The Meme Hustler: Free Software vs Open Source

April 18, 2013 at 1:56 am 5 comments

A difficult but fascinating piece.  I found most interesting this contrast between Stallman’s “free software” and O’Reilly’s “open source.”  These are important distinctions for computing education, as we think about the culture that we’re inviting students into.

This stood in stark contrast to Stallman’s plan of curtailing—by appeals to ethics and, one day, perhaps, law—the freedom of developers in order to promote the freedom of users. O’Reilly opposed this agenda: “I completely support the right of Richard [Stallman] or any individual author to make his or her work available under the terms of the GPL; I balk when they say that others who do not do so are doing something wrong.” The right thing to do, according to O’Reilly, was to leave developers alone. “I am willing to accept any argument that says that there are advantages and disadvantages to any particular licensing method. . . . My moral position is that people should be free to find out what works for them,” he wrote in 2001. That “what works” for developers might eventually hurt everyone else—which was essentially Stallman’s argument—did not bother O’Reilly. For all his economistic outlook, he was not one to talk externalities.

via The Meme Hustler | Evgeny Morozov | The Baffler.

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5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Eric Russell  |  April 18, 2013 at 8:35 am

    That article is the worst kind of linkbait. I feel dumber for having read it. There’s a kernel of interesting ideas there, but it seems like Morozov tacked on all the attacks on Tim O’Reily purely to attract attention, quite successfully as it turns out. The attacks on O’Reily thoroughly misrepresent his motives, and are only tangentially related to Morozov’s argument. He needed a person to represent advocacy for Open Source he could place in opposition to Richard Stallman and his advocacy of Free Software, but O’Reily is definitely not that person. In fact, no such person exists. He could have written an article about the ideas instead of the people, but that wouldn’t have generated nearly as many pageviews

  • 2. alanone1  |  April 18, 2013 at 8:49 am

    Hi Mark

    You should have included his first paragraph: a wonderfully phrased description of one of the largest problems of our time:

    “While the brightest minds of Silicon Valley are “disrupting” whatever industry is too crippled to fend off their advances, something odd is happening to our language. Old, trusted words no longer mean what they used to mean; often, they don’t mean anything at all. Our language, much like everything these days, has been hacked. Fuzzy, contentious, and complex ideas have been stripped of their subversive connotations and replaced by cleaner, shinier, and emptier alternatives; long-running debates about politics, rights, and freedoms have been recast in the seemingly natural language of economics, innovation, and efficiency. Complexity, as it turns out, is not particularly viral.”



    • 3. alanone1  |  April 18, 2013 at 9:25 am

      P.S. I should have mentioned that the rest of the (much much too long and scattered) essay is an unfortunate example of his own complaint.

      And why bother posing it as a personal attack?

      There’s a nice quote from Eleanor Roosevelt:

      “Great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, small minds discuss people.”

      If the ideas to be discussed in the essay are those mentioned in the first paragraph, then it would be good to put forth important new perspectives on how language use and obfuscation can be intertwined (and detangled). Thinkers such as Postman and Korzybski should be mentioned (they were, but without enough depth), and deeper ideas such as those of Innis and McLuhan should be explained and used (but they were not mentioned at all).

  • 4. Greg Wilson  |  April 18, 2013 at 9:18 am

    What Morozov conveniently omits from his narrative is that the do-what-you-want-with-it model predates the GPL model by several years. X Windows and BSD Unix, the two prototypical examples of “open source”, have thrived _and remained open_ without the infective provisions of the GPL. I agree (strongly) with his attack on Silicon Valley newspeak, but he is doing so as well.

  • 5. rdm  |  April 18, 2013 at 1:50 pm

    I appreciate the parts of that “Meme Hustler” page, which compare and contrast differing viewpoints “Free Software” and “Open Source” or “Morality” and “Amorality” or “Richard Stallman” and “Tim O’Reilly”. I think some valuable points were made there.

    However, much of the writing is not focussed on comparison but on making some discursive points – critiques of O’Reilly, for the most part. And, while I believe there are some valid statements here I am dubious about the whole.

    As an example, consider this quote:

    ‘The essay’s putative goal is to show how one can meme-engineer a new meaning for “peer-to-peer” technologies—traditionally associated with piracy …’

    In my understanding, traditional, piracy had to do with hijacking ships on the high seas. Typical symptoms of traditional piracy included dead people, missing ships and of course an absence of the cargo which had been present on those ships. Typical symptoms of modern piracy are more like unauthorized music and unauthorized video. Modern piracy is also blamed for economic problems experienced by some media producers. But, given the economic woes experienced by bankers, housing contractors and various nations, as well as the billions being spent on competitive [new] media I am somewhat skeptical about this issue.

    Anyways, “peer-to-peer” had no special negative connotations that I’m aware of prior to the 1990s. As near as I can tell, much of what we now call “piracy” used to be identified by terms like “scholarship” or “plagiarism” or by jargon mostly meaningful to librarians (cataloging, index building, …). (These words do not precisely overlap, of course, but they are similar.)

    Finally, it’s amazing to me how much weight gets associated with the labels in these discussions (as opposed to the underlying concepts, at least as I understand them).


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