimes to great success, but far too often to failure. The Internet and popularity of lower priced computers has created a market for high quality third party software, the kind that is created by someone with a passion for what they are doing. This passion comes from learning a craft, and using that skill to earn a living, just like the workers from before the industrial revolution. Instead of living physically in small villages, these new age artisans live online and create communities built around social networking.

In many ways, this is a return to a more natural way of life, and a simple form of commerce. One person can create an application and sell it, and another person can buy it from him. The person selling the software benefits from being able to purchase shelter, food, and clothing for his family, and the person who buys the software benefits from the use of the software. It is a very simple transaction, and a model that is not adequately explained in the GNU essays. If all proprietary software is wrong, then an independent developer who sells software as his only job is also wrong. GNU supporters could argue that there is nothing stopping the programmer from selling his software, but he should give away the source code under a license that permits redistribution along with the software once it is sold. At this point, selling the original program no longer becomes a viable business model. A programmer can not continue to sell his software when the user can, and is encouraged to, download his software from somewhere else for free.

While it may be the ethically right thing to do to purchase the software if you intend to use it, ethics alone are often insignificant motivation to encourage people to spend their money. If the choice of supporting the development of the software or not is entirely up to the user of the software, then purchasing the software becomes a choice that the user can make on a whim, with no real implications on the conscience of the user with either decision. GNU and the GPL place this decision squarely on the user, and encourage the users to not feel in any way obligated to pay.

The ethics of open source come into question when the requirement of adhering to the free software philosophies result in an independent developer not being able to support a moderate, middle-class lifestyle by developing a relatively popular application. Kant’s first formulation asks what would happen if all developers gave away the source of their code for free. In this imaginary world where all developers did this, the quality of software would go down to the lowest common denominator of acceptability. Each developers motivation would be to develop for himself, and since he would need to find a source of income elsewhere, only in the free time allotted to him. This would result in a wide variety of software availability, with very little integration or testing, mirroring the current state of GNU/Linux based desktop operating systems. Current software companies would move to a business model arranged around providing support to customers of their software. Competition, and therefore innovation, based on pure software features would decrease, since the source code of any feature another group could develop would be easily copied and integrated into competitors products.

A second implication of business providing support as their primary source of income is that the support becomes the product, not the software itself. Businesses then have a vested interest in creating software that requires support, resulting in intentionally complicated user interfaces.

From a utilitarian point of view, the outcome of proprietary software has clearly been to produce more pleasure for more people than open source has up to this point. Open source software is often more complicated, difficult to learn and maintain, and harder for the average computer user to use. Apple produces proprietary software and hardware, and states their mission to “make the best stuff”. Using their position as a leading software company, and leveraging their control over their computing environment, including iPads, iPods, iPhones, and Mac computers, Apple has been able to successfully negotiate deals with entertainment companies. The deals Apple has made allow the consumer to download music, television shows, and movies off of the Internet and watch them on any Apple branded device, and output the media to their televisions or home stereo systems. Because of the limits of Digital Rights Management, open source or free systems have not been able to provide this level of entertainment.

Free software enables the user to learn the intricacies of how the software works, and modify the software to suit his needs. Free software also provides a legal and ethical alternative to expensive proprietary software in developing nations or areas where the cost of obtaining a license for legal use of the software is prohibitive. Public institutions, like schools and government offices, where the focus of the organization is the public good, have the option to use software that is in the public domain and is not controlled by any one company.

However, proprietary software is also beneficial to the public, as well as respectful of the original authors rights regarding their creative work. Software is the result of a person’s labor; it does not matter how easy it is to copy that work, the author still retains a natural right of ownership, according to John Locke’s The Second Treatise of Government. Proprietary software enables products like the iPad, which is being used to enable elderly people, nearly blind with cataracts, to create creative works of their own. The iPad is also being used by caretakers of severely disabled children to enable them to communicate and express themselves. It is possible that the iPad would have been created if the software used to power it had been free, but that is unknown. What is known is that the net result of the device is to better peoples lives, which is the true purpose of technology. Any technology is merely an enabler to get more satisfaction and enjoyment out of life. What the free software movement does is exaggerate the importance of a specific type of freedom, without addressing the proper place of technology in our lives.

However, the existence of free and open source software alongside proprietary software creates a mutually beneficial loop, wherein consumers and developers are able to reap the rewards of constant innovation and competition. There is a place for both proprietary and free software, and it is the authors natural right to their creative work that gives them the freedom to choose how and why their software will be distributed.