The Chronicle of Higher Education, September 21, 2004|
Section: Information Technology Volume 51, Issue 5, Page B23
Six Books about Open SourceSelected Readings on Open Source
By Michael Jensen
Much of what happens in the next few years regarding intellectual-property law, patent law, open-access policies, and open-source software will have major ramifications on how higher education does its fundamental work in the sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities -- and how all of us view our common heritage and are allowed to participate within it. Some recent books help give us context to understand the broad implications of these trends.
The Anarchist in the Library: How the Clash Between Freedom and Control Is Hacking the Real World and Crashing the System, by Siva Vaidhyanathan (Basic Books, 2004)
A plea for a middle ground of sanity, discourse, and balance. Adroitly using political analysis to explore the underlying "smalla" anarchism of networked systems, peer-to-peer communications, encryption, and more, Vaidhyanathan,a cultural historian and media scholar at New York University, explores their inherent conflict with existing oligarchic and hierarchical political systems. There is a grave danger (to our culture, our politics, and our survival) in the us-or-them, good-versus-bad arguments at both ends of the ideological spectrum, he warns. He could be speaking for the goals of all the books in this selection when he writes in his preface:
"If we can energize an open, distributed, diverse network of thinkers and writers to consider these conflicts in a new way, using fresh vocabulary and models, we can generate social, cultural, legal, and technical protocols that will strengthen democracy and inspire trust and confidence. If we fail to generate this conversation, if we continue to let these conflicts work their way through courtrooms and technological incubators, basements and boardrooms, both democracy and stability are in danger."
The Business and Economics of Linux and Open Source, by Martin Fink (Prentice Hall PTR, 2003)
The pragmatist's approach to open-source software, looked at through the lens of a business leader. Fink (general manager for Hewlett-Packard's Linux Systems Division) doesn't see open source as a "movement," but as a practical, sensible solution to the most vexing problems of system development. He explains the value and ways of enlisting staggeringly skillful programmers and thinkers as volunteers and then integrating their work into business plans. He gives a crystal-clear overview of open-source license options, income-generating businesses based on open-source software, and even the active role of open source within the infrastructure of a business: what Linux does, what Apache does, what a "package" and a "distribution" are. If you are an IT manager, an associate dean of communications, or the chancellor of a university, this book may help you talk sensibly about the nuances of information-system policy by helping you understand the underlying choices and conditions, freedoms and restrictions, of institutional or business policy.
The Cathedral & the Bazaar: Musings on Linux and Open Source by an Accidental Revolutionary, by Eric S. Raymond (O'Reilly, 2nd edition, 2001)
The ur-text for understanding the culture, history, and economic imperatives of open-source approaches to software programming. In this handful of connected essays, Raymond (co-founder and president of the Open Source Initiative) brings an anthropologist's eye, an intellectual's approach, and a programmer's attention to detail to bear on both hacker culture and the economics of software development. "Perhaps in the end the open-source culture will triumph ... simply because the closed-source world cannot win an evolutionary arms race with open-source communities that can put orders of magnitude more skilled time into a problem," he writes. Lucid analysis, mixed with wit and a knack for storytelling, help make this a pleasure to read. Highly recommended.
Free as in Freedom: Richard Stallman's Crusade for Free Software, by Sam Williams (Farnham: O'Reilly, 2002)
This biography shows that purity of intent, even purity of practice, does not generate a saint, but might still change the world. Williams, a freelance writer, examines the life of Richard M. Stallman, GNU project founder and creator of the GNU C Compiler (a cross-architecture system for turning code into operational programs), the programmable GNU Emacs editor, and much more.
Stallman hacked code at legendary levels. Perhaps more important, he hacked society with an elegant, in-your-face recursive licensing agreement, the GNU Public License ("no software distributor using this software will be allowed to restrict its further redistribution"). Its existence was a precondition for the development of the open-source software movement. Stallman, an early MacArthur fellow and founder of the Free Software Foundation, has a stubborn brilliance and absolute individuality (and the support/tolerance of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in his early days). "Not free as in free beer; think free as in free speech," Stallman often says, addressing the key principle to which his working life has been devoted. Without him we would be living in a very different digital world.
Free Culture: How Big Media Uses Technology and the Law to Lock Down Culture and Control Creativity, by Lawrence Lessig (Penguin Press, 2004)
A brilliant constitutional scholar at Stanford University analyzes the impact of contemporary intellectual-property law on the common good. Lessig is a founder of the Creative Commons, which offers a spectrum of licenses to enable creators to restrict or expand the use of their own material. Via historical anecdotes and current sagas, he makes a convincing case that "an extraordinary land grab is occurring. The law and technology are being shifted to give content holders a kind of control over our culture that they have never had before."
Lessig addresses law refreshingly from a "what ought to be" perspective, and his clarity of thought and passion for a robust creative culture make this book compelling reading. I came away changed: Our culture really is at stake in the intellectual-property wars. If all creativity is owned, the chilling effect on new creativity is, well, quite chilling. Lessig is the Martin Luther King Jr. to Stallman's Malcolm X; both recognize a fundamental wrong in society, and both are eloquent in their opposition to it.
A Hacker Manifesto, by McKenzie Wark (Harvard University Press, 2004)
Didactic and nearly free of examples, this work nonetheless kept pulling me back to it, almost against my will. For Wark, a "hacker" is anyone who can "create the possibility of new things entering the world." Writers, artists, bio-technologists, and software programmers belong to the "hacker class" and share a class interest in openness and freedom, while the "vectoralist" and "ruling classes" are driven to contain, control, dominate, and own. Wark crafts a new analysis of the tensions between the underdeveloped and "overdeveloped" worlds, their relationships to surplus and scarcity, and the drive toward human actualization.
Sharing more DNA with Marx's Communist Manifesto than with, say, Stallman's GNU Manifesto, it's not light reading, but I found myself underlining, margin-writing, and having "Aha!" moments throughout.
Michael Jensen is director of publishing technologies for the National Academies Press and director of Web communications for the National Academies.
Section: Information Technology
Volume 51, Issue 5, Page B23
Copyright c 2004 by The Chronicle of Higher Education