Free Software and Free Services

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 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. 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 in mind). It’s something worth thinking about.


Christopher M. Kelty is a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has a joint appointment in the Institute for Society and Genetics, the department of Information Studies and the Department of Anthropology. His research focuses on the cultural significance of information technology, especially in science and engineering. He is the author most recently of Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software (Duke University Press, 2008), as well as numerous articles on open source and free software, including its impact on education, nanotechnology, the life sciences, and issues of peer review and research process in the sciences and in the humanities.

18 thoughts on “Free Software and Free Services

  1. How absolutely fascinating. I just wrote to AAA complaining about difficulties signing in to AnthroSource. I was particularly peeved that they send out html emails with links to content in new issues of journals, but upon clicking said link you apparently need to backtrack to sign in to and THEN go back in BROWSE or SEARCH to find the article that there was a hyperlink to in the email. It wasn’t always this way; and the glitch has been repaired.
    So now they’re formalizing the glitch. How nice for us. Have they not heard of user design? Anthropologists have made great contributions in design work. Perhaps they should call on some of their own members in the National Association for the Practice of Anthropology to help them with this re-design. Oh, I forgot — the AAA Executive Board did and then ignored everything their own native experts told them!

  2. CK…

    Nice post. I was thinking about this recently actually, as I was finishing up the document conversion and anonymization system for Cultural Anthropology (with a roll-out soon hopefully). Currently it is taking in all sorts of documents and using to convert things to PDF.

    But why not to ODT an actual open standard? (Yes, PDF is an open standard, but …) In part because then we’d have to ensure that reviewers could figure out how to open them. Perhaps HTML or RTFD? But eventually the biggest hurdle we run into is, “Word wont open this,” and we can’t expect everyone to switch to one of the better (and more open) tools out there.

    The point is, that you’re dead right, we need to think about our data and our tools more. But when was the last time people in your (anyone’s) department sat down and talked about the ups-downs of different tools and their respective data formats?

  3. people talk about relevant data formats ALL THE TIME. But I think your point is when did they actually take the next step and educate themselves about why “Word won’t open this” is not just a technical problem that is beyond them, but a threat to the long-term existence of whatever it is they are opening.

    Formats are, however, a slightly different problem than web services. Formats and standards more generally index a problem of guilds and of professions and of habits and practices that are remarkably resistent to change. Changing a standard is really really hard. But at least I can collect a whole bunch of Free software converters and basically help my colleagues convert anything they need to convert when “word doesn’t open this”. I can’t do that in the domain of web services, because i have no access to either the software or the format.

  4. We are in a glorious golden age of free software; it has absolutely helped me and my students innovate but it will not last. I fear it will be just like the last golden age: After the cataclysmic bursting of the dot-com bubble ushered in the dark ages of Microsoft empire.
    I am enjoying it while all these free apps are here but Google will become the grumpy old troll under the bridge eventually.
    And what about bandwidth? I was just blogging about the current rather undemocratic state of affairs in the U.S. today with regard to the absence of universal high speed internet access.

  5. well, I’m glad it feels like a golden age, but I think your history is a bit off, anthrogeek. M$ was a 1990s monopoly before and during the dot-com boom, not after it. Google will almost certainly take their place and there will play out the same anti-trust politics that M$ and IBM did before them.

    Just to be crystal clear: Google the corporation uses lots of Free Software, but very little of the software they offer for no charge is Free Software. This was the point of the post– what would it mean for Google’s free applications to become Free Software?

    Re: bandwidth, the issue isn’t universal high-speed so much as it is net neutrality–that everyone who uses universal high-speed is guaranteed the same quality of service. I think schemes to provide universal access to high speed are a good idea, but the really important issues are inside the networks, not at the point of access.

  6. What would it mean for Google to become Free Software? Very little, I think. The power, and import, of Google isn’t the business model or the Free Software it employs, but rather the simplicity of the interface.

