Archive for freedom

The benefits of openness, a modern example

In the last post I talked about how the information exchange that trade and the printing press allowed started off the modern society. But this revolution is not the only information revolution in history. In fact, the first one probably was the inventing of writing. It wasn’t as big or sudden as the invention of the printing press, and neither was a third revolution that came with the inventions of the telegraph, telephone, and radio.

But the fourth one is as big as the printing press. In fact, it might be bigger, and it’s happening now. It’s called the internet.

The internet started out improving information exchange by making information more readily available. In a radio you only have the information when it’s being transmitted, but the benefit of the radio is that it can transmit information fast. The information of books is available any time, but you’ll have to go to the library. The internet is like having a gigantic library in your home, and it spreads information just as fast as radio.

The easy accessibility to information also means it’s very hard to censor information. This is of course the reason that totalitarian countries try to restrict internet access, or in extreme cases forbid people to own computers outright. But even in countries like China that filters internet content for it’s citizens, everybody with computers now have access to information about democracy and human rights. And this means that slowly, slowly, the government has to ease up on the oppression.

If it had stopped there, it would only have been a minor revolution, but it didn’t. Because the internet also means easy information sharing. Wikipedia is now the worlds largest collection of information. The reliability of the information varies, but it’s a great starting point almost for anything you want to know. The biggest and best encyclopedia ever. And, it’s made by having an enourmous amount of people all contributing a little bit.

Wikipedia is surely the best example of an open society in function you could have. Big enough to warrant it’s own article in the future.

And while Wikipedia concentrates on encyclopedia and facts, the blogging revolution has made sharing opinions and news available to everyone. Blogs started shaking the world when some American news was broken by bloggers a couple of years ago. This year, the Swedish political landscape was changed when a massive protest against a new law swept the Swedish blogosphere, while the traditional media was ignoring the issue.

Internet is not only giving people access to more information, faster, but are letting people share information, and collaborate on a scale never before imagined.

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Open source and the third world

It is ironic that those who best could benefit from open source tend to shun it. The third world has little money for software, but plenty of labor and manpower to improve and develop software. This means that the model of open source, where you pay forward by helping improving the software or the documentation or help support it, is ideal for the third world.

Yet open source is seen with suspicions in the third world. Microsoft software rules Africa’s IT-sector, to great cost. Many countries refused to be a part of the ground breaking OLPC project unless you could run Windows on the machines, thereby completely defeating a lot of the benefit of the project. (Read about the amazing impact the OLPC had in a small village in Peru). Of course, piracy is widespread in poorer countries so they don’t actually spend that much money on the software, but that also means that there is no support available when needed. You can’t call Microsoft’s hot lines when you neither can afford the software nor the call charges. So they can neither use manpower to improve the software and adapt it to their needs, nor get help when they need it.

The unwillingness to use open source in the third world seems to originate in a deep seated fear of sharing information. Of course, knowledge is power. This is true everywhere, and no more so than where the monetary forms of power are less readily available. But what is also true is that sharing knowledge does not diminish the power. This is somewhat counter-intuitive. You would think that the more people having the same knowledge as you do, the less your power would be, but that is not the case. Yes, giving information will increase the power of others. But you still have the same information and the same power. And by sharing information to others, they will also be more likely to share information to you. Together we can therefore raise our knowledge and our power to unheard of heights, if we just share information and our knowledge. And the more people share, the more power we will get, and the greater the opportunities in front of us.

The poorer countries in the world could easily propel themselves to the forefront of information technology in ten years, if they adopted open source and a culture of information sharing. But changing attitudes is often difficult and will probably take much longer than the ten years needed once the attitudes have changed.

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Open source – open society

On of the main parts of the open society is freedom of information. And why it’s such a good thing is shown by the open source movement.

Open source is when the code behind software is available to everyone. It’s total information sharing. There are many variatie of open source licensing, in some cases you can do whatever you want with the source, in some cases you can do whatever you want on the condition that whatever you make with it also is open source, in some cases you are not allowed to charge for what you do with it, and tons of variants on this. There has been a lot of discussion on these variations and which is “best”, but it turns out that it’s the openness that is important.

Open source means we can work together. You don’t need one company with a lot of money that hires lots of programmers to make a software. Instead you get many programmers from all over the world that works together on software. Internet of today runs for the most part on that type of software. The typical web server today runs Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP, all of which are open source softwares. The software itself is developed on machines running a variation on Linux, with open source editors like Emacs, and versioning controls like Subversion. All open source. The only software I have on any of my computers that is not open source is games or software related for making music. And I do have several open source games, and the open source music-making software is also getting better fast.

Open source is based on you creating or improving software you need, and giving it to everybody else that needs it. If “you” are a developer, you do it yourself and pay with time and effort. If “you” are a company, you sponsor somebody to do the development. But since it’s open source, the company or developer does not have to do all of the work himself or itself, something that would take a long time or a lot of money. Instead, they do the part they need best. And by giving it away to everybody else who also needs it, the others can spend their time and money on what they need secondarily. There is much less re-inventing of the wheels, because the first guy who invented it gives the invention to everybody.

Open source means that we now in the software community can share ideas and information, and build on it. Since an open source developer of today starts with a lot of open source tools, you are already standing on the shoulder of many other developers. And when you make an open source software, others that need or like your idea, will help you improve it. Hence, they start out being lifted by your effort. But by improving your work, they lift you up.

We who today are building the web are not standing on the shoulders of gigants. It looks like we are, but we are not. We are instead standing on each others shoulders, constantly lifting each other up higher and higher. The foundation we stand on is one big gigant we have made of each others code. I would not have been able to sit here and use all the fantastic software I’m using today if it wasn’t for open source. With closed source, I would have had to pay for every bit of it (and I did, fifteen years ago) and hence I would not have been able to use one tenth of these tools. Information sharing, open source and collaboration has made todays world wide web possible.

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A better world is possible.

The power of humanity is immense. We invent things that previous generations could not dream of, make art of unimaginable beauty and put forward ideas and insights that bring our minds to soaring heights. But we also invent things that surpass the worst nightmare, commit acts of unimaginable horror and create ideas and insights designed to bring out the monsters within.

The result of this disparity is ever more evident on our earth. Life for humanity has during the last ten thousand years gone from the simple hardship of the daily struggle for food that is common for any animal to a world where beauty, freedom and wealth shares the planet with horrors, oppression and poverty unimaginable and unworthy even of animals.

But this does not have to be so. A better world is possible. A world without atrocities, without opresson and where the full power of humanity working together can be realized. A world where we open our arms towards each other, towards ideas and towards innovation.

Togethether we can grow an open society. And that is what I hope this blog should be about.

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