Monday, August 31, 2009

Amusing OSS perspective

I was poking around on a Google search and found an July 2002 speech by novelist Bruce Sterling at OSCON. Ironically the conference was held in San Diego a few weeks before I moved from San Diego to San Jose to work at SJSU and study OSS in Silicon Valley, but this is the first I’ve heard of the talk.

I found the reference from Slashdot (with plenty of commentary from those who were there), but the text of the talk is at the home of his “Viridian Design” movement.

It’s definitely inside baseball — for software geeks if not OSS geeks. And it’s long (5,000+ words). However, I don’t think “colorful” really captures the unusual nature of the talk or his viewpoints. His “Contrarian View of Open Source” seems an equal opportunity offender.

Here is a small excerpt:

The coolest thing about doing this artsy noncommercial creative work is that you get to stop. You get to throw up your hands and quit, if you want. It's like a charity. The widows and orphans are telling you "Thank you for not letting us starve, kind sir!" They're all grateful to you, they're touching the hem of your garment. You get to feel pretty good about what you're doing, and if you're tired, you just stop. It's like: "Okay, I'm tired! I've got compassion burnout now. No more free software. Lady, you and your damn kids can starve."

Nobody can do anything about that sudden refusal on your part. "Well, he gave us a really cool algorithm.... What more can we possibly ask?" If you abandon your rug in the bazaar, people just steal it immediately. They steal everything in a hot second. But if you abandon your open source code, the code just sort of sits there. Other people pitch in, and it gets bigger and fatter. There are big festering piles of code, huge piles of code. This has been playing out for seventeen, eighteen years now.

A classic struggle in other ways. You've got the Stallman free-as-in-freedom model... This guy sees code as some kind of handmade luxury vehicle. Maybe it's a tank. And you've got Gates, who is the commercial industrialist robber baron. The Ford Model T... any color you like as long as darkness is the standard.
The metaphor of proprietary vs. OSS as dating a supermodel vs. procreating with a hippie chick (playing Linda Ronstadt) might come across as sexist to some, but as the metaphor goes way over the top, it’s clear that Sterling has a very vivid imagination. Maybe even enough to get me to read his books.

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