    As your post rightly points out, packaged software imposes a wealth of constraints upon the user most of which are unwanted, unfair, and undemocratic. However, Free Software also imposes constraints upon its users. Not in the form of format or distribution restrictions as with packaged software, but rather in the form of usability hurdles. The majority of freedoms invoked by the FSF are only available to a small and highly technical portion of the population.

    Freedom 0 may be a great step forward, but who wouldn’t exchange a little of Freedom 1 for something that can be used to get work done without embarking on a multi-year learning curve. For example, I am happily posting this using the “Open” Firefox instead of the “Free” EMACS.

    The real divide isn’t between “Free Software” and “Proprietary Software” or between those with broadband access and those without, rather the divide is between those who have mastery of digital tools and can use them to create and those who cannot. Until the programming floor drops and the ceiling rises we are left to poach meaning and engage in la perruque regardless if we subscribe to the wizards in Redmond or to the wizards in Cambridge.

    The biggest hope for stable and universal data formats is for companies with proprietary formats to follow Adobe’s example and allow their formats to be ISO certified. Formats that are not free like beer, nor free like liberty, but rather free like the Metric System. Or: Common as in Commonwealth.

  7. What if the anthropological community itself were to start producing web services? Then they could be geared toward the specific needs of the community. The producers could ensure that the formats used are non-proprietary, or at least such that they aren’t going to be abandoned or unretrievable in a few years, and could be readily exported to various formats.

    Maybe that’s asking a bit much for a profession that has been somewhat slow to even take up using proprietery formats, let alone start creating their own, but hey, that’s what grants are for right? Get together with your local Comp Sci department and enlist some students to start coming up with solutions.

  8. Jason, I have to say that I really don’t find google’s interface “simple”— I’m ultimately in agreement that simplicity and ease of use are the most important indicators of what people value, but I disagree that free software is somehow naturally less usable than proprietary software. badly designed interfaces are easy to come by, and they can be free or not free. I also think that “easy to use” is also a synonym for “easy to do a range of things that other people do” I think this has value, but it is limited. I like to open up a piece of software press a few buttons and have it do something so that I don’t have to worry. I like having my documents “just work” when I open them in Open Office. And they do, just as well as in Microsoft Word. However, if I want to do anything more complex or creative than that, I use EMACS, and I spend the time learning it so that I have that skill. The difference here, and it is crucial, is that I have access to 35 years of openly available learning about how to use EMACS, to say nothing of millions of extremely skilled users who are willing to help. I can’t say the same of, e.g. Quark Express, which is a beautiful program, but required being in the industry and buying a whole lot of manuals and books in order to learn.

    The more general point about the divide between those with skill and those without is valid–but free software promotes the open spread of those skills, even if the learning curve is steep. Proprietary software promotes the creation of guilds. neither imply ease of use.

    install Ubuntu and get back to me. 🙂

  9. anthrogeek, your post confuses free software (open source and free as in beer) with available for no cost… or at least that’s how it reads to me. The advantage of truly free software is that it can’t be “swallowed up and licensed by the big guys”— the licenses don’t allow it. Not sure what I am missing…

    Free like the metric system or “common as in the commonwealth” are nice sentiments, but I don’t think they really clarify things any further. The metric system is a standard, and free software deals with standards all the time— POSIX is an international standard, and many free software applications comply with various international standards. It’s wrong to say that free software is somehow opposed to standards of that sort… indeed quite the opposite, it is possible to validate standards-conformance in free software much more easily than in proprietary closed source software.

    As for common as in commonwealth… the idea of a nation as a commonwealth is a particularly insidious definition of belonging, I think… one that substitutes contribution to economic growth and common *wealth* for contribution to a common civil society or public sphere. Sadly, the fact is that open source is most often conceived of as some form of economic advantage, and not an advantage related to public power, liberty or enlightenment… I obviously think, along with the FSF, that it should be understood as contributing to the latter.

