Friday, September 22, 2006

Interview with Eric S. Raymond on Open Source Software


This wide-ranging interview with Eric Raymond didn't turn out to be the historical view of Open Source Software that I thought or hoped it would be. ESR, as he is know to the Open Source or "hacker" community, is one of the Open Source movement's "most recognized and controversial characters," and while we didn't delve into topics that were too controversial (well, except for his position on a liberal arts education), his responses to my questions were relatively brief and direct--leaving me ranging all over the map, trying to find some area for discussion that would benefit educators. I'm not sure I fully succeeded, but it was interesting!

Here are some of the items that we talked about:

  • Eric is a strong believer in the pragmatic aspects of Open Source Software, believing that the market will reward and promote Open Source because of the quality of results that it provides. He is less interested in the philosophical or moral arguments of Richard Stallman and the "Free Software" movement. He also felt, along with the other founders of the Open Source Initiative, that the phrase "open source" would be more likely to attract business support than "free software." When I tried to point out the links between this way of programming and the academic world--where knowledge is freely distributed--I felt he was a little guarded about making that association. I also think Eric's answers to the assumption of Open Source in schools depend on volunteers championing Open Source--which really depends on the philosophical commitment.
  • Eric's most well-known writing, an essay called "The Cathedral and the Bazaar," was a description of the methods used by Linus Torvalds to create the Linux kernel. While we didn't talk much about this, it does seem that Eric was seminal in describing a method of massive collaboration that had previously been believed could not produce high-quality results. While others have taken the principles from his essay and extended them into other spheres, he is less interested in doing so because his expertise is in programming. I have no such hesitation! Much of the interesting collaborative technologies that we call "Web 2.0" (blogs, wikis, social networking tools) seem to me to have both a technical and sociological roots in the Free and Open Source Software movements. He wasn't sure he actually believed there was a "Web 2.0," but I think my description was acceptable to him.
  • Eric definitely had some negative things to say about Wikipedia, and didn't want to concede a comparison between Open Source development and the collaboration of a wiki. I'm not sure I fully understood why, and I wasn't sure he was comparing "bests to bests"--both Open Source Software and wikis have successes and failures, and I felt like he he may have painted the picture of Open Source too positively.
  • Eric's view of Open Source Software in education was pragmatic: the quality of open source software will be better than proprietary software, and will ultimately win out. At the same time, he acknowledged that proprietary vendors are likely to provide financial incentives to keep schools using their software. I guess I am left feeling dissatisfied with both the Free Software and Open Source software answers to the question of adoption of their software in education. If the Free Software movement requires a moral or philosophical commitment by its users, it's not really realistic to think that is going to happen on a broad scale by educators who have to see the technology as a means to an end. In Eric's representation of the Open Source movement, there is a dependence on the free market to choose the best product, and I think we have to recognize that capitalism is often messier than that. With no financial backing or marketing of Open Source software, I'm not sure the best product does come to the top. My standard example for this is the Apache, which runs some 70% of the world's web servers, would be a great program for technical students to learn, but is virtually untaught in our schools--for there is no marketing money promoting it to schools.
  • In this vein, I asked Eric why we don't have a United States equivalent to South Africa's Mark Shuttleworth--that is, someone who has had financial success because of Open Source Software, and who then funds initiatives to provide the benefits of Open Source Software to schools. Eric's answer was that we can't count on someone like that--that Mark is a "random event." However, it does seem to me that the Free and Open Source Software movements in this country would be greatly benefited by such a "random event," and that a realistic view of marketing and publicity would accept it as very important for someone like that step forward.
  • I followed my thread from the Larry Cuban interview about computing in the classroom: basically, that the computer is still too complicated and unreliable to be fully integrated into or to transform the regular teacher's teaching methods. What has occurred to me recently, and which has been something of an eye-opener, is that this description of the problem does help to explain why Linux is not making more inroads in education. Among early adopters (those teachers who are willing to spend the extra time on technology), the idea of a freely available operating system has great appeal--but maybe we are being tricked in that way. Early adopters may not have the same needs or respond in the same way as mainstream educators, and maybe Linux isn't making more inroads because it essentially doesn't answer, any better, the needs of that individual mainstream teacher. While "free," and arguably more reliable, Linux is an unknown to most of them and doesn't actually present them with any more of an "appliance-like" classroom tool than a Windows machine. (The standards for me of "appliance-like" being the overhead projector and the iPod.) I then broached the topic with Eric of a more "appliance-like" computer, and he shot that down FAST. He said we can't expect that for 10 or 20 years. I'm not sure he's right. I think we don't have an "appliance-like" computer not because it's not technically possible--it surely is--but maybe because 1) we're not ready to trade reliability for reduced functionality, or 2) because the decision-makers for educational technology don't see the value. But it's not hard for me to imagine a read-only PC that runs the web, word processing, and spreadsheets, and saves to USB key only. We certainly have the technological capability of producing such a machine, although that doesn't mean it would be successful.
  • We did talk about the abundant changes in work that have been brought about by the Internet, collaboration, and a higher standard of living. I'll have explore this later, but one of the effects of the "Long Tail" world we now live in is that there are likely to be many more opportunities for us to work--as part of our vocations and avocations--on things that interest and motivate us. If our educational system has typically prepared us to have a breadth of skills, assuming we may not have much choice in what we ultimately do, how will that change when there is more choice? If schools continue to be rigid institutions without much integration of technology, will the charter, alternative, and homeschool movements become more and more attractive to students?
  • We did get into the fascinating topic of ownership or accessibility of "metadata" from Web 2.0 services. This is something Tim O'Reilly has talked about. I've been putting up on flickr all the photos of my ancestors that we have previously had in several boxes, and have been "tagging" them with information so that other family members can easily find them and help organize them. All of that data--the tags and the descriptions--is extremely valuable to me, and is really only accessible to me as long as I am using flickr. So what happens if flickr goes away, or has a system failure, or raises their prices so much that I want to switch services? I'm pretty locked in. No easy answers to this one, although Eric discusses the Open Source way of solving this issue.
  • We also talk about another favorite topic of mine--the changing nature of the commercial relationship between producer and consumer, and how Open Source has provided a model for more active participation in the creation of the end product. Again, I always use the simplistic example of American Idol, since the viewers actually end up helping to create (choose) the product (singer) that they are likely to purchase (music).

I'm grateful to Eric for taking the time to talk to me. Let's hope I've characterized the discussion accurately. :)

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