Wednesday, May 25, 2005

...I don't know much about art, but I know what I like... Open Source Software and THE System

Yesterday, a couple of colleagues and I went to Macquarie University to listen to a couple of people talk about open source software in education. I'm not really immersed in the details and issues that preoccupy those 'in' the open source software world, but I obviously do have an interest in things that are free and easy. Yesterday's talk exposed me to what I would call the corporate side of OSS, and I didn't like what I saw. It would seem that I only have an interest in "free beer" according to one speaker, where OSS is about much more than that.

First up was Sebastion Rahtz wearing an Open Source Software Watch hat, and straight off I could get a sense of wear he was going to take us when he went to some length to introduce himself as an 'unbiased' observer of OSS, not an evangelist. I guess OSS-Watch's opening line on their website says it better:
OSS Watch provides unbiased advice and guidance about free and open source software for UK further and higher education.
This sort of claim to objectivity has never really sat comfortably with me, perhaps it says more about me than it does those who make claim to it, but I guess I'm from a generation/class/political wing who have learnt not to trust such claims. I find that where ever I see claims towards objectivity, it is quickly flawed when looked into just a bit. Journalism and old-world-news-media drop that ball everytime they make a run. There is no fence to sit on, there is no no man's land between two camps, and the International Network (Internet) kinda upturns all those old world values... doesn't it?

So any way, Sebastian was asked to give an OSS-Watch view on The Current Issues Relating to OSS. It was a long presentation that started well enough, but ended with what I consider to be a pretty narrow view of what those 'issues' were, lacking in vision or big picture relevance.

I guess we need to keep in mind that unlike Seb and the OSS-Watch, I'm an evangelist of FOSS generally. So it would seem that I am painted as an extremist in the discussion surrounding it all. So with a world full of extremists like me (the room at Macquarie was absolutely chocka block full of them) it is a relief to have more stable minds prevail at the OSS-Watch. Its really hard not to be cynical though when quite clearly, beneath that organisational hat that Seb was wearing, behind that self declared but inevitably flawed organisational position of objectivity, was a man who was no doubt as excited by the possibilities of open source as I was, and impressed with the sudden popularity of it all. Behind it all was a man just like all of us in that room, perhaps someone so inspired by OSS that he has sort to make a career of it. But then again, perhaps when he was faced with a room full of extremists and fanatics with biased points of view on it all, it was just safer to appease us just a little.

So Seb launched his hour long presentation with the issue of support for OSS. He basically articulated what biased OSS fanatics have been arguing for a few years now, that support for software is that same issue whether working with proprietary software or open source software. Seb went to some length (though didn't provide the badly needed statistical evidence) to argue this point about support issues, but along the way he did reveal his true evangelistic colours. How could he not?

But the second half of Seb's talk went into OSS issues as it affects organisational policies like intillectual policy and attribution. There may have been more to Seb's talk than this, but given the length of it this was all I grasped. Seb put up a list of 10 policy commandments that he whipped up in East Timor on his way over. They were points to which policy makers and advisors should consider when attempting to absorb individual interest in the use and contribution to OSS from within the organisation.

But this is where he lost me. Seb was suggesting pragmatic ways in which organisations could exploit the opportunities to use and participate in OSS developments without needing to change the wording or outlook of their policies and proceedures too much. On the one hand I could see how current managers would appreciate this, but on the other hand I could see that it just wasn't going fare enough in asking organisations to change their wicked ways. For me FOSS and all the related trends at the moment demand more than mild changes to the status quo. It demands a big rethink.

Seb's talk only focused on open source software and didn't take into account the changing world in which its rise to stardom is taking place. Perhaps Seb sees the things I'm about to list as outside his scope, or too broad to talk about, but I tend to think that they are more and more essential to consider as issues related to OSS that will affect organisations everywhere, especially educational.

Take the old and for most of us, pretty useless distinction between free software and open source software. The melding of these two concepts into one term by most writers these days, Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) is an issue or cultural development that I would have thought worth mentioning.

Then what about the socio political influences that FOSS is having? Is the potential to bridge more digital divides with FOSS not worth mentioning? Is FOSS an opportunity for organisations to better meet the social obligation of its tripple bottom lines? Are those in the less developed (but perhaps more progressive) regions of our world, who have been taking up free and open source alternatives for some time now, about to find themselves at an advantage or at odds with the proprietary and capitalist worlds?

Is open blogging, Open Courseware and Creative Commons a trend influenced by FOSS? Is it something that will simply go away, or will it necessitate dramatic changes in the way we manage, direct and conduct every aspect of our organisations?

For most of us, these issues are familiar and well enough articulated by our peers, but it concerns me that objective bodies like OSS-Watch are not broad enough in their scope to take in all these perifial issues and see them as intrinsic to the future issues to do with OSS. It concerns me because by stating that they are objective or "unbiased" obviously implies that others are not, and that they are the authority on the matter. Me, my blog, and the opinions I express here are not factors in unbiased consideration.

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