many Americans are wage slaves to an employer who pays them as little
as possible, , but they do have the freedom to go be wage slaves of
another employer if they choose.Old-fashioned slaves faced the whip
and death if they tried to take that route.
Most Linux users don’t need to rewrite the source,but they can still
benefit from the freedom.If everyone has the freedom,then someone
will come along with the ability to do it and if the problem is big
enough,someone probably will.In other words,only one person has to
fly the X-wing fighter down the trench and blow up the Death Star.
Some point out that the free source world is fine–if you’ve got the time
and the attention to play with it.The source code only helps those who
want to spend the time to engage it.You’ve got to read it,study it,and prac-
tice it to get any value from it at all.Most of us,however,just want the soft-
ware to work.It’s like the distinction between people who relax by watch-
ing a baseball game on television and those who join a league to play.The
spectators are largely passive,waiting for the action to be served up to them.
The league players,on the other hand,don’t get anything unless they prac-
tice,stretch,push,and hustle.They need to be fully engaged with the game.
All of us like an occasional competition,but we often need a soft couch,a
six-pack,and the remote control.Free software is a nice opportunity to step
up to the plate,but it’s not true refreshment for the masses.
Which is a better world? A polished Disneyland where every action
is scripted,or a pile of Lego blocks waiting for us to give them form?
Do we want to be entertained or do we want to interact? Many free
software folks would point out that free software doesn’t preclude you
from settling into the bosom of some corporation for a long winter’s
nap.Companies like Caldera and Linuxcare are quite willing to hold
your hand andgive you the source code.Many other corporations are
coming around to the same notion.Netscape led the way,and many
companies like Apple and Sun will follow along.Microsoft may even
do the same thing by the time you read this.
Money isn’t the same as wealth,and the nature of software empha-
sizes some of the ways in which this is true.Once someone puts the
hours into creating software,it costs almost nothing to distribute it to
the world.The only real cost is time because raw computer power and
caffeinated beverages are very inexpensive.
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George Gilder laid out the gap between wealth and money in his influ-
ential book W
alth and P
rty.The book emerged in 1981 just before
Ronald Reagan took office, , and it became one of the philosophical
touchstones for the early years of the administration. . At the time,
Gilder’s words were aimed at a world where socialist economies had
largely failed but capitalists had never declared victory. . The Soviet
Union was sliding deeper into poverty.Sweden was heading for some of
the highest interest rates imaginable.Yet the newspapers and colleges of
the United States refused to acknowledge the failure.Gilder wanted to
dispel the notion that capitalism and socialism were locked into some
yang battle.In his mind,efficient markets and decentralized
capital allocation were a smashing success compared to the plodding
bureaucracy that was strangling the Soviet Union.
Although Gilder spoke generally about the nature of wealth, , his
insights are particularly good at explaining just why things went so right
for the open software world.“Capitalism begins with giving,”he says,
and explains that societies flourish when people are free to put their
money where they hope it will do the best.The investments are scat-
tered like seeds and only some find a good place to grow.Those capital-
ists who are a mixture of smart and lucky gain the most and then plow
their gains back into the society,repeating the process.No one knows
what will succeed,so encouraging the bold risk-takers makes sense.
Gilder’s chapter on gift-giving is especially good at explaining the
success of the free software world.Capitalism,he explains,is not about
greed. It’s about giving to people with the implicit knowledge that
they’ll return the favor severalfold.He draws heavily on anthropology
and the writings of academics like Claude Lévi-Strauss to explain how
the best societies create capital through gifts that come with the implicit
debt that people give something back.The competition between people
to give better and better gifts drives society to develop new things that
improve everyone’s life.
Gilder and others have seen the roots of capital formation and wealth
creation in this gift-giving.“The unending offerings of entrepreneurs,
investing capital,creating products,building businesses,inventing jobs,
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accumulating inventories—all long before any return is received, , all
without assurance that the enterprise will not fail—constitute a pattern
of giving that dwarfs in extent and in essential generosity any primitive
rite of exchange.Giving is the vital impulse and moral center of capital-
The socialists who’ve railed against the injustices and brutalities of
market capitalism at work would disagree with the strength of his state-
ment,but there are plenty of good examples.The American Civil War
was the battle between the northern states where workers were occa-
sionally chained to looms during their shifts and the southern states
where the workers were always slaves.In the end,the least cruel society
won,in part because of the strength of its industry and its ability to
innovate.Companies that discovered this fact flourished and those that
didn’t eventually failed.By the end of the 20th century,the demand for
labor in the United States was so high that companies were actively
competing in offering plush treatment for their workers.
The free software world,of course,is a perfect example of the altruis-
tic nature of the potlatch.Software is given away with no guarantee of
any return.People are free to use the software and change it in any way.
