Sunday, January 16, 2011

A King's Dream

Yesterday was Martin Luther King's Birthday.  It was the holiday I usually forget because I work for a company that doesn't observe it, but today, as in recent years, I'm taking note of it.  In recent years, I began to notice YouTube and it was on YouTube that I found that I could watch the entire "I Have A Dream" speech.  The first time I watched it, I was mesmerized by a fantastic orator, capable of putting lucid metaphors into context with American history, and eliciting the excitement of the realization of freedom.

King was clearly a man who understood the responsibility of freedom from all who enjoy it or seek to. There was one comment he made in the speech that had particular meaning for me today.  It is as follows:

The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny and their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.

The notion that my destiny and my freedom is bound to others is something I have long realized, particularly upon learning about the concept of ownership.  That which I own, owns me, too. That which I control, controls me, as well.  And so it is that I have sought to avoid the temptation to control others having suffered the great anxiety and agony of having tried to do just that.  That experience has tempered my responses to the behavior of others, be they insults or love, as I have learned to simply experience the incidence of either rather than try to control it.  Once experienced, I can then make a more informed and perhaps enlightened decision about how to respond.

So you might be asking, "What does that have to do with technology?"  Our freedom is bound to our respect for technology.  If we respect technology, it will serve us well, but if we take it for granted, many woes may befall us.  I have seen many people express frustration at their computers because of some kind of perceived insubordination on the part of the computer.  I have helped many of those same people, and in so doing, I've come to think of myself as a computer therapist.  You see, I help people work through their unresolved conflicts with computers.

When I work with computers, I approach them with respect and a certain amount of caution.  I have, throughout the years, learned to temper my response to the computer in the event that I get an unexpected or unwanted result.  Of course, backup is king.

For me, computers have taught me patience.  "Garbage in, garbage out" was what I learned early on.  A computer can only do what you tell it to do, either directly or indirectly.  If you open a DOS prompt or a bash shell and type a command, you're being very specific in telling the computer to do something.  If you install a program and run it on your computer, you're giving it a very complicated and specific series of commands.  But no matter what happens, you're telling it what to do.

Now, most of us aren't programmers and when we run a program, we're running millions of lines of code written by humans that has been converted to binary code, also known as machine code.  We have, at that point, no way of knowing what will happen when we run that code beyond what we're told it will do and what our past experience will tell us.

(Check out this segue.)   Such was the case of the white man in the early days of the previous century.  As the white man sought to impose his will on the black man and still coexist with them, they had to endure the uncertainty of the exercise of power.  Anytime power is exercised, there is uncertainty to contend with.  The oppressor will never know for sure what to expect from the oppressed. An educated guess is about all anyone can expect, just like with computers.

In the technology world, I see how one faction will attempt to exert their will upon another faction.  They may try to use deceit, coercion, threats of force or even acts of violence - all through the use of technology.  My current interest is in patents, particularly with software patents.  Patents used to be used to protect new, smaller companies from predatory practices of bigger companies, but that seems to have changed.  Nowadays, only very deep pockets can file, prosecute and defend patents.  And those large companies are using patents to stifle innovation from new competitors.

A great example of this is with Microsoft.  Bill Gates was aware of the dangers of patents in software before they became all the rage.  He knew that if software was patentable at the beginning, the industry would be completely stopped by the incumbents.

I have a particular interest in software patents because I prefer to use free software.  I use Ubuntu Linux at home and I do so because I find that I learn more from Linux about how computers work than I do from Windows.  Unfortunately, there are incumbent players in the computer industry, such as Microsoft, that are filing as many patents as they can in the hopes that they can prevent others from establishing a foothold in the market.  This looks like oppression to me.

There are even patent trolls, small businesses that buy up patents and then sue people who they believe are infringing.  The patent trolls don't make any products themselves, they just sue if they don't collect.  As such, they have no incentive to negotiate in good faith - all they need to do is threaten a lawsuit a lawsuit with a licensing offer that costs less than litigation.

There is one really big problem with patents with respect to Linux.  Linux is free software, owned by no single entity and there is no deep pocket to sue, other than the users.  But in recent years, and in unexpected corners, people are beginning to recognize software patents as a form of slavery.  In remarks about patent encumbered document standards made in 2008 at the 3rd Idlelo African Conference on FOSS and the Digital Commons, FOSSFA, by the Minister of Public Service and Administration, South Africa, Ms. Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi. She had this to say about patents in standards:

The adoption of open standards by governments is a critical factor in building interoperable information systems which are open, accessible, fair and which reinforce democratic culture and good governance practices. In South Africa we have a guiding document produced by my department called the Minimum Interoperability Standards for Information Systems in Government (MIOS). The MIOS prescribes the use of open standards for all areas of information interoperability, including, notably, the use of the Open Document Format (ODF) for exchange of office documents. ODF is an open standard developed by a technical committee within the OASIS consortium. The committee represents multiple vendors and Free Software community groups. OASIS submitted the standard to the International Standards Organisation in 2005 and it was adopted as an ISO standard in 2006. South Africa is amongst a growing number of National Governments who have adopted ODF over the past year.

It is unfortunate that the leading vendor of office software, which enjoys considerable dominance in the market, chose not to participate and support ODF in its products, but rather to develop its own competing document standard which is now also awaiting judgement in the ISO process. If it is successful, it is difficult to see how consumers will benefit from these two overlapping ISO standards. I would like to appeal to vendors to listen to the demands of consumers as well as Free Software developers. Please work together to produce interoperable document standards. The proliferation of multiple standards in this space is confusing and costly....

An issue which poses a significant threat to the growth of an African software development sector (both Free Software and proprietary) is the recent pressure by certain multinational companies to file software patents in our national and regional patent offices. Whereas open standards and Free Software are intended to be inclusive and encourage fair competition, patents are exclusive and anti-competitive in their nature. Whereas there are some industries in which the temporary monopoly granted by a patent may be justified on the grounds of encouraging innovation, there is no reason to believe that society benefits from such monopolies being granted for computer program “inventions”. The continued growth in the quantity and quality of Free Software illustrates that such protection is not required to drive innovation in software. Indeed all of the current so-called developed countries built up their considerable software industries in the absence of patent protection for software. For those same countries to insist on patent protection for software now is simply to place protectionist barriers in front of new comers. As the economist, Ha-Joon Chang, observed: having reached the top of the pile themselves they now wish to kick away the ladder....

One cannot be in Dakar without being painfully aware of the tragic history of the slave trade. For three hundred years, the Maison des Esclaves (Slave House) on Gorée Island, was a hub in the system of forceful transportation of Africans as slaves to the plantations of the West Indies and the southern states of America. Over the same period people were being brought as slaves from the Malay Archipelago and elsewhere to South Africa. The institution of slavery played such a fundamental role in the early development of our current global economy, that by the end of the 18th century, the slave trade was a dominant factor in the globalised system of trade of the day.

As we find ourselves today in this new era of the globalised Knowledge Economy there are lessons we can and must draw from that earlier era. That a crime against humanity of such monstrous proportions was justified by the need to uphold the property rights of slave owners and traders should certainly make us more than a little cautious about what should and should not be considered suitable for protection as property.

The oppression of the incumbents is what I see in the proponents of software patents.  In the 21st century, slavery is still present, if only in a more subtle form.  It is my hope that this form of oppression gets more notice.