Monday, July 06, 2009

Sugar in the Greater Free Software Community

I'm very pleased with the direction Walter is taking this, it is exactly the right move:

This was the first time that GUADEC and Akademy were combined their summits into one congress. It was clear there is much more in common between the two major GNU/Linux desktop communities than there are differences. While I largely talked about Sugar and the interdependency between FLOSS and learning, I also used my keynote as an opportunity to draw attention to the need for: better SVG support; a unified approach to collaboration on the desktop; a better and unified datastore architecture; and an amplification of our collective efforts in internationalization. I tried to make the distinction between simplifying complex things and using simple tools to reach to complexity and suggested that the current trends of the desktop accomplish neither goal. The latter, “learning-centric” approach should be our goal, since we take pleasure in complex things. I didn’t have time to dwell on “the cloud”, but Richard Stallman (rms) touch on the topic of Internet services in his talk. He saw them as a threat to freedom since the end user essentially cedes total control to the service provider. My issue is more narrow: we tend to be users, not creators of services. Yet there are many services that can amplify our ability to be expressive and engage in a critical dialog about that expression, so they have a role.

As usual, I used Sugar (and Turtle Art) to give my presentation. While most people had heard of Sugar, it seemed that few had actually seen it in action. The overall reaction was positive and we will undoubted get some new contributors as a result of this renewed exposure to the desktop community. (We already have a volunteer to work on the touch-screen interface.)

My keynote was sandwiched between Robert Lefkowitz (r0ml) and rms, who have markedly different positions re Free Software. I was sitting between the two of them at a post-talk press conference, which was—for me—entertaining. In regard to Sugar, rms acknowledged the point that learning can play an important role in appreciating, hence sustaining freedom—it was nice to make that connection. One concern r0ml raised was that there are powerful intermediaries between the developer and the user that are the real power brokers. I argued that Sugar on a Stick was an example of disintermediation in the context of schools—the IT department need not be involved at all.

A related point that r0ml made is that most people cannot program, so Free Software is a limited use to them. In response, rms said that they are still free to use it an redistribute it and even hire someone to make modifications. I went further, saying that they are free to learn to program and that the next generation will learn to program, since computation is our most powerful tool of expression. We owe it to them to help them achieve literacy.

If you want to talk about "disruptive innovations," a computer system for learning that doesn't require an IT staff, that's disruptive.

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