Coming to grips with my own opinions about open, libre and free

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I know this to be true (more or less): no tool is neutral. Scratch that. a tool need not be neutral. It may have assumptions built into it. But its full potential is not realized until it is actually used. In passiveness and inactivity, it is largely harmless. In use, it ceases to be neutral. A hammer may be for building a house, for tenderizing meat, or for bludgeoning someone. Or, as the old saying goes: guns don't kill people, people kill people. The utility of the tool is literally in the hands and thoughts of its holder. The tool is nothing until it is used. I know this.

So, tools are not political. But there may be political assumptions built into tools, into their structure, into the way we talk about them. And the way we talk about them, that politicization of talk, is why we argue about F/LOSS. The words we use to describe tools matter. Maybe not as much as the use of the tools, maybe more. We argue about words and we become alarmed over potential. I was once told, when I was and overwhelmed undergraduate, that anxiety was the result of looking at future possibilities, extrapolating and finding the negatives. That anxiety stemmed from looking at possible futures and not liking them.

We're so often anxious about tools. We look at their vast potential, extrapolate their futures from their presents, and don't like what we see in those extrapolations. Someone forges a hammer, maybe with the intention of driving nails. Someone else looks at the hammer and sees a blunt instrument, packing the potential to kill. The hammer is dangerous in a potential future. But at the same time, there's intentionality in the past of the hammer. If the hammer was intended for driving nails, that implies values on the part of its maker. The maker had a view about the potential of the hammer. The view is, by necessity, political. The view about the potential of the hammer betrays values, world view, desire. It illustrates what the maker wants. The maker, in selling the hammer, in demonstrating it, in naming and marketing it, attempts to communicate his view of what the hammer is for. The maker attempts to sell his view of the hammer, to influence how the end user of the hammer will employ it.

But then the hammer sits in a drawer. When the hammer is not in use, it is simply potential. It could build a house, tenderize meat, hold down papers or damage something. It could do any number of things. But it doesn't do those things on its own. On its own, it sits in a drawer doing nothing. It needs a user in order to realize any of its potential. When the user comes to the drawer and picks up the hammer, he comes with his own set of values and motivations. He may know what the hammer is meant to be for, as dictated by its maker, or he may not. He may know but not care. Either way, the user dictates what the hammer will do. The user decides whether it will build a house or break a window. The user is god to the hammer, deciding its fate and purpose.

Thus, the tool is both neutral and not neutral. When alone, passive, not in use, the tool is simply potential, waiting for a user to make it meaningful. But at the same time, no tool is neutral. Every thing, every value, every feature packed into the tool is an expression of the politics of the maker. The shape that the tool takes is an expression of its intended use and its implicit values. Tools are both neutral and political. They embody the values of their makers, but they remain passive and full of potential until used. The hammer may have values built into it, like versatility and economy (it has two ends, one for driving nails and one for pulling them out) or assumptions about use (the weight of the hammer determines which sort of nails it will be most useful for driving and into which materials those nails will be driven), but it remains full of potential, ready for anything, until a user picks it up and uses it. Guns may not kill people, but they are designed to fire small projectiles, accurately, towards specific targets, at great speed.

How does this relate to the issue of Free v. Libre v. Open in software and culture? If everything is both neutral and imbued with values at the same time, how can we separate instrumentality from ideology? This is essentially what I take the distinction between Free and Open to be about. Free is an ideological standpoint, the idea that users of software should have the right to look under the hood, to know exactly what their software is doing and to make changes to it, should they so choose. Free is about freedom, which is an admirable thing. Free takes on the idea that freedom can be built into code and its licensing schemes. Open, on the other hand, speaks to the instrumental. It speaks to the idea that companies don't want to put the word Free on their products, for fear that people will fail to make the distinction between freedom and monetary freeness, as they do. Open sells the idea of viewable, modifiable code as a useful thing, handy for the propagation of software, for its growth and for the growth of its user community, for reasons of security and for reasons of utility. Open is open for business, with a ready stash of sensible, instrumental reasons why it should be adopted. Open doesn't talk politics or rights. Open talks about deliverables and advantages. And Libre, Libre is Free without the ambiguity. Libre avoids the un-clarity of the English Free. Libre is the French Freedom, without the baggage of having a double meaning (the task of discussing monetary freeness in French is given over to gratuit). So Libre is Free without the problems that English hands down.

Here's the thing: my position has changed over the years. I got into F/LOSS because of my father, because when when I was little, he tinkered with Linux, installing it on the family computers. And so I became exposed to it. And I was exposed to it as Open Source, because that was the term he used. I don't actually know where he fits on the ideological side of things, although I suspect his values are more towards the Free. Regardless, when I was little, having my first experiences with F/LOSS, I always heard it called Open Source. And when I was young, I used it in an instrumental way. Despite the fact that for as long as I can remember, I've been on the side of the activist and advocate, I never really thought of the Free side. I was introduced through Open Source, and through instrumentality. And I never looked under the hood. I'm not a coder. That freedom didn't have proper resonance for me because I didn't exercise it. I'm in what I think is the fairly unique position of being in this community just because it's what I'm used to, what I've been raised on, what I was taught to do. For years, I never questioned any of it. I never questioned that if Linux could do what I wanted, I should use it. I never questioned that if there were F/LOSS tools available, they should be my default. The convenience was a big sell for me. Software that quietly updates itself seemed much more sensible to me than software that needs to be bought at great expense and then installed. F/LOSS was just more convenient for me, which is not something I've often heard said. For these reasons, I became a user at a young age. I've not really known much else. As a designer, I never bothered to properly learn Adobe Creative Suite, because I already had tools that I liked and knew how to use. I've never suffered from the trauma that most designers have, attempting to switch from CS and braving the learning curve and missing features in F/LOSS.

That's where I started. As I aged, went to design school, became confronted by alternate realities, I started reading about the history of F/LOSS and realizing what the differences between camps were. So I adopted the catch-all term, F/LOSS. But the word Open has been with me by default for so long that it's hard to kick. It's awkward, but I feel that I'm like my father: I believe in the politics of Free, but still use the word Open, maybe because it's advantageous, because people know it, because it makes sense to a larger camp and requires less explaining. I believe that, while the term Free better lines up with my view of F/LOSS, I have difficulty with it. I have difficulty with it because much of my work involves explaining to other people just what it is that I do. Many people have heard of Open Source. Even those who haven't heard of it do have an implicit understanding of the idea of openness. And it's that pesky double meaning that holds Free back. Sure, Free is the older term, the term with the longer history. But those early days were more rarefied days. They were days before the general public paid much attention to F/LOSS. But they're paying attention now. I think that, if I had to choose one word, without the catch-all provided by F/LOSS, I'd call myself Libre. It has all the connotations of freedom buried so deeply in the make up of Free, but without the ambiguity. It hasn't yet been overused or co-opted to the extent that Open has. It has the proper resonance. And for those who only speak English and don't really want to grasp the basic French of Libre, it still links nicely to that popular English word, liberty. It is political, as any word is (for words are tools, too). It packs the punch it needs, with markedly less ambiguity, and still sounds good. For all of these reasons I think, at this point in my evolution, that I'll call myself Libre. But only when I'm not skewing towards the ur-name and calling it all F/LOSS.

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1 Comment

"Tools are both neutral and political" is paradoxical, since these are antonyms. I suggest that tools are political and not neutral because, as you say, they carry the politics of their makers - but typically this signal is weak and easily to override or subverted by users.

#Guns don't kill people, RAPPERS DO.#

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