Miscellaneous Ramblings

Linux, Freedom, and Frontiers

Charles Moore - 2010.01.19 - Tip Jar

I've often mused that were it not for my affinity for the Mac OS user-experience and my admiration and appreciation for the superior industrial design, reliability (usually), and longevity of Apple computer hardware, I am more philosophically and temperamentally a Linux person.

Consequentially, a somewhat impassioned essay last week, Linux Will Save the World by Linux Today's Carla Schroder, hit a resonant chord with me.

Apple's 1984 adMs. Schroder references Apple's legendary, Ridley Scott directed, Chiat/Day produced, "1984" Super Bowl commercial, praising it as one of the most brilliant TV commercials of all time - a superb piece of filmmaking that she says still gives her chills, but adds that when the spell wears off, she realizes that while Orwell was a prophet, the commercial actually bears no relationship to the product, asserting that the athlete's Apple shirt should have a penguin logo on it instead of the Macintosh logo.

"Sometimes I feel like a dinosaur," says Schroder, with her and her fellow dinosaurs moving towards extinction, because we place supreme importance on freedom. Well, count me in with the dinosaurs, Ms. Schroder, and as you observe, we do seem to be a dwindling minority.

Personal Freedoms Are Under Attack

She goes on to distressingly relate that the sort of stories that perform the worst on Linux Today hit-count wise are anything that pertains to freedom - software freedom, the GNU Foundation, the Software Freedom Law Center, civil rights, and law, with few readers seemingly interested in or concerned about the relentless siege by regulators, corporate vested interests, and other would-be and actual gatekeeping factions that have proven their hostility to civil liberties, privacy, and, in her opinion, basic decency.

She says she believes it's no exaggeration to say that Linux/FOSS is all that stands between technology tyranny, corporate tyranny, and the hope of something better - to openness and accountability in the tech industry to access to public data, open document formats and industry standards, an open Internet, and openness in government. Schroder notes that she can't recall Bill Gates, Scott McNealy, Steve Ballmer, Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison, Sergey Brin, Larry Page, or any of the other billionaire tech celebs emitting so much as a single word of concern for any of these or performing any meaningful deeds to promote or protect them with the forces massing against our personal freedoms growing larger and stronger than ever.

Again, I'm in agreement. The portents are ominous, and I am profoundly thankful that "Davids" - like the Linux community, the Open Source software movement in general, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation - are there fighting the good fight to keep the would-be monopolists and gatekeepers honest and fended off to the degree that they are.

Perhaps the evident lack of freedom-loving fire in the bellies of Web citizens these days is an inevitable consequence of the commodification of information technology. Most people are unfortunately passive and apathetic when it comes to advocating and defending the freedoms they take all too much for granted, whether in the virtual cyberworld or society in general. The astonishing and dismaying (to me at any rate) popularity of and preoccupation with trivial fripperies like social networking is prima facie evidence of this. Facebook and Twitter have their legitimate and sometimes useful place, but they don't merit nearly the degree of prominence they occupy in the online firmament - and for the most part they represent one of the most colossal wastes of time in human history while more serious matters go begging and neglected. It's all so crushingly banal.

Carla Schroder's "dinosaur" analogy is appropriate, but I'll posit another, complementary one.

Lonesome Dove

In Larry McMurtry's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Lonesome Dove, the cinematic interpretation of which is my all-time favorite western movie (even though it is actually a TV mini-series), Augustus McRae and Woodrow Call are retired Texas Ranger captains who spent their younger years fighting Indians, outlaws, and Mexican bandits, only to discover in middle age that their efforts contributed to taming South Texas to a degree that they find themselves bored, unchallenged, and enervated.

In McMurtry's words,

"They were people of the horse, not of the town; in that they were more like the Comanches than Call would ever have admitted . . . Indeed, it seemed to Augustus that . . . they were not of the settled fraternity, he and Call."

Gus and Woodrow have been living an aimless existence in the town of Lonesome Dove, Texas, for ten years, when their old Ranger colleague Jake Spoon suddenly shows up with tales of wonderful open grazing land available for the taking in Montana. The idea hatches in Woodrow Call's mind for one last great adventure - a cattle drive north to a new frontier that's not yet crowded and settled.

"You just want to help establish more banks," Gus tells Call.

"That's aggravating," Call retorts. "I ain't a banker."

"No, but you've done many a banker a good turn," Gus shoots back. "That's what we done you know. Kilt the dern Indians so they wouldn't bother the bankers."

"They've bothered more than Indians," argues Call.

"Yes, lawyers and doctors and newspapermen and drummers of every description...."

