Principles, Social Science, and Free Software

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.

15 Replies to “Principles, Social Science, and Free Software”

  1. if scientific genetic research would prove that there are significant differences in between gender or races on something very important for human life
    that would raise many questions but it’s still possible to come up with the vision and ethics which are (perfectly, or just like any other) considered as humanist approach. (think vegetarianism)

    + we could still believe that with choices made on ethics we will get different data in the (closer or not) future. or that with ethical approach we can (still) change the world.

  2. it reminds me more (as i think about it) on arguments on vegetarianism. the argument about health issues is not really the good one. it’s about idea where if possible it’s better to eat less of life forms. “if possible” is the question just like in the case of free software.

  3. Interesting and compelling argument.

    The only thing I feel the need to question yu about is the tactic assumption in your post that all laws are by definition ethically just and effective.

    “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”

    If laws are passed that are inherently unethical (by whatever definition) then beginning with an assumption that people should abide by them is problematic. If one tries to argue in favour of following them until thy are changed, then by definition, it is an argument that people should act unethically until they manage to get a law changed. Arguing that people “should” act unethically seems kind of problematic to me! lol.

  4. A couple of terminological problems make this less clear than it could be.

    You encourage a principled stand. Such a principled stand would have “good” necessarily include “free software”: that is, a free program is necessarily better than a proprietary program. Yet you simultaneously say that free software programs are sometimes “not as good as their proprietary competitors”, which apparently uses a different meaning for “good”, and one that is confusing. I think you should simply avoid the use of “good” and instead use a term that is more specific; perhaps “not as useful” or “lower quality” or the like.

    You make many claims about free software project failures, e.g. “the vast majority of FLOSS projects fizzle”. I think this point would be stronger if you remove the qualifier; in fact, the vast majority of all software projects fizzle, free software or not.

  5. Excellent post, I have mutual feelings of principle and yet not totally believing that FOSS is always going to be 100% successful.

    Of course I still think it’s more efficient at certain scales of time.

  6. When they say “an advocate is too biased”, what does it mean?

    Too biased to do what?

    Too biased to stick to the positivist principles?

    I’m not sure that finger-pointing at the suspected bias of the Other Guys makes your case stronger.

    It might appear that you’re itching to make an academic weapon here.  And you’ve already chosen your target.

    On the other hand, suggesting that someone can’t simultaneously be a responsible Social Scientist and a responsible Free Software Advocate… is just so wrong.  It somehow suggests that the readers of your future paper won’t read it with your bias in mind.  Or that your bias nullifies your results, because of the way it might taint your questions or your methods.  Ridiculous!

  7. Marcell: Absolutely! My original note for this post were about vegetarianism and health based and ethics based advocacy. I ended up cutting that because I felt it wasn’t necessary, but I definitely think your observation is right.

    Bugsbane: My example about respecting the law was just an example. I wasn’t seriously arguing either position in this post.

    Ben Finney: You’re right about the imprecision of the term “good.” I will try to avoid it in these arguments in the future. Thanks for pointing out that out. I thought about saying “ethical” versus “normative.” I think this is more clear, but I also think less people are familiar with the subtleties of that terminology.

    Ben Asselstine: I guess I don’t find it the idea that people that really want something to succeed may have a hard time being a responsible scientist quite as prima facie ridiculous as you seem to My whole point was to explain why and when such bias may become a real problem. It all depends on what a person takes for granted and if you take the answers to empirical questions for granted (as many advocates of many causes do) there’s a important risk of bias. Maybe this is completely clear to you, in which case I suppose you didn’t need to read my post. It’s not clear to everyone else, and I think it’s important to have a reasonable answer.

  8. I’m not sure how anyone could argue that free software has not been an empirical success over the last thirty years.  There has been steady, exponential growth in any metric you care to measure.  There have also been many studies of code quality showing that software freedom leads to better software, measured in things like errors per line.  Where have you seen research to contradict any of this? 

    Here’s a simple measure of free software excellence and success – try to imagine doing your research without free software.  No google, no email, no GCC, no Debian and it’s tens of thousands of specialty applications, no feasible way.  You might as well contemplate watch making on a desert island. 

