Why History Is Perhaps The Best Guide To The Future

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Sunday, 9.16pm

Sheffield, U.K.

A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots. – Marcus Garvey

Yesterday I finished reading Hit Refresh, by Satya Nadella, the CEO of Microsoft and started The Four: The hidden DNA of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google and my resulting thoughts were of a cheerless future where we were controlled by these giant corporations and lived under a new Orwellian incarnation of Big Brother.

So, today it was time to go the other way.

Rebel Code, written by Glyn Moody back in 2001 takes us back to the early days of free software and the rise of Linux.

The Wikipedia entry for the book links to an essay by Steven Poole who dismisses Linux writing it’s “never going to be a mass-market consumer operating system like Windows or Mac OS.”

He goes on: “If you just want to use your computer for word-processing, web surfing or whatever, you’d better avoid it like the plague.”

And he’s right – In this snippet of video Linus Torvalds, the creator of Linux, says that it really annoys him that the desktop is the last holdout of Windows and Mac.

It has taken over everything else.

It’s just that most people don’t see what’s going on because all they see is what comes up when they turn their computer on in the morning.

Torvalds argues that the biggest problem is that computers don’t come pre-installed with Linux – they come with Windows.

Android phones run on Linux – but the software comes with them. Users don’t need to go through the pain of installation and figuring out all that computer stuff – so they stick with the default, which on the desktop is Windows or MacOs for most people.

As we head towards 2020 the skirmishes between the free software/open source movement and closed software are starting to become part of the historical record.

You have Neal Stephenson’s In the beginning was the command line, and Eric S. Raymond’s collection of writing.

And, of course, you have the GNU project books and, in particular, the essays of Richard Stallman.

And, when in doubt, one should probably go back to Stallman’s views on all this.

And that’s because he uses a very simple rule – one that makes thinking about almost everything so much easier.

The thing that bothered me when thinking yesterday about the way key technologies marketed today work is that they are all centrally controlled by an all-powerful commercial organisation.

AI, Big Data and the Cloud are all, at their core, ways to centralise control over computing.

Stallman’s simple rule is that software should be free – free as in freedom.

From the GNU philosophy:

A program is free software if the program’s users have the four essential freedoms: [1]

  • The freedom to run the program as you wish, for any purpose (freedom 0).
  • The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
  • The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help others (freedom 2).
  • The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others (freedom 3). By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

This is not a 50% rule or a 90% rule but a 100% rule – and it’s only aim is to protect your freedom to do your computing in the way you want.

To keep up with changing technology Stallman writes:

“On the internet, proprietary software isn’t the only way to lose your freedom. Service as a Software Substitute, or SaaSS, is another way to let someone else have power over your computing. SaaSS means using a service implemented by someone else as a substitute for running your copy of a program.”

For many people this is a non-issue – who cares?

As someone that comes from a relatively young democracy – I find the concept and importance of freedom perhaps more important – which affects the way I think about and do my computing.

The Indian flag has a wheel at its centre. Mahatma Gandhi had proposed a spinning wheel originally because he saw that simple device as a way to recognise the dignity of labour.

Back in 1921 the thing that mattered was giving people a way to earn a living through labour – and through that giving them dignity and a place in society.

Today, as we debate the effects of automation on jobs we would do well to remember that computers are the equivalent of spinning wheels for many people – the way we learn and work and make a living.

In India, the spinning wheel is inextricably linked with the independence movement – and freedom.

For those of us lucky enough to be free now – free software helps us keep it that way.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

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