Most people experience Linux the way they experience a light switch or a water faucet. When they use it, they expect it to work and give them what they want. And if it doesn't work, they expect an expert to come and make it work. In their experience, Linux is the business end of infrastructure: the road, not the rubber that meets it.
But the difference between Linux and water, electricity or a road is that most people know what those other things are—and they don't know what Linux is, even when they've heard of it. That's why we need metaphors like the above if we're going to explain Linux to them.
But do we really need to explain Linux to people who don't know or care much about it? And if so, why?
For most of Linux's history, those of us close to the topic believed Linux mattered enough to deserve understanding by others, especially since we were certain that Linux would some day achieve what we liked to call World Domination. Linux has crossed that threshold, but not by the crowning victory we had hoped for from the start: running on many millions of personal computing and communication devices and getting full credit for that, by name. Today, the only form of Linux doing that is Android, which is “Linux-based”, rather than Linux itself.
Today, as I write this, news comes that $100 million has been invested in GitHub, the “social coding” site that currently hosts millions of code repositories for millions of people, all using the Git distributed revision control system created by Linus Torvalds. There are excited stories about GitHub in the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Reuters, TechCrunch, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Washington Post, Red Herring, Gigaom and dozens of other mainstream pubs that don't mention Linus at all. I was about to stop looking when I finally found one: Rafe Needleman, writing in CNET (news.cnet.com/8301-1023_3-57468899-93/github-raises-$100-million-from-andreessen-horowitz), credits Linus right up front. Still, nobody mentions Junio Hamano, who has been maintaining Git since Linus handed that duty to him July 2005. At the time of this writing, Junio's entry in Wikipedia is a three-line stub.
How many $billions have been made because of Linus' founding work? How many more will be made thanks to Linus' and Junio's work on Git?
A better question: would Linux and Git have succeeded so spectacularly if Linus had tried to own either of them? No. As Harry Truman said, “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.”
Linux, Git and countless other code bases are working as infrastructural building materials today because their creators made them free in the first place. That's what matters—not who gets the credit. The real problem we have today is that freedoms embodied in code are barely understood or credited at all. The same goes for free hardware. And, for lack of that understanding, we are losing those freedoms today.
Eben Moglen made this fact clear in a speech titled “Innovation under Austerity”, which he gave at the Freedom to Connect conference in Silver Spring, Maryland, in May of this year. I joined Eben on stage for a conversation after that speech, and opened by saying it was not only one of the best speeches I'd ever heard, but one of the most important. See the video (boingboing.net/2012/05/27/innovation-under-austerity-eb.html) in an excellent posting in BoingBong by Cory Doctorow. The Software Freedom Law Center has a full transcript as well (softwarefreedom.org/events/2012/freedom-to-connect_moglen-keynote-2012.html). Here's a compressed excerpt:
For the policy makers, in other words, an overwhelming problem is now at hand: how do we have innovation and economic growth under austerity? They do not know the answer to this question, and it is becoming so urgent that it is beginning to deteriorate their political control.
Nobody will ever try to create a commercial encyclopedia again.
Disintermediation, the movement of power out of the middle of the Net is a crucial fact about 21st century political economy. It proves itself all the time. Somebody's going to win a Nobel Prize in Economics for describing, in formal terms, the nature of disintermediation.
The greatest technological innovation of the late 20th century is the thing we now call the World Wide Web, an invention less than 8,000 days old. That invention is already transforming human society more rapidly than anything since the adoption of writing.
What do we know about how to achieve innovation under austerity? We created the Cloud. We created the idea that we could share operating systems and all the rest of the commoditizable stack on top of them. We did this using the curiosity of young people, not venture capital. Venture capital came towards us not because innovation needed to happen, but because innovation had already happened.
That curiosity of young people could be harnessed because all of the computing devices in ordinary day-to-day use were hackable, and so young people could actually hack on what everybody used. That made it possible for innovation to occur where it can occur without friction, which is at the bottom of the pyramid of capital. Hundreds of thousands of young people around the world hacking on laptops, hacking on servers, hacking on general-purpose hardware available to allow them to scratch their individual itches—technical, career, and just plain ludic itches (“I wanna do this; it would be neat”)—which is the primary source of the innovation which drove all of the world's great economic expansion in the past ten years. The way innovation really happens is that you provide young people with opportunities to create on an infrastructure which allows them to hack the real world and share the results.
