linux is a process, not a product

This is an essay that I wrote for IDOCDE (International Documentation of Contemporary Dance Education) project/website last week in Lunow-Stolzenhagen. It is an attempt to explain what FLOSS essentially is using some analogies. Feedback welcome.

Here’s a story.

Imagine yourself going to a workshop by an amazing dance professional who is teaching a movement technique that is the latest and greatest thing ever. You pay for it and work on it weeklong and you are amazed and thrown off your feet (literaly too) by its beauty, elegance, thoroughness, radicality, inventiveness – in short THAT is the most amazing method of movement that enables lighting-fast progress with your body and movement.

You think and realize you want to share this with your local peers. What’s more, you want to improve on it, merge the technique with some of your own discoveries during the years of your practice. You plan a workshop and a short sketchbook. You will fully credit the amazing dance professional. People will be thrown off their feet like you were, and will take it further, enrich it with their own ideas, use it in their work, make their own workshops for others to see and learn. This is how progress is made, isn’t it? By building on each other’s work. You learn something, you improve it, and you share it with others, so they can learn, improve and share it with others. People talk about it, mention names and peers, good practices survive, bad ones are left behind. You can be cherished if your work is distributed, mentioned and built upon.

Now, after you’ve made your plan, you decide to write to the amazing dance professional telling him what a wonderful gift he has given you, how it is possible to combine it with your own experiences and techniques and about your intention to setup a local workshop where you will further distribute some of his techniques.

He writes back soon with an unexpected response: he has “patented” his technique, it’s his intellectual propery, and if you don’t remember, when you signed up to his workshop you have signed a non-disclosure end user licence agreement. He doesn’t care if you didn’t read the fine print and if you will share any part of his workshop or his technique you will be in serious legal trouble. His lawers will be in touch.

Pretty unbelievable story isn’t it? But it’s true. The technique in the story could be called something like “Soft Micro Appel”.

There is a growing number of people who think that sharing software is crucial for development and progress of contemporary civilisation, a society that is increasingly an informational and electronic one.

The “normal” way in dance is that the knowledge and techniques are being shared among fellow dancers. It is normal to build upon what you’ve learned in the past, through workshops and education. If there are secrets of trade, there is really no legal way to “copyright” them, and if they are shared through education and workshops, they come with no strings attached.

For Linux and people working with free software the normal way with it is the same as dancers consider their techniques. One can even copy a phrase from somebody else. If a dance piece is created mostly from other’s phrases and choreographies and original authors are not at least properly credited, the dance community ridicules such authors.

In a world of free software it is allowed to use, share, modify and distribute modifications of that code (the source code that is like an instruction how the final (dance) piece is built) freely under one condition: that credits and authors remain mentioned and that distribution continues under the same conditions.

The world of Linux, Firefox, LibreOffice, Wikipedia, Thunderbird, world wide web and internet, and, most importantly, the communities that wrote millions and millions lines of code open up in front of you, at your reach to ask questions, to take from and build upon it further.

Microsoft and Apple are two of the most powerful companies that build software and products in the way that is called proprietary. The software in the shiny PowerMac you just bought is not yours. You cannot use it however you want, you cannot share it with your mom, your sister or brother, neighbour. At least no legally. You have given away any right to it. You are using a tool that is not yours. It’s quite possible that you don’t care. Sofware is not your area. Dance is. And you want to get things done. Not to fiddle with software and code and learn bits of programming and operating system tricks. Sure, anyone can understand that.

But then again, what will you do, when you will create a choreographic score in Microsoft Word and in 5 years Word will not exist anymore, its document format will be unhackable and your score will be inaccessible. You have become a victim of so called ‘vendor lock-in’. It’s a common thing that happens everyday because of closed proprietary formats and software.

Of course, nobody expects a dancer to be technology expert. But the world of free software is accessible to anyone, and what’s more, slowly you can learn from a huge amount of information available online. For free. To use.

I recommend a very user-friendly ‘distribution’ of Linux called “Ubuntu Linux”. As Linux is free software, anybody can create a collection of software and we call it a Linux distribution. Many distributions exist. They are available for PC and Mac platforms. You can even run it from a USB stick to try and test it. Google UBUNTU. Check the meaning of the word Ubuntu on wikipedia.

Some say that Linux is not an alternative but “the only possible choice”. Maybe that comes from hardcore evangelists of Linux. It is however important to understand, that it is hard to compare Linux with proprietary operating systems (like Windows and MacOS) as this is like comparing oranges and apples. As the whole linux ecosystem is developed by thousands and thousands of enthusiasts and volountiers who share their work between eachother to test, improve, derive (fork) and build upon (internet plays a crucial role here, as you might imagine), the process is how this is actually crucial. Therefore one needs to think of Linux not as a product, but as a process. Linux is in constant and continuous development. If you think of free software as a process, an un-object of non-purchase, it reveals itself as inseparable from its creators. Code (in its source code and its executable form) is part of the whole containing a miriad of relations between lines of code, individual programmers, carers of websites and different distrubution methods, companies using the software and returning back to community, writing documentation. There’s a saying that development of free software is like a bazaar (as opposed to building a cathedral).

I believe that artists are the closest to understand the importance of creation process and free software is very much like art – a process, created from the heart, from an itch, and openly shared, communicated, rarely sold as commodity.