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RMS vs. libertarians

27 Oct

RMS (Richard “Not Milhous” Stallman) has always been insistent that the important virtues of “free software” are ethical, not practical or technical. As best as I can surmise, RMS’s ethical claims boil down to:

  1. Society is better off with a non-proprietary software infrastructure because it protects users against software that does not have their interests at heart.
  2. A society of unfettered experimentation, education, discovery, and cooperation is better to live in.
  3. Sharing of modified or unmodified intellectual works (he objects to the term “intellectual property”) is a right, the abridgment of which is an affront to freedom.

The first point has been well argued by many: governments and the proprietary media industries increasingly want to undermine the technological power that general-purpose computing puts in the hands of end-users. (See any discussion of DRM, trusted computing, or government efforts to nerf encryption.)

It’s not surprising that libertarians of the FOSS movement concur on the first claim, but it’s perhaps surprising there’s not more friction on the second: I’ve always thought of libertarian ideology as wanting to “unrestrain” the exceptional few so that they can stride above the masses like the colossi of self-made virtue that they are, which doesn’t seem consistent with the promotion of greater cooperation. The explanation for this departure, I think, is that free software development, for all its openness, is actually brutally meritocratic: good code survives, bad or not-so-good code gets tossed or ignored, so generally, the better programmers rule the FOSS landscape.

It is this third claim—the right to take and share non-rivalrous copies—that I would expect to hear more debate about, but both sides are surprisingly quiet on this issue, including Stallman himself, who as far as I can tell views the right-to-share as axiomatic. The only examples of debate I’m aware of aren’t much more than assertions: assertions of the goodness of sharing and counter assertions of the goodness of property. So if you’re aware of real debate on this issue, please let me know.

In the end, this tension between free software and libertarian ideology can probably just be ignored, for the libertarians of FOSS seem to be a peculiar Silicon Valley variety, a breed that mainly focuses on the stupidity of regulation and political correctness (*yawn*). (A most peculiar example of this is Wikipedia founder Jimbo Wales, a self-proclaimed Randian with a very, um…unfamiliar spin on Objectivism; see this CSPAN interview with Wales)

Tipping as a replacement for micropayments

20 May

A while ago, I proposed a website for funneling donations from ‘content consumers’ to ‘content producers’, and it turns out others have a similar idea and are doing something about it but framing the idea as ‘tipping’ rather than ‘donating’. Nick Szabo, who wrote the best early assessment of why micropayments won’t work back in 1996, comments on this, suggesting that the social aspects of real-world tipping should be embraced in their online form:

I’d add generosity signal features that inform one’s friends or fellow tippers as well as the tipee about the tip. This could be in the form of aggregator “karma” points that name and ranks the most generous tippers. This would be like the “karma” points which people who add content to a social aggregator compete for, but it signals far more — it signals that one is a generous tipper as well as a generous contributor of recommendations. There are a variety of other ways (home or facebook pages, e-mail, etc.) that generosity signals might similarly be sent within a social circle.

My gut objections to this are that:

  1. It’s tacky to make a public show of one’s generosity.
  2. I’m already increasingly overwhelmed by noise drowning out my incoming and outgoing signals. Information on the tipping habits of others strikes me as just more minutia competing for my attention and distracting others from paying attention to me.
  3. We don’t need more markets for buying attention and prestige. Plenty of those already.

I’m not so concerned if we’re talking about keeping information about each user’s personal tipping behavior strictly within that user’s personal group of people they choose to associate with, not the random mass of people who happen to also use the service. That is obviously useful and just a natural extension of what happens offline.

I am concerned, though, about emphasizing the aggregate behavior of the whole user base, such as is done with mass-actor networks like Digg and Reddit; though I use those sites, I dislike how the form—a single feed, basically—turns the affair into a competition between factions for control. If designed poorly, the social mechanisms of a donation/tipping network could result in the same distortion and gaming effects.

Unlike Wikipedia, where the goal is to discourage factionalism, a donation/tipping network is best served by simply allowing different factions to go their separate ways. I don’t really see this as a loss: you just aren’t going to find much ground of agreement between crunk enthusiasts and Parrotheads.