Saturday, April 27, 2013

On the Relations of Inputs to Decisions of Fate

I'm a big fan of the GPL, aka, The General Public License. The license is used primarily to protect software, though I think it could be applied in many other cases where intellectual property requires protection. GPL is also known as copyleft, for it requires an interesting set of conditions to be met for the use and maintenance of any materials protected by it.

The Linux kernel is the most famous product protected by the GPL. The GPL is actually a rather complicated document, but it boils down to 4 freedoms and one condition that must be met to exercise those freedoms:

  • The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).
  • The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
  • The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
  • The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others (freedom 3). By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
The GPL creates a completely voluntary system of software development. If you find software that you like that is covered under the GPL, you are free to choose if you want to partake in the 4 freedoms or not. It's entirely up to you.

What I find most fascinating about the GPL is this: Fortune 500 companies have paid programmers to write code that has been contributed to the Linux kernel, free of charge. 75% of the source code contributed to the Linux project is written by paid programmers. Why?

The answer, I think, relates well to the problem at hand we have found in our current economic condition here in the United States. The financial scandals of the last few years, particularly with the meltdown in September of 2008, show that a few men with enormous power, will make poorer decisions than the crowd can make. This article, is intended to show that the fate of any population is directly tied to the participation of its members in the determination of its fate. The quality and outcome of any decision is directly related to the proportion of the number of people providing input to the decisions.

I know, it's complicated, but lets see if we can boil it down by looking at a study in contrasts.

The Linux kernel is quite possibly the most successful collection of software ever devised.  It runs on just about every commercially available CPU (the little chip that runs your computer, your DVR, your phone and the fastest computers in the world). Linux supports more hardware than any other operating system in the world. It has the best C compiler in the world, the GCC. It is developed with software code written by thousands of programmers all over the world. The code is vetted by other programmers who have a vested interest in the success of the software. Participation in the project is completely voluntary.

Compare that to say, Windows. Windows is a proprietary operating system. The decisions about the fate of the operating system rest, ultimately with the CEO of Microsoft, Steve Ballmer. Hardly anyone outside the company will get to see all of the source code for Windows. Exceptions include various governments, and very close partners. For the vast majority of code and users, Windows is a "car with the hood welded shut".

Windows became a popular operating system in the mid-90s through a master stroke of marketing  genius, comprehensive and interlocking license agreements designed to shut out the competition and a giant load of deception. Starting in the 90s, Windows ate into server markets for UNIX and became the predominant operating system in businesses large and small for server and desktop systems.

Concurrently, Linux started out as project of serendipity for Linus Torvalds in 1991. Then he shared the source code with his friends. His friends wrote back with suggestions and source code to use. Eventually, as the collaboration grew, Linus licensed the code under the GPL as the perfect mechanism to help the project grow and to protect it from being taken private. The GPL keeps code out in the open for everyone to see.

The GPL provides the perfect balance of incentives to keep the software free, attract contributors and the freedom to use it as desired. To put it simply, you can modify the software all you want and use it internally in your own shop or home as you wish. But if you compile the source code, with modifications you made, to binary files (machine code your computer understands), you must make the source code available to anyone you distribute the binaries to. That is the hook.

None of these freedoms are available with Windows.

Where are they now?

In almost every respect, Windows is declining in market share and relevance. The majority of the internet is running Linux. Google, eBay, Facebook, Amazon, IBM and many other big companies are running Linux in their data centers. Why? Because they all have a say in how the software is used and developed. They recognize the value proposition of using free software and contributing to it. They also know that they could not run a profitable business using Microsoft software, paying for their licenses and trying to compete with Microsoft.

Google and IBM don't use Windows for many reasons, including security. Google was hacked a few years ago by Chinese operatives exploiting weaknesses in Windows. Now they don't allow Windows except for testing their web services for Windows users. IBM, having been screwed over by Microsoft after the joint development of Windows NT, has completely converted every desktop to Linux. IBM has a department dedicated to writing and contributing source code to Linux.

So what does this all have to do with our economy?

Some of you may recall the LIBOR scandal reported last year. Today there is word of a much bigger scandal, involving price fixing the world over. This is yet another case of a small group of people making decisions for their own benefit at the expense of everyone else. This disparity in power and the collusion required to acquire it and maintain it is the problem.

When a small group of people make decisions that affect everyone else, we get the Great Recession. We get the Great Depression. We get Lesterland. We get very poor decisions for our (tax) money with virtually no accountability for failure. The quality and outcome of any decision that determines fate relies upon the quality of the inputs. As the proportion of people in a given population providing input to a decision respecting the fate of that population decreases, so do the prospects of that group as a whole.

Even those who stand to profit the most will suffer. How? Gated communities. Private armies and generators at home. Private schools. Isolation. Paranoia. Loss of interest in his fellow man.

Linux does not have that problem. The development process of Linux requires full transparency, full accountability. If something doesn't work, it's rejected, or replaced with something that works or works better. It is a democracy.

We could run our society according to the principles of the GPL and open source. Why not?
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