I don’t usually write here about this kind of issue, but things are slow, obviously (and it’s something I care a lot about). The lessons of Free Software are important ones, but they are also lessons from an era when everyone installed software on their own personal computer. Each new user needed a copy of Microsoft Word, or an audio/video editing program. But today, we live in an era of increasingly common “software services” or web applications–ranging from Web 2.0 services like flickr or de.licio.us to Google’s attempt to own your desktop with web-based versions of every application you used to buy (Google Docs and so on). What does Free Software mean in this context, when one company owns the servers via which thousands or millions of people access their software?
The answer has been hard to formulate, and has been one of the key struggles around the creation of the GNU GPL version 3 (and it’s variant, the AGPL)— the most commonly used free software license (the history of which is in chapter 6 of my book). Now a group of people associated with the Free Software Foundation have finally started to organize and evangelize around this issue. Autonomo.us is a group of Free Software activists who have penned a “Franklin Street Statement” that tries to get at some of the principles people might employ to bring the lessons of Free Software from the PC era to the web apps world.
Why does this matter for anthropologists? Well for one thing, we talk a lot on this blog about all the cool tools that anthropologists might use to make their work more effective. Whether that’s Google Maps mash-ups or collaborative editing via Google docs, they all raise an important issue: who owns your data? Ask any longtime “anthropology and computing” person about data formats and you’ll get an earful of spew about incompatibilities, mouldering data tapes and belly-up businesses whose applications are no longer supported and probably lost to the mists of time. Free Software is one possible way to deal with this threat to your data. It’s not a panacea, of course, but it’s important both technically and politically— free software means free data formats and the legal and practical ability to salvage your data and applications from obscurity. But it also means a commitment to freedom of a different kind: freedom to innovate the tools we use. I don’t bother with Atlas Ti or any other proprietary coding tool for exactly these reasons: I don’t own my data format, I don’t have the right to change it, I can’t add extensions and share them with my peers and so forth. The same thing is set to happen with most web-based applications, and it’s important not only for developers to think carefully about how software services enhance rather than limit freedom, but for users as well to consider these issues.
I’d like to see anthropologists being a lot more technically innovative—but it comes with a risk. The ease of use that is valued in Google docs comes with the risk that Google will slowly lock down the freedom it currently provides. The same thing is clearly also true at the level of our publishing infrastructure–whether that is Wiley-Blackwell’s secret corporate content managing borg matrix, or our once beloved AnthroSource, which is itself set to be “re-designed” (and I’ll bet my farm the “re-designers” have none of the principles of Autonomo.us in mind). It’s something worth thinking about.