Blogger: Joe Niski
Now that I've had a few days to rest up and catch up after attending OSCON 2007 (my first), I can digest the experience and test whether I'm still as inspired as I was last week.
One could describe OSCON as a really good developers' conference, with plenty of technical breadth and depth. But it definitely had a sense of espirit de corps that I haven't encountered elsewhere. For all the talk of the free/open source movement "growing up" (it has in a number of ways), and for the increasing involvement (some would say "encroachment") of enterprise ISVs in open source projects, there's still a healthy amount of honest idealistic motivation in the FOSS world. The idealism may be a bit tempered by experience, and it may have reached a pragmatic coexistence with the realities of doing business, but it's still palpable and still has a valuable influence on the state of software, the development profession, and the expanding use of computing by humanity.
Eben Moglen (founder of the Software Freedom Law Center and counsel to the Free Software Foundation in drafting the just-released GPL v.3) was more articulate than anyone else I've encountered in expressing the complex and dynamic tensions between freedom and commerce; between the rights of software developers, publishers and users; and between individualism and community.
Much was blogged last week about Moglen's spirited conversation with Tim O'Reilly during an all-day "executive briefing" session (here, here, and here, among other places). But Moglen's most insightful remarks were presented in a talk titled "More Than Licenses: The Legal Policy of the Free World in the Age of Web 2.0." Despite a healthy dose of what some might describe as "freedom-fighter rhetoric," Moglen's talk was a balanced assessment of the legal and political landscape, both inside and outside FOSS communities. He also waxed poetic about the larger accomplishments of the FOSS movement while exhorting the audience to continue maturing. What I appreciated most was his ability to place the FOSS movement and the development profession in a much larger context.
The text of his talk isn't available on the OSCON site, but I gleaned a few points and a couple of quotes. Here are minimally-edited excerpts from my notes (I typed furiously throughout the talk, and take responsibility for any inaccuracies):
The effects of community the and "network effect" in creating the Web 2.0 phenomenon were presaged beginning over 20 years ago by open source software projects. Today the FOSS community is stronger than ever; the FOSS development, distribution, and licensing model is well-enough established to be under no substantial legal or commercial threats. But it's not completely out of the woods - "..our problem is not with some failing monopolist; our problem is with the uncertain state of patent reform in this country (the USA)."
"We (FOSS communities) spend little money and earn little money - though we earn money for the companies around us - and we spend no money on lawsuits... The communities are working with an absence of friction that should be the envy of the industrialized world... our efforts are being used to benefit just about everyone around the world... we are the best example the world has to show of how the reduction of barbed wire can benefit business and society."
"...and yet many still characterize us/you as geeks who don't understand politics! ...we have to be aware that this is a political achievement... we should understand that we have built a republic, and what it means to keep it."
FOSS communities are examples of Emersonian meritocracy - rooted in the larger (Western) values of individual achievement, freedom to reinvent ourselves, and so forth - one's status depends on the answer to "what have you done?" This inevitably leans toward libertarianism, and emphasis on individual rights, which has an odd tension with the idea of community.
"Institutions of equalization" are essential as more capital/wealth moves into the FOSS republic - the most important of these is accessibility to each other, as exemplified by email (despite all its problems). For such a "peaceable republic", the OSS communities are notoriously undemocratic - no elections! The leadership of meritocracy needs to evolve to an elected leadership model. "...attach the people's power, collectively, to the people who lead them. ...to legitimize the leadership over time."