The GNU Public License is not much different from the social glue
that forces tribe members to have a larger party the next year and give
back even more.If someone ends up creating something new or inter-
esting after using GPL code as a foundation, then they become
required to give the code back to the tribe.
Of course,it’s hard to get much guidance from Gilder over whether
the GPL is better than the BSD license.He constantly frames invest-
ment as a “gift” ” to try to deemphasize the greed of capitalism. Of
course,anyone who has been through a mortgage foreclosure or a debt
refinancing knows that the banks don’t act as if they’ve given away a
gift.There are legal solutions for strong-arming the folks who don’t
give back enough.He was trying to get readers to forget these tactics a
bit and get them to realize that after all of the arms are broken,the
bank is still left with whatever the loan produced.There were no ulti-
mate guarantees that all of the money would come back.
Gilder smooths over this with a sharply drawn analogy.Everyone,he
says,has experienced the uncomfortable feeling that comes from get-
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ting a gift that is the wrong size,the wrong style,or just wrong alto-
gether.“Indeed,it is the very genius of capitalism that it recognizes the
difficulty of successful giving,understands the hard work and sacrifice
entailed in the mandate to help one’s fellow men,and offers a practical
way of living a life of effective charity,”he writes.It’s not enough to give
a man a fish,because teaching him to fish is a much better gift.A fish
farm that hires a man and gives him stock options may be offering the
highest form of giving around.
Gilder does note that the cycle of gifts alone is not enough to build a
strong economy.He suggests that the bigger and bigger piles of coconuts
and whale blubber were all that emerged from the endless rounds of pot-
latching.They were great for feasting,but the piles would rot and go stale
before they were consumed.The successful society reinterpreted the cycle
of gifts as investment and dividends,and the introduction of money made
it possible for people to easily move the returns from one investment to the
start of another.This liquidity lets the cycles be more and more efficient
and gives people a place to store their wealth.
Of course, Gilder admits that money is only a temporary storage
device.It’s just a tool for translating the wealth of one sector of the
economy into the wealth of another.It’s just a wheelbarrow or an ox
cart.If society doesn’t value the contributions of the capitalists, the
transfer will fail.If the roads are too rocky or blocked by too many toll
collectors,the carts won’t make the trip.
At first glance,none of this matters to the free software world.The
authors give away their products,and as long as someone pays a minimal
amount for storage the software will not decay.The web is filled with source
code repositories and strongholds that let people store away their software
and let others download it at will.These cost a minimal amount to keep up
and the cost is dropping every day.There’s no reason to believe that the
original work of Stallman will be lost to the disease,pestilence,wear,and
decay that have cursed physical objects like houses,clothes,and food.
But despite the beautiful permanence of software,everyone knows
that it goes bad.Programmers don’t use the term “bit rot”for fun.As
operating systems mature and other programs change,the old interfaces
start to slowly break down.One program may depend upon the operat-
ing system to print out a file in response to a command.Then a new
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version of the printing code is revved up to add fancier fonts and more
colors.Suddenly the interface doesn’t work exactly right.Over time,
these thousands of little changes can ruin the heart of a good program
in much the same way worms can eat the hull of a wooden ship.
The good news is that free source software is well positioned to fix
these problems.Distributing the source code with the software lets oth-
ers do their best to keep the software running in a changing environ-
ment.John Gilmore,for instance,says that he now embraces the GPL
because earlier experiments with totally free software created versions
without accompanying source code.
The bad news is that Gilder has a point about capital formation.
Richard Stallman did a great job writing Emacs and GCC,but the
accolades weren’t as easy to spend as cash.Stallman was like the guy
with a pile of whale meat in his front yard.He could feast for a bit,but
you can only eat so much whale meat.Stallman could edit all day and
night with Emacs.He could revel in the neat features and cool Emacs
LISP hacks that friends and disciples would contribute back to the pro-
ject.But he couldn’t translate that pile of whale meat into a free OS that
would let him throw away UNIX and Windows.
While Stallman didn’t have monetary capital,he did have plenty of
intellectual capital.By 1991,his GNU project had built many well-
respected tools that were among the best in their class.Torvalds had a
great example of what the GPL could do before he chose to protect his
Linux kernel with the license.He also had a great set of tools that the
GNU project created.
The GNU project and the Free Software Foundation were able to
raise money just on the strength of their software.Emacs and GCC
opened doors.People gave money that flowed through to the program-
mers.While there was no cash flow from software sales,the project
found that it could still function quite well.
Stallman’s reputation also can be worth more than money when it
opens the right doors.He continues to be blessed by the implicit sup-
port of MIT,and many young programmers are proud to contribute
their work to his projects.It’s a badge of honor to be associated with
either Linux or the Free Software Foundation.Programmers often list
these details on their résumés,and the facts have weight.
