Tuesday, November 13, 2007

A Sense of Community

I finally just got sick to death of Windows. It's not that I don't think the world uses it, and it's certainly not that I don't like the bloated eye-candy interface. But it's slow, unstable as a bipolar high school cheerleader on crack, and the only programs that work really well are the ones made by Microsoft.

Except for OpenOffice.org, that is. I downloaded the free office suite from OpenOffice's web site, and I began using it. Except for not importing Microsoft's latest file formats (which my $400 copy of Office 2003 didn't do, either), it seems to work great, and can both pull in from and save to a variety of file formats. And it saves to PDF files, too. All for free. And available for both Windows and Linux. After using OpenOffice for the better part of a year (with few exceptions), I have had zero problems with data loss due to the switchover (but, dear reader, please remember to make backups before you decide to do anything that changes the way your system works).

Over the past 5 years, I've either paid for or received as payment for some of my freelance work about $12,000 in software for my Windows machine. Occasionally, I've received a duplicate license for software I've already had, but I didn't count any of that. The $12,000 (give or take a couple hundred) in software was software I actively used. And I just replaced all but one program of that by switching to Ubuntu.

The word Ubuntu is a Zulu word for 'Community', though there are lots of other meanings. The word implies that if you see a need, you fill it if you can. Likewise, you should be able to expect assistance when you need it. Community is important, and as a traditional value of all cultures, the word Ubuntu (though it comes from only one culture in South Africa) is truly a universal concept, and one that isn't difficult to grasp.

However, I began a little seriously worried because there are a lot of programs out there which are named in a similar utopian style, and they routinely fall short because not enough people actually want to make it work. However, Ubuntu has started and maintained a community which is friendly to beginners, and which offers that which is needed, if you merely look for it.

Community is the foundation to democracy. When everyone is working toward a goal, whether it's as broad as democracy or as versatile as an operating system, the only solution to any of this is to work toward the same goal. Being one community is called solidarity and this is one of the things that Ubuntu is about (both the concept and the operating system).

Accessibility is a big issue when making the switch to a GNU/Linux system such as Ubuntu. And without this accessibility, there wouldn't be an operating system I could use. But one thing that Ubuntu is lacking in is price. My $12,000 of software on my $1,000 computer is now $0 in software on my $1,000 computer, and I have the same functionality with only 4 days of downtime (well, except for Skype, which doesn't have an AMD-64 version for my version of Ubuntu yet, so aside from my not being able to talk to a couple of my clients, everything else is working great).

Which brings me to another democratic concept: government transparency. Like the software industry, the government jealously hoards the things that make it work, shrouded in layers of unnecessary secrecy and inaccessibility. Don't forget that Bush was nearly assassinated on 9/11 by a group of foriegn nationals, so I can understand where he's coming from, though I disagree with how he's going about protecting himself. But I also disagree with the way that software companies tend to rabidly protect their intellectual property, as well. The way the laws work right now creates a draconic system that encourages animosity and which is counterproductive to the aims of creativity, invention, and progress. If software companies released the source code for versions of programs they were no longer supporting, it would allow everyone to benefit: users and producers both would benefit from the increase in security that the open source community undoubtedly would bring to the program.

But there are drawbacks to open source. I'm sure of it. Uhm.... Never mind, I'll have to get back to everyone on that. Let's talk about the drawbacks to closed source.

The main drawback is Microsoft. I'm not saying their products are bad, but the big problem is that they don't publish a lot of their internal standards, and the fact that they don't release source code on anything (and encourage others to resist the open source movement as well) is a sticking point because other programmers can't learn what they're doing wrong, nor can they help Microsoft understand where their own shortcomings are.

The Open Source folks are right about a lot of things, and community is one of them. Solidarity is another. But where they routinely fall short is in action. Their ability to act cohesively is impressive, but it takes a monumental undertaking to get them interested in anything long-term or far-reaching. Basically, the bulk of the work needs to be done first, and then other programmers will weigh in with their code and review. At least, that's the general practice behind projects that I've seen.

