Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Ethics & Free Software

There seems to be a perfectly reasonable consensus that the ethical argument for free software is not very effective as the prime mover of advocacy toward institutions. That is, getting up in front of your school board or IT staff, explaining that you should stop using Windows or Mac OS X because it is morally wrong to do so, and sitting back down is probably not going to work. This is an empirically observable fact. So free software advocates are told to tone it down, at least until we get our foot in the door, and that's probably good advice.

What is annoying, however, is that people who have made it their vocation to talk to educators about the ethical dimensions of the information ecosystem also don't talk about the ethical argument for free software, even when it is quite relevant to the discussion at hand. Since such people are presumably not doing advocacy one way or another, they shouldn't have to worry about whether or not the argument is literally persuasive in the short term, just whether or not it is important to the conversation, and one would be hard-pressed to deny that free software has not been a (if not the) key innovation in the field of "information ethics" in the past few decades.


Gnuosphere said...

I disagree with the first sentence of this post. My experience tells me the exact opposite is true.

Tom, this is NOT the ethical argument...

"getting up in front of your school board or IT staff, explaining that you should stop using Windows or Mac OS X because it is morally wrong to do so, and sitting back down is probably not going to work."

Of course not. You tell them what free software is and then point out how it relates to education.

Only a moron would do this. Even the closest rms comes is acknowledging that if you use proprietary software, you are unfortunately a participant in the overall structure - which is an undeniable fact. He even acknowledges that using proprietary software in certain circumstances is reasonable. If one stands up and does exactly what you suggest, then one is not representing the ethical argument for free software at all...or at least, so extremely poorly and from such a highly unorthodox angle, that one deserves to be ignored.

I've given numerous presentations to tech committees, school boards and teachers using the ethical argument for free software as a basis and generally, I receive positive feedback regarding the philosophy. Or, people just fall asleep because I'm ineffective in other ways. :)

Just to be clear, one's method of speaking to people in one's community may be questionable (I think this is what you are getting at), but there is nothing inherently ineffective about the ethical argument for free software.

I hope you don't stand by the first sentence of this post and instead, clarify.

On another note, I agree with your perceptions regarding David.

Tom Hoffman said...

Well, yes, I suppose I am straw-manning my own side of the argument here, but from things I read and hear it does seem like a lot of people get excited about free software for more or less the right reasons and then venture forth with what ends up being incredibly ineffective advocacy -- of the type I caricature.

However, even a more nuanced ethical argument like you describe, even when well received, is unlikely to be the decisive factor in these decisions. A significant supporting factor, and possibly becoming more significant as the efficacy of the systems is established, but not the primary initial selling point.

But your point is well taken.

Unknown said...

I used to work in IBM's Software Group (SWG). Its director, Steve Mills, would often say in presentations that "Code talks," which I took to mean that it doesn't matter what you say or what you promise -- what matters is the code you deliver.

I think this applies here. I present open-source to schools as an option, not as a cause or a religion, so they can decide if it can be used to reduce their IT costs.

Gnuosphere said...


Are you referring to someone from outside a school coming in to present an "open source" sales pitch or are you talking about working within a community from the onset and taking the time (weeks/months) to educate that community about free software?

Also, what do you mean by "religion"? Talking about the "cause" of freedom with fellow community members is common sense, free software causes you to compute freely.