  10. The situation with competing data formats is analogous to historical standards for measurement or shipping. If companies were compelled to use ISO standards for XML or PDF in order to win government and corporate contracts (as other industries are compelled to use ISO standards) then data portability would not be an issue (as freight container specifications or the length of a centimeter are no longer issues). Free Software can adhere to the best technical standards (and it does) but it doesn’t have the power to compel their use or adoption in any meaningful manner.

    In my opinion, the learning curve is THE salient point when discussing digital tools. Given the growing use of digital media for disseminating academic work and of digital tools for creating academic work, pushing power now reserved for “programmers” down to the end user through usability and end user programming is the paramount issue if users are ever to gain a real voice and some control over software and data.

    The FSF has done little to address usability, nor have they signaled that usability is of much importance to them. They have also let the end user programming phenomena slip through their fingers. The FSF talks a good line about Liberty and Freedom, but when it comes to allowing non geeks access to that computational power they are AWOL.

    The promise of web services is to push computational power down the technical food chain. Allowing access to computational power through the opening of APIs to scripting languages, or visual programming techniques, is a major step forward for end user programming even if the FSF doesn’t approve of the backend setup.

    I take commonwealth in the older sense to indicate common good. It would be a real step forward if the FSF would live up to its rhetoric and make computation power common as in commonwealth.

    As I see it the problem with software isn’t “Free” versus “Non-Free” so much as the problem is programmer vs. user.

    I used to run Debian earlier in the decade, but I have since switched to OS X. I doubt I go back to Linux on the desktop, though I would jump at a Linux smartphone. I have great hope for the Openmoko project.

  11. Jason, you might want to read chapter 4 and 5 of my book to understand why your claims about ISO standardization are not as easy as they seem. The computer industry has been through this before, and even with complete industry-wide agreement on an ISO-certified standard (OSI), failed to adopt it. There is no earthly reason why Free Software should be responsible for “compelling” the use or adoption of standards. What’s worse, no government in the world could so compel us to adopt standards–we live in the era of de facto standards, network effects and “lock in”– or to put it another way, we live in the era of standards-as-strategy, when “owning the standard” is the (sometimes explicit) goal of corporate strategy, as in the case of Adobe, which wasn’t an ISO standard until *after* they had monopoloy market share with Adobe Reader.

    As for usability, examine your language: “pushing power now reserved for “programmers” down to the end user “; “if users are ever to gain a real voice and some control”; “push computational power down the technical food chain”; “the problem is programmer vs. user.” Free Software has always been about resisting this language, about tearing down the ideological wall between developers and users and treating everyone as users who can help themselves to become better users. Why build that wall back up? Re-read the work of the FSF, their entire message is abbout self-help and mutual aid in the service of bringing people up to the level of user, not sacrificing power in order to bring computing “down” to “ordinary” people.

    “Allowing access to computational power through the opening of APIs to scripting languages, or visual programming techniques, is a major step forward for end user programming even if the FSF doesn’t approve of the backend setup.”

    This is exactly what the FSF is worried about. Give up the control and power over the infrastructure in favor of pretty buttons and easy-to-use plug and play erector sets. If that’s what the people really want, let’s give it to them!

  12. Of course PDF became adopted by ISO after Adobe achieved a monopoly. Every young industry has seen a similar process unfold. The process unfolding in the software industry is fascinating and pertinent, but it isn’t unique.

    I have to disagree that the FSF is about tearing down the wall between developers and users. The FSFs rhetoric is about freedom for the “user” (and Stallman is fond of freely using the term) but the “users” the FSF is concerned with are also “producers” of software. For example, the FSF describes MAKE as an end user tool. This is obviously a technical use of the phrase “end user” that indexes a relationship with software that most “end users” will never (and I would say should not be required to) have.

    The choice you pose between between power and ease of use is a false dichotomy and only replicates the “digital divide” between tool users and tool producers – which, in my opinion, is the one divide most important to overcome.

