Do good, better. CoActivate is a platform for social activism.

  • Values Added

last modified September 23, 2010 by strypey

Paper for FreeCulture2010

Values Added

"We've got to believe in the world that we live in, we've got to believe in the gifts that we're given, we got to stand up for the things we believe in" - Trinity Roots, 'All We Be'

Both slow food and free software are social movements, each intertwined in a systems dance (to paraphrase Donella Meadows [1]), gracefully revolving around their partners in the design philosophies of permaculture and Agile development. The strange attractor in each case is a creative, collaborative, and convivial shaping of technology, grounded in an explicit set of shared values, and integrating Ken Wilbur's "big three" of art, science, and ethics [2]. The three domains are often disastrously dissociated in modern industrial societies; governments and corporations investing in artless science; businesses and charities turning art into persuasion regardless of ethics; charites and politicians who don't test whether their results really measure up to their good intentions.

"Whether gods exist or not, there is no way to get absolute certainty about ethics," writes Stallman. "Without absolute certainty, what do we do? We do the best we can." [3] As the founder of free software, Stallman defines it as a technical expression of what he calls "the four essential freedoms" of software users; to run, customise, redistribute, and share improvements [4]. For Stallman, the difference between free software and proprietary software is the degree to which it respects the freedom of the software user. Free software is a libertarian tradition, which like the USA Declaration of Independence, starts with a statement of freedoms [5]. However, if we look at the content of those freedoms, we see that two of these four freedoms are about being empowered to co-operate and share, and that the first two freedoms are essential to enabling that.

So what about the defining values of slow food? [6] Slow food must be good to eat, which correlates nicely with the freedom to run - fit for purpose. It must be clean, organic, cultivated by growers who can keep their own seed, and experiment with varieties, which fits with the freedom to customise. It must be fair, rewarding the growers and distributors properly for their labour and skills, which gels with the ethic behind the freedom to redistribute - the ability to "help your neighbour". Finally, it must involve the eaters as co-producers, rather than disconnected consumers, which is analagous to the freedom to share improvements, and its goal of benefiting the community at large. Does slow food value freedom? I think so.

Permaculture is similarly grounded in a matrix of values. The permaculture ethics are usually stated as: earth care, people care, fair share [7]. The WikiVersity Department of Permaculture expands the third ethic into two: distribute surplus, reduce consumption [8]. Permaculture ethics then, emerge from a socialist tradition - Marx himself expressed the 'fair share' ethic in his famous phrase "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need(s)"  [9] - but this is combined with the systems thinking inspired by ecology and computer science, to produce an understanding that people can only act as freely as the system in which they live is optimised to allow. No human freedom can exist without a living planet, a nurturing society, access to resources, and arguably an understanding of how to maximise their utility.

The Agile Development mission statement also offers four points to consider [10]. The first is "Individuals and interactions over processes and tools - which clearly involves people care, as does the last, "Responding to change over following a plan". If we broaden earth care to environment care, then the second point, "Working software over comprehensive documentation", could be analagous to regenerative human systems over money, and ideology. Finally, "Customer collaboration over contract negotiation" site quite nicely with fair share.

Obviously both slow food, and permaculture, are about a lot more than just where food is sourced from, and how it's grown. Farmer Julian Rose's passion for these deeper principles of locally centred cultivation, and fair supply, have led him to criticise the business-friendly focus on 'organic source' health food being transported huge distances for well-to-do customers [11]. Journalist Michael Pollan's book 'The Omnivore's Dilemma' traces 4 meals back to source; standard supermarket; corporate organic; '"beyond organic"; and wild food; and comes to the conclusion that only the 'beyond organic" meal is sustainable long term. Working with permaculture style practives which mimic natural processes, like parking a chicken tractor in fields recently vacated by cows to let hem scatter the dung in search of worms, Joel Salatin refused to freight his products cross-country, and made Pollan come to him [12].

The relationship between open source and free software is similarly problematic. Open source was coined a small group including Eric Raymond, and Bruce Perens, in an attempt to avoid the common misinterpretation that free software is the opposite of commercial software, rather than the opposite of proprietary software, in order to make it more friendly to business. However, the phrase creates its own problems. In a 2009 article on LinuxInsider, 'Open Core Debate: The Battle for a Business Model" [13], Ingres CEO Tom Berquist says, "There are very few purist open source companies of any meaningful size. The concept is almost a religion for some instead of focusing on the money angle". Substitute 'free worker' for 'open source'. Would Berquist accuse people of religious puritanism for defending the employment of free workers, rather than slaves, as a non-negotiable principle? Or would he advocate "focusing on the money angle", and treating workers as free or slaves according to whever business model is most efficiant or profitable? Open source sounds like something you can condiment your company with, or not, whereas there's less ambiguity about what a free software company means.

"At the same time, you essentially cede control of the platform to the community, so that the actual direction of your product is no longer under your control and therefore not predictable. That's where pure open source falls short of being a truly valid business model, which we're seeing with Red Hat," says "marketing developer" Michael Krotscheck. Why would enabling developers and users to drive decision-making on architecture and priorities, a key part of Agile Development practice, make a business model invalid? Unless being successful in business is somehow incompatible with democracy?

Ricardo Semler, founder and CEO of Semco SA, would beg to differ, having built one of Brazil's biggest companies on principles of internal democracy, saying “only the respect of the led creates a leader”. His company has embraced ethics of freedom and people care, and thrived in a competitive market despite it, or even because of it.

These quotes illustrate the woolly thinking made possible by substituting the term open source for free software. Just as talking about 'health food' sheds little light on the different ethical implications of organic source and slow food, It becomes clear that blurring the distinctions between open source and free software for the sake of superficial unity doesn't solve the problem.

As an alternative to broad brush acronyms (FOSS/ FLOSS), or obscure phrases like 'libre software', I have adopted the phrase 'free code software', which fulfills both Stallman's condition that freedom be emphasised over a more malleable concept of openness, and the need to distinguish between "free-as-in-beer", and "free-as-in-speech". However, I still happily use open source when discussing the community-driven process that grew up around free code development as the internet emerged, with its ethics of decentralisation, interoperability, and "rough consensus". From ethics, principles emerge, especially among conceptual designers, but what could the guiding principles of geek and green communities possibly have in common?