Law in the Internet Society

From Reaction To Change

-- By SebastianBresser - 20 Dec 2017

"For Sabina, living in truth, lying neither to ourselves nor to others, was possible only away from the public: the moment someone keeps an eye on what we do, we involuntarily make allowances for that eye, and nothing we do is truthful. Having a public, keeping a public in mind, means living in lies."

— Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Status Quo

A society that heavily and, more importantly, ever less reversibly relies on software will eventually be shaped and controlled by the developers of that software. Additionally, if those that use a software cannot also control it, they subordinate themselves to those who can.

These two succinct conclusions show that the evaluation of any specific proprietary software, functional or useless, beautiful or ugly, good or bad, risks missing the point. It is idle to discuss whether Google, Facebook or other software companies develop good or bad software, in other words are good or bad. If software is proprietary it is also, by design and independent of any apparent functionality to the users, an instrument of absolute power for its proprietor. To allow for a free society, even freedom of thought, software needs to be developed by- and alterable for its users.

It is apparent that but for massive marketing and distribution efforts of proprietary software companies, their qualitatively inferior products would not be used. Discouragingly, it seems that the more a proprietary software is made irreplaceable because people are lured in, locked in or even addicted, the smaller the odds of open source software prevailing over proprietary software become (see “From Recognition to Reaction”). Despite – or perhaps precisely because of – a growing influence of proprietary software in modern society, many seem to have acquired a taste for this incapacitating software and seem to be little aware that a freedom-enabling alternative is still within reach.

Challenging the Status Quo

Indeed, the prevalence of proprietary software seems insurmountable. The vast majority of people use proprietary software products. Googling has become a word, almost everybody is connected on Facebook, searches jobs on LinkedIn? , shares pictures on Instagram, writes with Microsoft Word, mails with Gmail and sticks with pre-installed Microsoft Windows, iOS or Android. While some might not only recognize this problem but also react to it, it seems like they won’t bring about substantive change. Against this background, it seems that our free society is doomed independent of whether we’re aware or unaware of the problem.

Albeit understandable, in my view, this desperation and surrender is the result or underestimating the power of an intransigent minority. The idea that only a majority can drive fundamental change is wrong. It is equally wrong to assume that only resourceful individuals or entities can shift or steer the behavior or choices of a majority. Yet, intuitively, people tend to be overwhelmed in the face of an opposing majority. Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who describes the dynamic in his essay “The Most Intolerant Wins: The Dictatorship of the Small Minority”, proposes less flexible and tolerant majorities to counter unwanted social, moral or political values imposed by intransigent minorities. While Taleb’s conclusions are questionable, the idea that minorities can indeed be impactful drivers of change is compelling and the implications for the promotion of open source software are worth exploring.

An Impactful Minority

An intransigent, even intolerant minority could be formed if enough people recognized the inherent inferiority and danger of proprietary software. What is more, an aware minority could neither be lured in nor won back with better or more functional proprietary software. Instead, this minority would likely dismiss any evaluation of proprietary software as an idle and entirely useless activity (see above). Lastly, the prevalence of software in society together with a universal striving for freedom could make it relatively easy to accomplish the necessary spatial distribution of this minority.

On the other hand, most people will likely remain indifferent to the type of software they use if it retains its functionality and, arguably, remains free of charge. In other words, an intransigent and intolerant minority of open source software proponents will face a relatively flexible and tolerant majority of proprietary software users. Only a very limited amount of people lamented the demise of encyclopedias as Wikipedia grew. Similarly, if enough information was accessible only with open source software, few people will fight for proprietary software. If, for example, the intransigent minority of Wikipedia authors (as opposed to Wikipedia readers) made Wikipedia available only to users of open source browsers, enough people would eventually replace proprietary browsers like Safari or Internet Explorer with open source alternatives like Firefox. Similarly, if Columbia University used open source software for its e-mail services and complicated communication via proprietary e-mail services, students would most likely simply switch to using the default e-mail services.

One could argue, however, that proprietary software companies can apply the very same techniques to promote their own goals. Indeed, this is already being done. Referral bonuses, attempts to strengthen network- and locked-in-effects by using Facebook or Google accounts for unrelated internet services and educational partnerships are some of the many tools proprietary software companies use to promote their products. At the core, however, the argument for the use of their software is hollow. It rests on the sole assumption that people should use a specific software simply because other people already use the same. With some powerful interventions, open source proponents can leverage the same dynamic and, more importantly, make a powerful substantial argument for the use of their software.

In summary, the likelihood of an intransigent minority successfully promoting open source software is much higher than broadly assumed. This is particularly true in the case of software firstly, because open source software is and always will be free of charge and secondly, because open source software already exceeds and outperforms proprietary software in almost every dimension. To keep up with the astronomical marketing budgets and distribution efforts of proprietary software companies is not only impossible it is, fortunately, also unnecessary. As Margaret Mead persuasively put it: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”


Webs Webs

r1 - 20 Dec 2017 - 21:56:14 - SebastianBresser
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