    An application like Sophie, which works as both an end user application, and a fully reflexive programming environment, points toward a possible third way.

  13. I just don’t see it. 1) I “use” make all the time. I type “make” and it makes a program. I can’t really imagine anything easier, except maybe a glossy button with a big M on it, saving me four keystrokes. It sucks when it doesn’t work, but everything sucks when it doesn’t work 2) I can help “develop” make if I want. I know how it works, I could create a Makefile if I needed to, it might take some work, but all the docs are out there, and lots of people can help me; if it breaks, I can report a bug, I might even be able to suggest a feature to others who enjoy tweaking make more than I do. So does this make me an end-user or a developer? I have very limited programmming skills, but what stake would the FSF possibly have in rejecting my help because i merely “use” make? They haven’t and they wouldn’t. I think your characterization of them is simply wrong.

    Whatever it is you are objecting to, I think it has more to do with the kind of people attracted to the FSF specifically than it does the principles of Free Software. Lots of people find Stallman and people like him dogmatic, autistic and impossible to deal with… fair enough, toss the bathwater, but keep the baby.

    Sophie is, after all Free Software, and a great thing for all that– why is it somehow more [whatever you support] than what the FSF produces? But perhaps most importantly– if you want something to be more usable, more accessible, more powerful, Free Software gives you the power to do that. Form a group “The Better Free Software Foundation” and start convincing people to tear down the wall you’ve identified–you have the right to do so, and we are all waiting for you to lead us… and I am not being snide here, really, you have the right and perhaps you have the opportunity… do it!

    Case in point, the OLPC XO Laptop, which was conceived for exactly the reasons you seem to be talking about. But I would put myself in the skeptic’s camp here because I have an OLPC XO Laptop– it has three different versions of Logo, a version of Python for kids, three intuitive music making programs, and so on… and I can’t use a flipping one of them, even though they are all about, inside and out, giving that power to everyone. Learning to use the tools is hard work, regardless of the interface, and there is no such thing as a naturally more usable interface… I mean, look at the keyboard you use so fluently… we are used by our interfaces, not the reverse. The OLPC people said “we can change that”! I’m not really sure they’ve succeeded, but because it is free software, another group of people with better ideas can build on it, rather than re-inventing the wheel.

  14. This may be a stretch, so please cut me a little slack. I’ve been reading Chris Kelty’s new book _Two Bits_, finding it fascinating and pondering how the recursive public model he develops for FSM and Open Source does and doesn’t apply to the world of Japanese advertising where my own research is focused and some of the features (credibility won through successful implementation, for example) seem to apply and others seem to apply less well if at all.

    Here I think, in particular, of the absence of the recursive public’s lack of predefined goals with who does what prescribed from the top. Here there are problems with scale and diversity: individual versus team goals; project goals versus larger industry goals; how project goals get negotiated as clients first brief the agency team and then respond to its suggestions. Lots to think about here and kudos to Chris for coming up with ideas that genuinely crack the limits of conventional ways of talking about social organization.

    That said, I am reading this discussion between Chris and Jason and it pops into my head that FSM has several similarities to the 1870-1920 Progressive Movement in U.S. politics. It assumes a public that is highly educated and urgently concerned about the conditions under which effective action is possible, opposed to monopoly, and determined to return power to the people; where, however, “the people” are people like the Progressives, highly educated and urgently concerned…a recursive loop that isolates the movement from the bulk of the population who are, at least in terms of the issues at stake, far less educated and far less urgently concerned than self-identified movement members.

    Just brainstorming here, but what do you think?

  15. I like the FSF. I think they perform an important service, but I don’t think the reality of the tools they produce matches their power of their rhetoric.

    An illustrative example of end user programing is an accountant using Excel to develop and distribute a worksheet. Creating a worksheet in Excel is a form of declarative programming. If an accountant creates a worksheet to solve a new accounting problem then shares it, that accountant has in an important manner created and distributed free software and source code (his formulas and so forth which constitute the worksheet/declarative program).

