Empowered free software

Free and open source software has traditionally been defined as the opposite of something else: proprietary (or commercially-licensed) software. That’s particularly obvious in the name of the GNU project, which calls itself “Not UNIX” – a popular AT&T-owned commercial software property of the time. The GNU manifesto goes deeper on the specific ways in which it is Not Unix:

I consider that the Golden Rule requires that if I like a program I must share it with other people who like it. Software sellers want to divide the users and conquer them, making each user agree not to share with others. I refuse to break solidarity with other users in this way. I cannot in good conscience sign a nondisclosure agreement or a software license agreement. For years I worked within the Artificial Intelligence Lab to resist such tendencies and other inhospitalities, but eventually they had gone too far: I could not remain in an institution where such things are done for me against my will.

The focus of this document, and of the various free software licenses, is on the distribution and redistribution rights associated with the software. Thus the focus of the Free Software Foundation, Open Source Initiative, and the other organisations that promote free or open source software is on ensuring appropriate licences are used, and that distributors comply with the licence terms.

Otherwise, free software development is not particularly distinguished from other forms of software development. There are, of course, some outliers, but mostly you’ll see a “core team”, perhaps with a formal structure (component owners, project/release managers, and other roles are common). This team organises its work around proprietary work-allocation tooling like Jira, Github, Slack, Trello, and so on. In many cases, an organisation such as a commercial company or business-interest foundation exists to centralise ownership and decision making, like a good old-fashioned Fordist company. The only visible difference in operations is that it’s possible to read the source code and get changes from outside through the gates and into their repository.

The reason so much work in open source software looks a whole lot like commercial software is that it is work in commercial software. Sometimes the open source project exists exactly to drive adoption of commercially-licensed equivalents, replacements, or upgrades. “Open core” products exist so that you find a need for the commercial features. Developer advocates build open source workflow tools as a sort of loss leading pre-sales activity. And many companies publish open source software “off the money path” as a recruitment activity: do some free work on our pull requests then come here and get paid to reject pull requests from your peers!

Note that I’m not saying all free software or open source software is like this, but that plenty is. Free and open source software development is informed by, and mimics, commercial software engineering to a large extent.

Of course it’s this way, you say, we software engineers need our expensive software engineering lifestyles supported by our high software engineering salaries, so we learn our craft in corporate service and that informs all of our development, including open source. Or that we are only able to contribute to open source when it’s in pursuit of our employers’ goals, because Computering Time is something we do in the office. So it’s no surprise that a lot of open source software development looks like, or is, corporate software development. If only there were proper, sustainable funding for open source software!

To which I say: that is an interesting, and problematic, request, and I wish to put it to one side. Maybe I’ll revisit it in a later post. What I’m more interested in, is what an open source movement that was centered around the Four Freedoms, rather than software-licensing concerns, would look like. One in which you didn’t merely have some abstract legal freedom to do the four activities, but were empowered to do so.

Power Zero: The power to run the program for any purpose.

How much free or open source software cannot directly be used by anyone who isn’t a programmer? Think of all of the things that are only distributed as developer libraries, for developers to incorporate into (commercial or open source) applications. The things that get duplicated as a pod, an egg, a crate, and in whatever new packaging system and programming language comes along. This is the repository namespace as a virtual landgrab, enabling open source as corporate recruitment tool: you should hire me, you’ve heard of me because I wrote the language-your-programmers-use version of library-your-programmers-use.

How much free or open source software is just plain difficult, due to accidental rather than essential complexity? Developers will probably have all sorts of (developer tools) examples here, like GNU autoconf. I find it very hard to make a nice-looking document using open source tools, too. I’ve put enough effort into learning emacs and LaTeX to get somewhat proficient, but still spend a lot of time looking up TeX syntax and getting it wrong. And making (hopefully nice-looking) documents is something I do fairly frequently.

And I’m playing this game on the easy setting. I’ve got years of experience trying to make software work. I am willing (and often paid) to put time into understanding why software doesn’t do what I want. I speak English, the home language of much software, and can use a screen and keyboard without difficulty.

A free software movement in which Freedom 0 is replaced by Empowerment 0 would make getting, trying, and adopting free software trivial. Much simpler than an app store, which has the necessary gatekeeper of payments.

Power One: The power to study how the program works, and change it to make it do what you wish.

Access to the source is a precondition for this. Also, the source being in a readily comprehensible format, amenable to experimentation and adaptation are preconditions. It needs to be possible for a finance person, not a computer person, to look at a finance application like GNUcash, understand its model of finance, and adapt it to their model of finance.

This means elevating automated testing from a thing that developers claim they do sometimes, to the principal mode of hypothesis-driven change in software. Remember when Dan North said that Cucumber would allow business analysts and developers to collaborate on writing the tests? That, but collaborating on writing the software. Currently modes of software development, including free and open source software, are predicated on the division of society into three classes: “developers” who make software, “the business” who sponsor software making, and “users” who do whatever it is they do. An enabling free software movement would erase these distinctions, because it would give the ability (not merely the freedom) to study and change the software to anyone who wanted or needed it.

Software developed with this in mind would have – nay, require – a very clear architecture. If you want a finance person to critique the finance model used in a finance application, everything needs to scream finance. It needs to stop screaming model, view, controller, or memory management, or database transaction, and start shouting credit, debit, accounts receivable.

That doesn’t mean that there isn’t space for experts in memory management or database transactions, but it does mean that you can understand a music score pagesetting application to the point where you can improve its representation of Klezmer modes without needing to understand memory management or database transactions.

Power Two: The power to redistribute and make copies so you can help your neighbour.

An enabling free software movement would make it easy for me to package my computer, or a part of it, and send it to someone else: “here, I find this useful, you give it a go”. So I don’t have to grub around (pardon the pun) for whatever guix, apt, yum, pkcon, brew, pkg or whatever command I had to run to make the software work and tell that person to run the same command, hoping it works. I just give them the thing, and they use it.

Power Three: The power to improve the program, and release your improvements (and modified versions in general) to the public, so that the whole community benefits.

Currently there is a blessed edifice, called “upstream”, the fount of all that is good in software. Any corporate programmer who wants to juice their proprietary github profile longs for their “requests” to be “pulled” by upstream, so that all of those other programmers who are in thrall to upstream finally get to see the fruits of this individual’s labour.

It feels weird to say this in 2020, when the idea was presented as fait accompli in 1997, but an enabling open source software movement would operate more like a bazaar than a cathedral. There wouldn’t be an “upstream”, there would be different people who all had the version of the software that worked best for them. It would be easy to evaluate, compare, combine and modify versions, so that the version you end up with is the one that works best for you, too.

The Four Powers

The combination of these powers points to an open source software movement that erases power dynamics implicit and explicit in our current modes of producing software. It’s as easy for someone who understands the domain of a software system to acquire, understand, improve and share that system as it is for someone who understands the computer it runs on. The infinite malleability of software is deployed to allow people, teams and communities to produce and share their own versions that work best for them.

The antagonism between “the developers” and “the business” documented in the principles behind the agile manifesto is left to commercial software companies. Users, developers, and sponsors are on the same team, and produce software that works better for them than if they worked in other ways.

About Graham

I make it faster and easier for you to create high-quality code.
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