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Socialism: an open source society

A socialist describes his personal experience of open source software - and its socialist implications.

  A little over a year ago I started to use something in my daily life “that'll never work” because “it's human nature, mate”; “No such thing as something for nothing, a free lunch”; “People don't work for pleasure, you know, they only work because they have to or to make money”. Yet here I am, totally chuffed with this thing that is so opposed to much of the preconceived notion of “Human Nature” and the ways of this wicked world that it can't possibly exist let alone bring some pretty unbridled pleasure to this 65 year-old anorak.

Any idea what I'm talking about?

Here're some more clues. Thousands of people enthusiastically cooperate on thousands of collaborative, inter-related projects that bring new “products to market” whilst constantly upgrading and improving existing core “products”. Many of those people work for little or no financial gain, indeed, some have worked to the deficit of their own financial situations. They don't just collaborate in “the office”, they collaborate across the borders of nation states, religious divides and the apartheid walls of economics and race; Russian with Chechen, Iranian with American, Palestinian with Israeli . . , they do it without seeking permission from priest or politician. They do it to fulfill a passion for the skill and knowledge they bring to the work they do and a shared ideal of bringing the very best in computer operating systems and software to the ordinary people of this world . . . free!

I'm talking about Linux based Open Source and Ubuntu in particular. Ubuntu is an ancient African word that means “humanity to others”.

Based on personal experience, there isn't a better or more “socialist” way to do your computing. You can download the whole caboodle if you have the wherewithal free of charge or do as I did and order an installation disc which is also free. And free really means free, Ubuntu is shipped to anywhere in the world post free . . . you're free, and even encouraged, to make copies and give them away . . . as long as they're free!

Installation is seamless and painless; upgrading is seamless and painless. All of the basic programmes you could need and a few more beside are pre-installed, all are Open Source and free (of course) and because they are created by enthusiasts they are fully featured, look attractive and work.

So, now you're up and running and you want a few extra trinkets to handle all those quirky things many of us like to do with our computers. Things like doctoring perfectly normal snap-shots so that they look like something from the crazed world of Dali or personalising our “desktops” (something I'm convinced goes back to school desks, penknives and being summoned forward for institutionalised ritual humiliation). With Ubuntu there's no digging out those CDs you've saved for years from computer mags to see if there are any freebies that'll maybe come close to meeting your particular fantasies . . , you just click on “Add/Remove Programs” (these things always have US spelling) and browse through what seems like thousands of programmes in various categories. Each has been created by an individual or team that loves computing and has poured their passion into making each offering the best it can be. Better still, from the average user's perspective, everything is, yes, you guessed it, free.

I suppose I'm a bit like a new convert or a former smoker, on the one hand full of enthusiasm for the new “reality” and on the other filled with scorn for what had gone before. The enthusiasm is not without foundation; Ubuntu claims to “work out of the box” and it does just that – perfectly. There are no annoying screens telling you that you have to register this or that, no registration keys to be pasted in, no time limitations before you have to pay up and no intrusive demands for personal information or email addresses so you can be deluged with stuff you don't need or want. Under Ubuntu my computer “talks” to all of my cameras and cards without recourse to specialised programmes, something it never did under Windows and my “Photo Shop” type programme is as beautiful on the eye and as functional as the one that ships with Mac. Programmes install and uninstall without leaving behind digital detritus to slow or crash the system and such is the make up of Ubuntu that it is simply not open to outside attacks by virus, root-kit and much else in the way that Windows is. It's like taking a cool shower on a hot day . . . so refreshing! How can something so good be free? I mean, it's not the way of the world, is it? It's not human nature to do something for nothing, is it? Without “market forces” quality goes down the drain and mediocrity becomes the norm, doesn't it?

Look at Microsoft; based on size of usage they must be the world's standard. I've used their products for years in many different incarnations. They've built their fortune off my back . . . have you checked lately what one of their products costs? And not just them. I've lost count of the number of programmes I've paid for to try and improve or protect their bloated, worm-holed operating system from all the nasties out there in cyber-space only to dump them a few months or years down the road. Or worse still have them destroy my set-up and data that I should have backed-up but had put off yet again! Been there? Hey! That's the way it is in this techno-corner of the capitalist world, let the buyer beware; you pays your money and takes your choice. Not any more, comrades. There really is a better way out there and it's called Open Source, it has superior “products” and an ethos that we can each embrace. Computing for human beings.

Is this beginning to sound like a promo for a socialist computing Utopia? Or is it a preview of how the world really ought to be? Much of Open Source is at the real cutting edge of technical development; a huge percentage of the servers around the world, machines that run those multi-national companies and the Internet run on Linux based software. They pay a lot of money for that privilege, money that keeps Open Source afloat and enables we plebs and peons to receive our free CDs mailed free of charge, to freely download free applications and freely make use of this wonderful working example of human co-operation. In fact, every individual user of Ubuntu is encouraged to join the community and contribute in any way they can, from translations to critique to ideas to programing skills; use what you need and contribute what you can . . . where have we heard that before? Next time someone throws “human nature” in your face or tells you that socialism will never work offer up Open Source as proof that human beings are better co-operators and contributors than many give them credit for.

ALAN FENN