That's the upside. The downside is this:
All of that innovation comes from the simple process of letting the kids play and getting out of the way. Which, as you are aware, we are working as hard as we can to prevent, now, completely. Increasingly, around the world, the actual computing artifacts of daily life for individual human beings are being locked so you can't hack them. The individual computing laboratory in every 12-year-old's pocket is being locked down. If you prevent people from hacking on what they own themselves, you will destroy the engine of innovation from which everybody is profiting. The goal of the network operators is to attach every young human being to a proprietary network platform with closed terminal equipment that she can't learn from, can't study, can't understand, can't whet her teeth on, can't do anything with except send text messages that cost a million times more than they ought to.
This paragraph replaces a long digressive harangue I spent two days writing. I visited patents and copyrights, ACTA and SOPA (both of which Linux Journal readers by now know a great deal), and a new issue: the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP, https://www.eff.org/issues/tpp), by which the US is quietly working to muscle New Zealand (internetnz.net.nz/our-work/Openness/Trans-Pacific-Parternship-TPP-agreement) and other countries into matching the US's Hollywood-driven and freedom-hostile intellectual property laws. So I urge you to pay attention to that one, while here we look instead at the freedom found in general-purpose computing. This is perhaps the most important issue, and also the hardest one to explain.
General-purpose computing was born out of IBM's original PC, which arrived in 1982. That machine itself was not free and open, but its BIOS could be reverse-engineered, which Phoenix Technologies did in 1993, making possible the manufacture of “IBM-compatible” PCs, better known at the time as clones, by anybody. Succeeding generations of PCs mostly ran Microsoft's operating systems. But they didn't need to. That was what made Linux and countless other operating systems possible. General-purpose computers don't depend on any one company's controlling technology.
General-purpose communications are the same. We aren't locked into anybody or anything. This is the miracle of the Internet. We don't need a phone company to make the connection for us. We don't need a license to use it. We have a choice of many services and paths. We have open protocols for file transfer, for e-mail and for much else. For specialized communications, such as that provided by Skype, there are many choices, and opportunities for many more. But none excludes any other.
The latest threat to general-purpose computing is UEFI, the Unified Extensible Firmware Interface. Intended as a security measure, it adds a layer of complication to running an operating system other than preinstalled Windows on otherwise generic PC hardware. To make installs easy, Fedora has elected to pay what Cory Doctorow calls “blood money” to make booting a non-hassle (boingboing.net/2012/07/06/zareason-a-computer-company-w.html#more-169692). (Go to Implementing UEFI Secure Boot in Fedora for the details at mjg59.dreamwidth.org/12368.html. It won't give you warm fuzzies.) The direction this development points is toward less general purposefulness. And this isn't good.
One of the best characterizations of the Internet I've ever heard was “a way, not a place”, which was the title and key point of a speech Phil Windley gave at a conference earlier this year. (He makes the same point in this post: www.windley.com/archives/2012/03/ways_not_places.shtml.) A protocol is a way. And thus, so is the Internet. We may talk about spaces, domains, locations, sites and addresses, all of which frame the Net as real estate. But TCP/IP is a way, not a place. All it does is make a best effort to connect any two end points by any means possible. Its purpose could not be more general.
Back in 1997, a hacker (presumably) with the (very pre-Twitter) handle @Man put up a page titled “Attention, Fat Corporate Bastards!” It lasted until 2010, but can still be found in the Internet Archive (web.archive.org/web/19970607134127/http://www.ecst.csuchico.edu/~atman/attention-fat-bastards.html). After yelling about freedom for most of the page, he treats the reader to a passage that rings as true today as it did 14 years ago:
You almost certainly think of the Internet as an audience of some type—perhaps somewhat captive. If you actually had even the faintest glimmering of what reality on the net is like, you'd realize that the real unit of currency isn't dollars, data, or digicash. It's reputation and respect. Think about how that impacts your corporate strategy. Think about how you'd feel if a guy sat down at your lunch table one afternoon when you were interviewing an applicant for a vice-president's position and tried to sell the two of you a car, and wouldn't go away. Believe it or not, what you want to do with the Internet is very similar. Just as you have a reasonable expectation of privacy and respect when you're at a table for two in a public place, so too do the users of the Internet have a reasonable expectation of privacy and respect. When you think of the Internet, don't think of Mack trucks full of widgets destined for distributorships, whizzing by countless billboards. Think of a table for two.
What could be more general-purpose than a table? Or easier to explain?
Computers are complicated when you look inside them. So are communications. But their purposes are general, which makes them simple. Nobody needs a license to build or operate a table. In explaining freedom, maybe it's best to start there. For everybody's sake.