Beyond Free software: Egalitarian technological empowerment

Technology empowers people by allowing them to do things which they would not be able to accomplish without technology. Egalitarian technology aims to empower individuals. As a well educated person from a wealthy background I am highly empowered by my knowledge of computer programming as well as my access to powerfull hardware. However, I am not so empowered as an employee of a large corporation, who has access to the expertise of hired collegues as well as even more expensive and powerfull hardware. There are also many people who are less empowered by technology than I am. Typically, they are less empowered by technology due to a lack of education. However, as the concepts of cloud computing and "big data" grow, our disempowerment on the hardware side of things grows as well. When it comes to non-software technolgies such as computer chips, all indivuduals remain equally disempowered. This disempowerment, however, has much less to do with our knowledge of how these computer chips work than it does with our individual ability to manufacture such chips.

While Free software has empowered me by giving me affordable access to increadible technology, Free software loses it's meaning when it ceases to be a tool for egalitarian empowerment. As far as I know, PRISM runs on linux. Google and Facebook do as well. Just because the sourcecode is available to all, does not make the technology egalitarian. With ever growing support for massive clusters, supercomputers, and cloud computing, Linux is entrenching itself as an anti-egalitarian technology. Providing more empowerment to those who have access to powerfull super-computers, outside of the means of any human individual, than it does to you and me.

I think that it is important, that we take a step back and cease to assume that all software baring the GPL is necessarilly good. Open source logistics software does not make us more free. It might create some synergies between Fedex and UPS, thus reducing the price of shipping, but it would not empower us individuals one bit. Open source mass manufacturing techniques are in a similar strain. No matter how liberal or copyleft the licence is on a roll forming line, you are never going to run one in your basement.

Many people have criticised egalitarianism in the light of communism. They feel that egalitarian thought is opressive to freedom and that it holds down the best individuals in society. However, egalitarian technology does not try to hold down the brightest individuals. Rather, it attempts to give every individual an equal chance at taking advantage of technology. To take a line from feminism, egalitarian technology is about equal oportunity, not equal outcomes.

How does egalitarian technology differ from Free software?

Free software has been defined by the FSF as bearing no legal restrictions which would prevent the user from excersizing their four freedoms, the right to use, study, share and improve their software.

Egalitarian technology recognizes the same four freedoms, however egalitarian technology extends the origional promis by seeking to place no legal, technological, nor socio-economic restrictions on the technologies use.

The right to use

Egalitarian technology must be...

The right to study and improve

Egalitarian technology must be...

The right to share

Egalitarian technology must be...

Post remarks

There are two questions that come to mind. The first is whether non-egalitarian technology is evil or otherwise morally wrong. I would argue that non-egalitarian technology is not morally wrong. However, I don't see it as being morally positive either. My first reflex, is to think of all of the non-egalitarian things that non-egalitarian technology can accomplish. For example, software written specifically to run on a super computer can be used by an inteligence agency to preform global surveilance. However, technology which IS egalitarian, and can also run on a normal computer, might also be able to be used by that same inteligence agency. Thus the fault is not in the fact that normal people cannot use the technology but in the fact that big entities can. Obviously, almost all technology will be at least as useful to a large entity as it is to a normal person. I feel that it would be wrong to intentionally limit technology in order to prevent it from being used in a non-egalitarian way.

The second question is whether egalitarian technology necessarilly must be free. For example, Google Sketchup is in many ways epitomously egalitarian. It is a CAD program that is only truely useful to a hobbyist. Non-free but egalitarian technology is quite a dificult question. There are cases of hobby scale CAD software written by individuals or small companies which are released under a proprietary licence. The authors do not give away their software for free because they need to earn money so that they can live. In some ways, this arangement is super-egalitarian because it gives the authors of the software the ability to make a living without having to sell their time to major corporations, while at the same time empowering individuals with CAD software which they may use in an egalitarian way. In the case of Google Sketchup, the distribution model is non-egalitarian. However, I don't think that there is a strong reason not to use the software. There is a strong reason not to improve Google Sketchup, by writing plugins for it, however. By writing plugins for Google Sketchup, especially free ones, you help Google improve their software and you get little in return.

In the middle ages, many lords allowed their peasants to improve their houses. This did not mean that the peasants owned the land upon which their houses stood, but they were allowed to improve their houses. At first, this was an anti-egalitarian system, in which the lords prospered by the labor of the peasants, and even more so, when the land was being improved. However, over time, peasants in the villiages became more powerfull and more independent. Their houses had been improved to the extent that a small number of them were in many ways as wealthy as the lords themselves. There were various forms of revolution that then eliminated serfdom and land titles. It seems natural to assume that in some way we own the plugins that we write for Google Sketchup, and to see a natural trend towards the freeing up of and egalitarianization of the software upon which those plugins are built. However, I would warn several things. The first is that townsfolk improved their houses for hundreds of years before they were granted title to their own land. Secondly, land is much more easilly transfered than software. The title of a piece of land need only be printed out and stamped. If intelectual property were to somehow be abolished, however, that would not give us access to the sourcecode for Google Sketchup. That would merely give us access to the binary, which in the long run would not be very useful. Finally, I would question the sanity of writing plugins for Google Sketchup. Unlike land, software is not a limited resource. Given the choice, it makes far more sense to build your house upon land you own, than upon land owned by a lord. It also makes far more sense to write plugins for free software than to write plugins for proprietary software owned by a major corporation.

Further reading

Wealth Without Money by Adrian Bowyer

~ ~ ~ ~

Written on 20-21.10.2015