So then we get back to how this relates to democracy. Not all communities are democracies, but all democracies have, as their basis, communities. The differences that we all have add to the diversity that's the strength of democracy everywhere. Even those who dissent add value by giving a counterpoint to the consenus, which spurs thought and gives us all something to think about. Well, at least, when it's real dissent and not just naysaying for the purpose of being a dissenting voice. This is another point I've noticed in the Open Source collection of communities: dissent for the sake of dissent. Dissent has a purpose, and that purpose is to point out a weakness so that it can be addressed. Ultimately, dissent will either logically reduce an idea to allow everyone to weigh the benefits against the drawbacks, or it will simply dissemble an idea by tearing it down with emotional arguments that have no real bearing on whether or not it will work. Of course, there is a time for that, but usually only when there is something in the way of an ethical issue. Tearing an idea down simply to tear it down is itself unethical in a democracy.

And this is exactly the kind of thing that most of my Linux experiences have brought me: a bunch of teasing and ribbing and unhelpful suggestions by people too busy to really help. I will say that there were two exceptions: the BSD community (which was my introduction to open source and free software, but which didn't work out because I'm not a programmer and production schedules didn't allow me time to read enough to make it work), and the Fedora community (which simply seemed to ignore me altogether). I made it a point to test the waters before I made the switch, and the help that I received from the Ubuntu community's forums was not only top-notch, it was support from other users, both beginners and experts alike. And now I can keep to my production deadlines while at the same time reading minimally about how my system works. And I can play with it, break it, fix it, and modify it. It's not Windows, in that there isn't a lot of hand-holding built into the system, but with an entire community active, there's not a lot of reason for it to be built in.

I actually got told that building community was akin to inviting communism one time. However, in communism there isn't a guaranteed individual ownership of property (and I don't just mean land). There is no means for someone to exceed their beginning station in life. There's no progress. People are not free to be creative and express new and (sometimes) spectacular ideas. People can't progress unless they're guaranteed both an equal footing in life and the chance to earn more, with the guarantee of creative license. People should be free to make even bad choices, because in these bad choices is the opportunity to learn. In a communist society, fascism tends to reign supreme, not because only fascists are communists, but because the entire system of communism invites stagnation .

In a democracy, people must be guaranteed the right to be creative. They have to have the right to speak against the government. They need the tools to be able to resist the government's interference in their own lives, because that's the only way that a balance between liberalism and conservatism can be maintained. An extreme conservative is a fascist (that's actually the definition: fascism is an extreme version of conservatism); and an extreme liberal is a libertarian. I've heard people tell me there are no moderates, but I'm about as moderate as they get. I believe in personal freedom, but I also believe in government. I am an extreme moderate, and the term for that is egalitarian.

The vote that people get in a communist society (one which is ideally run) counts only for declaring that a person agrees or disagrees with society. It holds no real power because in a perfectly communist state, there is no individuality: everything belongs to the community, including the individual. In a democracy, on the other hand, the community comes together because it needs and wants community. And this is why I love Ubuntu: not many people are there who don't really want to be.

The result is an open, free, and democratically-run operating system which is responsive to end user needs because the end users are the ones in charge of its development.

If only the RIAA, ASCAP and MPAA (and those who are like them) could learn that the power of popular opinion is the way to profit. They now understand that they don't have the same power that the public has. They don't control popular opinion, and any idea that they did was an illusion. For a brief moment in history, we're going to have physical media. From here on, it's digital. The community itself has spoken in cases like Jammie Thomas, Tanya Andersen, Granny Crain, and the other victims of exploitation by the system. The MAFIAA organizations are not in public favor, and it seems that their entire existence has hinged on the control over media that they've never had until recently. And now that they've got it, they're failing even faster.

And, strangely enough, the RIAA claims there was an increase in revenues at a time when there was a corresponding increase in what they've decided to label as media piracy. The shortcoming in this case is that there is no real community built by the RIAA, ASCAP, MPAA, or any of the others. Sure, there's a consumer base to draw from, but that's not the same thing. Their general draconism and fascist ideals seem to fly in the very face of democracy. And consumers know and understand this, particularly the newest generation of consumers who start buying their own music as early as age 12. Most people I know who download music do so because they don't have money to buy, but as soon as they do get money, they generally go out and get the real thing, because ownership in the new culture is a status symbol, and is thought of in a much better light than mere possession. It's a pity the RIAA doesn't allow ownership.

Because ownership would build communities of artists, rather than driving them away.

Silly fascists. Music's for playing!