Some tech news part 2

Scott Martens smartens at
Tue Mar 14 14:25:30 PST 2000

"Nathan Newman" a écrit:

> At the level of code, it's a good idea; at the level of
> over-arching design, it is wrong, anti-democratic and
> plays into corporate hands, since they have the market
> power to control it despite the protestations of open
> source folks.

That corporations have the power to control much of the product is true. However, I am unclear on what sort of over-arching decisions you have in mind. For OSS people, this is about freedom to code - to write the software you want - and I don't see what sort of democratic process could work here, except perhaps a funding system à la ARPA, where projects with promise are given grants based on an elected committee or some sort of voting scheme.

> I don't agree with Lawrence Lessig on a lot of his views,
> but his basic argument that code is equivalent to
> regulation in the new economy is on target. And for that
> reason, it should be subject to exactly the democratic
> political controls we demand in any other area of social
> power.

I don't think it's code, I think it's standards and infrastructure that are equivalent to regulation. TCP/IP, with all its limitations, is tantamount to a regulatory scheme. So is IMAP and HTML. I am not opposed to democratic involvement in decisions of infrastructure, however, I do have to ask how the public, or anyone else not directly invovled, is going to evaluate different infrastructure schemes. I'm not arguing in favour of technocratic elitism, but the question of who decides, and on what criteria, remains.

> And if you want the public to fund open source software,
> the democratic quid pro quo is a public role in the
> design-- not in the details but in the social goals that
> the output should serve. This is nothing radical, since
> this is exactly the model that shaped the Internet from
> the 1960s onwards as public agencies like ARPA and the NSF
> defined broad goals they wanted served by the new
> technology, provided funding and coordination, marvelled
> at the new ideas and possibilities produced by the coders,
> then encorporated these possibilities into the next round > of public goals and funding specifications.

The people who pay get to call the shots - I don't think anyone in the OSS world has a big problem with that. ARPA's R&D model has been remarkably successful, not always in fulfilling its stated goals, but in producing important technologies.

That point is important. When ARPA started funding the project that ultimately became the Internet, the Internet was not at all what they had in mind. Goal-setting can't determine outcomes in research. If public finds are to be used, the public has the right to some account of it, but public involvement can't extend to mandating outcomes.

> In the name of full disclosure/self-promotion, I should
> note that I have an article coming out on this history of
> public support and regulation of public-oriented software
> in the next issue of THE AMERICAN PROSPECT, which will
> have a number of articles about open source and
> technology. The point of a number of the articles is to
> refute the libertarian self-delusion that the computer
> industry was built without government support and
> regulation or that various forms of regulation (often the
> wrong ones) are not pervasive today.

I look forward to reading it. The computer industry was built through extensive government intervention, and is not by any means free of government support today. The libertarians are... well... silly in their hatred of government.

> There is actually plenty of public money going into
> various computer projects, but there is little connection
> between that funding and a sane and concentrated set of
> public policy goals around the evolution of the current
> industry. If the government coordinated existing
> technology funding, its own purchasing contracts and its
> active regulatory powers, it could shape the whole
> industry to serve more public goals that the
> industry-dominated mess we have entered.

Agreed. Boeing could never have gotten the 707 off the ground without government purchases. The early computer industry was no different. This dates all the way back to the 1790's, when the US Army began purchasing machine-made guns and built the American gun industry on government contracts.

I do think there is a place for a sane regulatory scheme in the computer industry. I think the state should come out firmly in favour of specific formats for data and encryption and record-keeping. Most kinds of businesses have to obey laws concerning record-keeping, formats and when and how they communicate with the public and with other companies; and furthermore, those laws have aided rather than hindered economic growth on the whole. National governments take a significant role in industrial standards in every industry except computing, and I don't see why computers should be an exception.

However, don't underestimate the importance of the freedom to code in the minds of coders. I work on a piece of software written almost 30 years ago that hasn't a hint of advanced technology in it. This code has been licensed to dozens of companies and universities and thousands of people have seen it. Yet, if I quit my job, I can't continue working on it, nor can I ever make any changes to it - no matter how needed - available to the public. That's the kind of irritant that OSS people, I think, work to avoid.

I fear that trying to introduce community responsibility to open source people will just replace a tyrrany of bosses, copyrights and licensing agreements with public committees that contribute little but demand a lot.

Scott Martens

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