    When it comes to free software shortfalls, I think what you will find are barriers created by those who profit from owning software.  ACPI is an example of hardware sabotage.  Ask Bruce Perens about accelerated video and free software 15 years ago.  The SCO/Microsoft copyright lawsuits and now the Novell/Microsoft patent extortion are examples of legal sabotage designed to tax and otherwise claim ownership of free software.  The DMCA and software patents are also used to deny specific functionality to free software and upstart non free software companies.  These are obviously fraudulent attacks.  To survive, software owners must remove their competitors and impose costs on those that can’t be removed because the market price of a competitive good with no marginal costs is zero.  A society that wishes to protect the freedom of it’s citizens must make laws that protect against predation, monopoly trusts and other impositions.  Non free software advocates are basically demanding the freedom to prey on their neighbors.

  9. I think that Free Software will survive unless it is outlawed or its death is bought and paid for in an underhanded fashion.

    Survival alone will be success but not the success it should achieve.

    One area that still needs to be overcome is the “lock in” mindset that so many operating in the FOSS space still seem to want to achieve.

    Money is going to need to change hands in the Free Software area in some cases, but one party does not need to try and “own” the other in the transaction. (In fact, in some cases, despite my principled stance on Free Software, I could not in good conscience recommend that a client choose a Free Solution over a Non-Free one unless there is professional level 24X7 support available at competitive rates for the Free Solution. I might instead suggest sticking with the non-Free while sending some funding to the Free.)

    I am still amazed after all my years of involvement in Free Software that more industry associations are not funding industry important Free Software on behalf of their members.

    Mako, re the Free Culture side of things I came up with this little saying the other day:

    “If you want to see more Free Music made, listen to Free Music more.”

    I am now wondering what might be a parallel for Free Software…

    all the best,


  10. One of the first things to consider when assessing these things scientifically would be checking the validity of your data, or more to the point, measuring in some way just how accurate it is.

    What I see as a problem here is that when you compare proprietary software projects with FLOSS projects in view of success rate, you are comparing apples and oranges. Proprietary projects often involve in-depth feasibility assessment before they are even started for economic reasons, while FLOSS projects have no such requirement due to the absence of an economic environment. I argue that if you had somehow been able to count Proprietary projects that never get started, or knowledge of the existence of which never reaches you (for similar reasons), the Proprietary project success rate vs FLOSS project success rate ratio would be much, much different.

    Reliable information on some of these areas is not always something you can get, but how reliable / comparable / accurate your information is, is something that must be included in the discussion and the estimated accuracy of the answer must also be taken into account when describing the conclusion, for a proper scientific approach.

  11. I was thinking if “principled stance” could in some way be given more fundament, as it seems somewhat relegated to the realm of arbitrary bias or unfounded apriorism. Maybe the principle of self-defeat should be applied. We generally think ethics is something arbitrary, to be decided by each individual, but is it really so? Couldn’t some criteria be devised in order to make ethical decisions less arbitrary? It could be argued, for example, that an ethical decision is only ethical in as much as it doesn’t self-defeat itself; conversely, we could define decisions which are self-defeating as “unethical”. Of course, criteria and methods should be devised as to how to define “self-defeating”: I see it as something analogous to viruses. A smart virus infects the host just enough to exploit it; a “self-defeating” virus ultimately kills the host, thereby killing its means of subsistence. On a similar line “ethical” decisions could be defined as “non-self-defeating” decisions, whereas “unethical” would be those that defeat their own purposes. In this view, say, the copyright mechanisms as put forth by the copyright corporations are not self-defeating from their point of view, but are mildly self-defeating from the recording artists’ point of view, and extremely self-defeating from the paying consumers’ point of view.
    On another, but similar note, when ill-devised laws come into force, there is hardly a more efficient way of overturning them than to enforce them strictly and to the letter, so much so that eventually all their absurdity becomes blindingly obvious.

  12. If you haven’t already you should read C. Wright Mills’ wonderful and inspiring book ‘The Sociological Imagination’. Of course, your colleagues in social science will probably not thank me for saying this :-)

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