"Well, they ain't got to Montana," says Call.

"If we go, they won't be far behind," replies Gus. The first ones that get there will hire you to go hang all the horse thieves and bring in whatever Indians have got the most fight left, and you'll do it and the place will be civilized. Then you won't know what to do with yourself, no more than you have these last ten years."

Throughout history, there have been those who chafed under establishmentarianism, and consequently were motivated to push the frontier envelope. As Ian Frazier observed in an Atlantic Monthly cover story some years ago about the Oglala Sioux,

"When Columbus landed, there were about eleven people in Europe who could do what they felt like doing. Part of the exhilaration of the age came from the freedom that Columbus and other explorers were rumored to have found . . . Amerigo Vespucci, the explorer who would provide the continent's name, brought back news that in this land 'every one is his own master'."

That worked for a while, but as Gus and Woodrow discovered, frontier tends to be an ephemeral space, and one had to keep on the move in order to stay ahead of the inexorable encroachment of bankers, lawyers, merchants, politicians, and other despoilers of individual freedom, which in today's context are the gatekeepers and would-be hegemonists of the tech world and the Internet, the copyright bullies and Chinese censors, and . . . well, you get my drift.

No More Geographical Frontiers

In Lonesome Dove, McRae and Call do go off on their grand adventure driving a herd of cattle to Montana, but the problem for their temperamental counterparts today is that we ran out of geographical frontiers. This has created a severe - and doubtless underestimated - existential and spiritual dilemma for that proportion of the population that traditionally was inclined to head for the frontier du jour. New outlets for that sort of restless energy had to be found.

For a while during the '50s and '60s, some optimists thought the new frontier might be outer space, and I suppose there are those who still imagine that. Maybe it will be eventually, but I would suggest only for a very select few, at least during the lifetime of anyone alive today.

Then the more comprehensively accessible frontier of cyberspace emerged, first through the development of microcomputers and then the Internet. Like the physical North American frontier in the 18th and 19th centuries, cyberspace was, to paraphrase Vespucci, a new virtual land where "every one is his own master".

The early years of the Internet were a bit like the frontier before people like Gus and Woodrow tamed it - a free space with few rules and little civilization. Some people found this untamedness exciting and invigorating. Others found it frightening and unsettling - or just a disruption of the business-as-usual order not necessarily advantageous to their narrow vested self-interests.

Indeed, lands where everyone is their own master tend to be more than a bit chaotic. As the late Steve McQueen put it in another excellent movie western, Tom Horn, the Old West was a "raggedy-assed" place. The Internet, in its early stages of evolution, was pretty raggedy-assed too. Some of us liked it that way. Others wanted to hang all the cyber-bandits, domesticate the cyber-Indians, and make the Internet a congenial, orderly, law-abiding place for cyber-bankers, cyber-lawyers, and cyber-merchants, not to mention cyber-politicians and cyber-tax collectors.

Balance

While a degree of order is desirable and necessary, it's striking a balance that's the challenge, and the concept of a centrally regulated, locked-down, and policed "World Government" style Internet makes me distinctly uneasy and saddened. It may be inevitable, but I don't have to like it.

This is why there's a little bit of me that smiles whenever a hacker mischievously pricks the establishment balloon. I'm not talking about malicious destruction here, just the welcome deflation of "Those who lord it over their fellows and toss commands in every direction and would boss the grass in the meadow about which way to bend in the wind", as humorist and political commentator P.J. O' Rourke puts it.

I'm not philosophically or temperamentally an anarchist, but I do believe that he who governs least governs best.

Ultimately, the "bad bandits" who propagate viruses and take down servers have to be brought down, just as Gus and Woodrow weren't about to sit idly by and allow Indians (who doubtless had their own perspective on the changes being unwelcomely imposed on them) and outlaws to raid and kill ranchers and townspeople, however dismayed they were by the incursion of polite society on the freedom of their wide open spaces.

So what is the best answer? Can a balance be struck between freedom and the ugly oppression of corporate avarice, copyright bullying, and overreach, authoritarian Big Brotherdom, while avoiding lawless chaos? I hope so. Don't you?

I agree with Carla Schroder that the existence of Linux, much more than its raw market share numbers would indicate, is vitally important to sustaining such a balance. I wish the Mac still was too.

Steve Jobs once said it was better to be a pirate than to join the navy. The problem today is that he's now one of the navy's admirals.

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Charles Moore has been a freelance journalist since 1987 and began writing for Mac websites in May 1998. His The Road Warrior column was a regular feature on MacOpinion, he is news editor at Applelinks.com and a columnist at MacPrices.net. If you find his articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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