    I would say the accountant has attained Freedom 3 by modifying and sharing source code, though I don’t think the FSF’s position would be that the accountant has done anything of the sort because the accountant used Excel as the application layer.

    But, does the accountant need access to the Excel source code to create Free Software? The operating system source code? How about the program that runs the TCP/IP protocol, or the physical network infrastructure? Is it just turtles all the way down?

    And that brings up a host of difficult questions for the FSF: Whose labor counts as producing Free Software? When is Free Software? What sort of public is engendered by reserving Freedom 3 for an elite class of technologists instead of extending it to a broad class of users?

    I take your point about learning Sophie’s interface – it could be improved and I am sure it will be as the project rolls along.

    On technical level, Sophie contrasts with the FSF in the manner of deployment as well as in access to computational power. Sophie is a modified Squaek VM and thus is far more portable than any of the FSF tools and has fewer worries about controlling the underlying infrastructure. Sophie runs in its own space on top up whatever OS you may be using at the moment.

  16. Jason, your example of the excel worksheet captures almost exactly what I mean by “recursive public.” You are absolutely right that the FSF would not consider it Free Software, quite the opposite in fact. And the question you raise about layers is the one I’ve tried to address in that concept–namely that freedom and its expression in public spheres isn’t just about the ability to speak freely (in your example, ‘create an excel worksheet’). It’s also about the ability to extend, change or examine the infrastructures that allow one to express oneself freely, all the way down. The reason I chose the term “recursive” is precisely because it is NOT infinite, not endless turtles, but to be meaningful, the recursion must halt at some level– which might be the application, the operating system or the transport protocols. Where it halts is a good indication of the limits of our freedom in a technical society.

    In the case of the excel worksheet, yes there is a limited freedom there, and there have always been communities of people who have shared and learned from one another in exactly the manner you describe: we call them professions, or less charitably, guilds (and maybe this goes to John’s query, which I am still thinking about). This is undeniably good enough for some people and certain purposes–but I would stop far short of granting such people the status of being a public (by any definition), or of exercising freedom in a strong sense (in the sense of being able to choose not only what to say, but the means of saying it as well).

    The concern which FSF raises is that the freedom which is absent in your example is the freedom to say something unpopular or in any way contrary to the aims of Microsoft. An accountant who created a worksheet for an anarchist environmental organization, for example, could find themselves on the wrong side of the Department of Homeland Security and Microsoft. At that point, there is no recourse for that group, they no longer have even Freedom 3… much less any of the others.

    To bring it back to the original post, as well, the goal of the group is to figure out ways to push down the layers of freedom involved in web services, so that, for instance, a Google Spreadsheet does not suffer the same fate. A project like Prophet is designed to deal with this issue.

    Now, I could play Devil’s Advocate on your behalf here: what good is such freedom if most of the world doesn’t have the skill to take advantage of it or the knowledge to exploit it. Perhaps what the FSF needs is a definition of freedom closer to Dewey’s than Mill’s: that freedom is constructed out of the enlightenment and self-improvement of people through education and self-knowledge. I would agree… but I think the FSF’s approach is viable whether one is with dewey or with mill, and what’s more, is not mutually exclusive with the ability to teach more people how to do more things with more free tools than microsoft or google is ever likely to provide. It’s a baseline from which to build, not a worldview or cult you have to join. I’m always trying to explain to people that you can be with Stallman and FSF or you can be with Raymond and Open Source or you can be with Torvalds and Linux… but it doesn’t matter what your ideological commitment is as long as you are all making software free.

  17. Or, if you want a less momentous, but more popular example, consider scrabulous. Here’s a good example of “end-user programming” shut down because Facebook is not free software. Oh well, I can always play scrabble offline. When they came for my scrabble board, I said nothing, because I don’t play scrabble… 🙂

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