Saints in the Church of Writely?

Two months back I saw Richard Stallman talk at a NYC Gnubies event and I asked him a question that I have been thinking alot about lately — Would a Saint in the Church of Emacs use gmail?

To me the question revolves around the growing threat that 3rd party webservices poses to the freedoms that free software is designed to protect. In O’Reilly’s What is Web 2.0 he argues that software is transitioning from an artifact to a service, and that data is becoming the new “intel inside”. In an age when applications have become commodities, could the freedom of my data (in an open format) be interchangeable with the freedom of software?

I recently listened to the Chief Open Source Officer at Sun Mircosystems pose a similar question in his talk, The Zen of Free. He talks about the importance of Open Software implementing Open Standards, which is close to the idea I have been advocating, but doesn’t quite go far enough.

Using free (as in beer) third party web services is very tempting, but I am worrying more and more about the traditional freedoms that free software protects against – vendor lock-in, proprietary data formats, and freedom to modify policy according to application specific requirements.

I would be less antsy about using web 2.0 apps if I had some assurance that I could get my data back out without screenscraping a bunch of html pages. Even services with APIs like flickr and delicious create vulnerabilities, as I was loathe to discover last week. Delicious provides a programmers api, but its api only exposes methods which operate on a single user. Thus, if you want to export a collection of links that have all been tagged with a particular tag, (reasonable if you are engaged with a community in distributed research) you are back to screenscraping!

These considerations and more advocate for the need for free (as in speech) versions of many of these services. There are certainly some side-effects of running a centralized service that are inherent in it being centralized, but many communities are making use of these “public” services because of their convenience, and the ease with which they can be “mashed up.”

Which brings me back to the design that we have been thinking alot about at work lately. Anders and I presented a talk at pycon demonstrating some of these ideas. Anders did a great job writing our talk up here:

Tasty Lightning

Crucially, it is imperative not to conflate our advocacy for building components that expose themselves as webservices with building apps against third-party web services. The design we describe resembles a traditional
mash-up, except the components involved are locally controlled as opposed to relying upon external, corporate services. For all the usual f/oss reasons it can be important to “own” and run your own services.

But this argument also has everything in the world to do with Ulises In Defense of the Digital Divide as Paralogy essay. In this essay Ulises grapples with Lyotard’s critique of new media under the logic of capitalism which has “established commodification and efficiency as the ultimate measures of the value of knowledge.”

he continues:

…Lyotard states, in the final passage of The Postmodern Condition, that new media technologies can be more than simply tools of market capitalism, for they can be used to supply groups with the information needed to question and undermine dominant metaprescriptives (or what might be called ‘grand narratives’). The preferred choice of development, for him at least, is thus clear: ‘The line to follow for computerization to take . . . is, in principle, quite simple: give the public free access to the memory and data banks’ (Lyotard 1984: 67). (Gane, 2003, p.9)

Considering Google’s stated ambitions to “house all user files, including: emails, web history, pitcures, bookmakres, etc” the freedom movement better wake up to the fact that there is more to freedom than free software, and we are being outflanked.

Free software is only one corner peice of this puzzle – to complete the jigsaw we need the corners of free data, in a free format. Anything else?

(yes, I know I am posting this question using blogger – a situation I hope to remedy after the semester finishes).

5 Responses to “Saints in the Church of Writely?”

  1. March 15th, 2006 | 10:22 pm
  2. March 31st, 2006 | 12:40 pm

    I think we can draw inspiration from the likes of wikipeida and their collection of projects that publishes both the soucecode and the database dumps of the participant generated content. We can look to livejournal as an example of a more liberated version of myspace, and as an alternative to I think part of the solution is choosing to participate in the most open systems available within a given context. We are working on metavid witch attempts to address these issues in its context.

  3. April 2nd, 2006 | 4:30 am

    True dat. It doesn’t get much more free than the wikipedia. But that crew is hardcore, and they are the exception rather than the norm. They won’t even run java on their server cause its not free enough (although they do run code compiled by gcj).

    But to start with, how about a label/term/signifier for this kind of freedom? It’s not free software or free content – its free data. I want a little smiley button at the bottom of web sites assuring me that I can extract my data from them, in an open format.

    Granted, when you are collaborating, by definition you are giving up some degree of control/freedom. But, the question of traditional freedom might still apply at the group/organizational level – say, at a university, where an entire class is sharing an environment – is the University in control of the computing, or is a third party?

    I think the interesting question is whether or not freedom of data might be sufficient to guarantee your freedom, or at least your potential freedom.

    In an age where applications have become commodities, do I really care if I use pbwiki or wikispaces, as long as I can get my data out and import it into another tool?

  4. April 4th, 2006 | 3:18 pm

    In addition to a label it may also be beneficial to have a system of classification or evaluation criteria so that online participants can make relative choices maximizing their “potential freedom” in whatever context they engage in. Like you point out as applications become commodities it may not be as relevant if the underlining “source code” is open as long as you have unrestricted access to your data in an inter-changeable format.
    But what is an open format without open system to engage that format with. If there was no open source to build off of the cost of altering the mediation of the inter-changeable data format would be prohibitively “expensive”. The logic of capitalism would invariably over influence the types of mediations that would be approved and financially supported.
    The software helps commodity the information it mediates and the software-itself becomes a commodity.

    Open source does not completely solve this problem as the freedom it provides is bounded by many real-world conditions and the context in which it’s engaged dictates the relative value of its use.

    We should not look at open source as inherently more “free” as making alterations setting up your own services and social networks can waste of time or worse it can exacerbate exploitive relationships. Open source should rather be thought of something that can be participated in or used as a tactic in a given context. We should promote systems of classification that help online participants evaluate their context and maximize their potential freedom. This may result in some people using service X for the time being and that’s ok.

  5. April 5th, 2006 | 12:47 am

    I agree. I have been thinking about some of these new services as gateway drugs – they could get people hooked on architecures of participation, autonomy, and participatory democracy. Dare to dream.

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