Earlier this summer, I wrote a blog post on taking a principled position on software freedom where I argued that advocates of free/libre and open source software (FLOSS) should take a principled position because the pragmatic benefits associated with open source — "better quality, higher reliability, more flexibility [and] lower cost" in OSI’s words — are simply not always present. More often than not, FLOSS projects fail. When they survive, they are often not as good as their proprietary competitors.
Over the last year, I’ve been back at MIT taking classes, reading extensively, and otherwise learning how to act like a social scientist. My research goals, which I’m now beginning to focus on, are to help build a stronger understanding of the social dynamics in free software and free culture communities.
With a slightly skeptical view toward my involvement with groups like the FSF and my work in the FLOSS community, at least one academic tried to suggest that taking a principled position in favor of software freedom might compromise the positivist social science research program in which I am engaged. "An advocate is too biased," they said. After many months of thinking seriously about this warning, I believe that this criticism can be addressed.
After all, a principled position in favor of software freedom is a statement of how things should be, not a description of how they are. OSI will argue that open source leads to inherently better software. This statement, of course, is one that can be empirically tested and, in fact, there seems to be plenty of evidence that it is often wrong. On the other hand, the FSF’s position that software should be free is ethical in nature. One can disagree with it, just like one can disagree with any other ethical position, but it can not be proved either right or wrong — only convincing or unconvincing, logical or illogical in the context a certain set of other values that others might or might not share.
Research has shown that the vast majority of FLOSS projects fizzle. A advocate who argues that FLOSS is inherently better is left trying to explain this fact and make excuses. As a result, OSI-style beliefs can certainly be a source of problematic bias in a social scientist. However, a person who believes that software should be free is welcome to recognize that it both fails and succeeds and to ask why. A principled idealist can argue in favor of behaviors that may be disruptive, difficult, or inefficient. Indeed, Stallman has never suggested that free software will be easier or better. Indeed, he routinely asks people to sacrifice their convenience for freedom.
My goal, as a social scientist, is to understand why some FLOSS and free culture projects succeed and why many fail. I never take FLOSS’s success for granted and, in fact, believe that proprietary software may often leads to better software in OSI’s terms. Unlike an advocate who tows the OSI line, embracing evidence of the effectiveness of proprietary software is no way in conflict with my belief that software should be free. In fact, my desire to see software freedom grow becomes the driving force between trying to understand FLOSS’s shortcomings!
I am no more biased — which is not to say completely unbiased — than the person who both thinks that crime is wrong and who wants to study criminal behavior. In an analogous sense, starting out with the belief that all people are naturally law-abiding may be a problem in a way that beginning with the belief that people should be law-abiding is not. Starting from the fomer assumption, one has to explain away evidence to the contrary. Starting from the latter assumption, one can build an understanding of what drives people to obey or violate laws which, in turn, can help build a stronger society.
To me, the question is not why FLOSS will succeed. Indeed, I believe its success is an empirical matter that remains very much up in the air. For me, the question is how it might. Embracing a principled position lets us face the facts and puts advocates and practitioners in a position to devise laws, social structures, and technologies to insure that it does.