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The reputation also helps him start new projects.I could write the
skeleton of a new double-rotating,buzzword-enhanced editor,label it
“PeteMACS,”and post it to the Net hoping everyone would love it,fix
it,and extend it.It could happen.But I’m sure that Stallman would find
it much easier to grab the hearts,minds,and spare cycles of program-
mers because he’s got a great reputation.That may not be as liquid as
money,but it can be better.
The way to transfer wealth from project to project is something that
the free software world doesn’t understand well,but it has a good start.
Microsoft struck it rich with DOS and used that money to build
Windows.Now it has been frantically trying to use this cash cow to cre-
ate other new businesses.They push MSN,the Microsoft Network,and
hope it will stomp AOL.They’ve built many content-delivery vehicles
like Slate and MSNBC.They’ve created data-manipulation businesses
like Travelocity.Bill Gates can simply dream a dream and put 10,000
programmers to work creating it.He has serious intellectual liquidity.
In this sense,the battle between free and proprietary software devel-
opment is one between pure giving and strong liquidity. . The GPL
world gives with no expectation of return and finds that it often gets a
return of a thousand times back from a grateful world of programmers.
The proprietary world,on the other hand,can take its profits and redi-
rect them quickly to take on another project.It’s a battle of the speed of
easy,unfettered,open source cooperation versus the lightning speed of
money flowing to make things work.
Of course,companies like Red Hat lie in a middle ground.The com-
pany charges money for support and plows this money back into
improving the product.It pays several engineers to devote their time to
improving the entire Linux product.It markets its work well and is able
to charge a premium for what people are able to get for free.
No one knows if the way chosen by companies like Red Hat and
Caldera and groups like the Free Software Foundation is going to be
successful in the long run.Competition can be a very effective way of
driving down the price of a product. Some worry that Red Hat will
eventually be driven out of business by cheap $2 CDs that rip off the
latest distribution. . For now, , though,the success of these companies
shows that people are willing to pay for hand-holding that works well.
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A deeper question is whether the open or proprietary model does a
better job of creating a world where we want to live.Satisfying our
wants is the ultimate measure of a wealthy society.Computers,cyber-
space,and the Internet are rapidly taking up a larger and larger part of
people’s time.Television viewership is dropping,often dramatically,as
people turn to life online.The time spent in cyberspace is going to be
Stallman wrote in BYTEmagazine in 1986,
I’m trying t
n in g
ral.I think that t
tivity that b
n that d
it at th
llar by d
No one knows what life online will look like in 5 or 10 years.It will
certainly include web pages and e-mail,but no one knows who will pay
how much.The cost structures and the willingness to pay haven’t been
sorted out.Some companies are giving away some products so they can
make money with others.Many are frantically giving away everything in
the hope of attracting enough eyeballs to eventually make some money.
The proprietary model rewards risk-takers and gives the smartest,
fastest programmers a pile of capital they can use to play the game
again.It rewards the ones who satisfy our needs and gives them cash
they can use to build newer and bigger models.The distribution of
power is pretty meritocratic,although it can break down when monop-
olies are involved.
But the open source solution certainly provides good software to
everyone who wants to bother to try to use it.The free price goes a long
way to spreading its bounty to a wide variety of people.No one is
excluded and no one is locked out of contributing to the commonweal
because they don’t have the right pedigree,education,racial heritage,or
hair color.Openness is a powerful tool.
Richard Stallman told me,“Why do you keep talking about ‘capital’?
None of this has anything to do with capital.Linus didn’t need capital
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to develop a kernel,he just wrote it.We used money to hire hackers to
work on the kernel,but describing that as capital is misleading.
“The reason why free software is such a good idea is that develop-
ing software does not really need a lot of money.If we cannot ‘raise capi-
tal’the way the proprietary software companies do,that is not really a
develop a lot of free software.If a theory says we can’t,you
have to look for the flaws in the theory.”
One of the best ways to illustrate this conundrum is to look at the
experiences of the workers at Hotmail after they were acquired by
Microsoft.Sure,many of them were overjoyed to receive so much for
their share in an organization.Many might even do the same thing
again if they had the choice.Many,though,are frustrated by their new
position as corporate citizens whose main job is augmenting Microsoft’s
One Hotmail founder told the PBS Online columnist Robert
Cringely,“All we got was money.There was no recognition,no fun.
Microsoft got more from the deal than we did.They knew nothing
about the Internet.MSN was a failure.We had 10 million users,yet we
got no respect at all from Redmond.Bill Gates specifically said,‘Don’t
screw-up Hotmail,’yet that’s what they did.”
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Documents you may be interested
Documents you may be interested