Redefining “Realistic”

When talking about free culture or free software, many people suggest that they would love to support free models, but that they don’t see how to make it all work. Until they have an alternate model in front of them, they cannot bring themselves to argue for a more ethical alternative. I disagree with this approach. Instead, I say, "this is the world I want to live in and, even though I don’t know exactly how to get to there from here, I’m going to refuse to settle for anything short of this ideal." Most people dismiss such thinking as "impractical" and "unrealistic." I think most people are being unimaginative.

Robot jockeys are one recent illustrative reason, among many, that I feel comfortable taking this position. Some background is necessary for those that are unfamiliar with the example. A decade ago, several Gulf emirates used thousands of young boys from Sudan and South Asia as jockeys for camel racing. Human rights groups campaigned against the practice and suggested that these boys were at sometimes held as slaves and intentionally underfed to keep their weight low. Despite criticism, camel racers resisted moving away from young boys as jockeys. If they moved to heavier adults instead of young boys, they reasoned, the camels would be much slower. Of course, they were right. But they were being unimaginative in the alternatives they were considering.

As the young jockeys became a increasingly unjustifiable public relations disaster for the states that supported it, law-makers in several Gulf states gave in to calls from UNICEF and others and created laws to outlaw the practice. Within three years of UAE passing strict laws against child jockeys, Swiss engineers, funded by racers desperate for an alternative, had created the first robotic camel jockey. Within several years these jockeys were lighter, cheaper, more responsive to the owner, and well on their way to being more effective than any young boy. When forced, by law and by an ethical prerogative, to come up with an alternative to young boys, racers created a solution that was superior, along nearly every axis, to the system they had fought to keep.

Although the costs to society of proprietary software cannot be compared to slavery and abuse, the basic same pattern of solution-seeking can be seen in the example of free software. Early free software advocates suggested that most programmers would likely need to take a paycut. As it turned out, vibrant and successful economic models to support free software have supported a large and growing free software industry. But we have free software business models only because a small group of principled individuals refused to settle for what they knew, came up with creative ethical business models that "just might work," and put their own paychecks on the line to try them out. As open source has shown, some of these creative solutions offered models superior to what we had before. In the world of software development, free software redefined "practical" and "realistic."

One can think of solving human problems as like searching for the highest point in hilly terrain in thick fog. It’s easy to get stuck on the top of the first little hill you walk up (i.e., a local maximum) and then conclude you can never do better. If we refuse to compromise and force ourselves to leave that first little hill, chances are pretty good we’ll find a "higher" peak.

Of course, it is also possible that we will find the global maximum or the best possible solution to a given problem. In those cases, any change will mean a sacrifice. But when dealing with most most social and legal dilemmas, there are enough variables involved that this seems very unlikely. Indeed, most big problems can be thought of as having many interacting dimensions — and only some of these will be ethical concerns. In other words, most social problems are more like the problem of child camel jockeys than they are like trying to transcend the laws of physics.

Business models and laws for the regulation of technology and knowledge are extremely complicated human creations. Do we really think we cannot create ethical systems to compensate cultural creators that are at least as good as what we have now? If we never force ourselves to be "impractical" and "unrealistic", we will never find out.