Are You Right With Reality?

Michael Tiemann recently asked why it is that the global IT consumer continues to accept IT-related write-downs of $386B/year. They do so in a pattern that sees them repeating the mistakes they have made in the past (buying the same or “upgraded” applications and operating systems from the same proprietary sources). The post is a compelling one and I agree that Open Source will deliver radically different, radically better results than have been observed in the proprietary software world. What I really liked about the post, however, is the paragraph explaining the difference between Free Software and Open Source. It’s a question asked often and one that Michael really nails (as you’d expect):

One of the questions we received during the interview was the question “What’s the difference between the Free Software Foundation and the Open Source Initiative?” I chose to answer the question based on the constituencies of free software and open source. In my view, the fundamental difference between the free software movement and the open source movement is that free software is based on the ethics of software freedom, and open source is based on pragmatic implementation of observed results. I am a believer in fundamental human rights, including the right to live a healthy life free from oppression. But I am also heavily influenced by what science teaches, and when science teaches that we need to respect the environment or we need to pay attention to what we eat in order to live a healthy life, I tend to lean in the direction of protecting oceans and forests for the health of all rather than strip-mining and clear-cutting them for profit today. When I first read the GNU Manifesto I was compelled by the moral and ethical arguments that Stallman presented. But what made me willing to do something different, rather than merely take the side of the argument at cocktail parties, was that I saw the commercial benefits of such a model as well. These benefits have now been validated by academic and commercial case studies alike, many of which are referenced in the paper. Is it unethical to adopt an ethical position based on pragmatic reasons? I don’t think so. Is it pragmatic to adopt an ethical position without pragmatic evidence? I don’t think so. Thus, I identify with open source because it takes the position of pragmatic validation, even if it validates a position based on ethics. (I should also note that I know many capitalists who believe that it is unethical to ignore what the free market teaches. I consider that a fairly extreme position, but I include it because it shows that some capitalists are, at their core, deeply ethical people.)

FWIW, I usually find myself on the Open Source side of the fence. I tend to be pragmatic, so that probably doesn’t come as much of a surprise.



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