Thursday, March 31, 2005

software meets politics

There was a long discussion at the Victorian Information Systems (IS) teachers list recently about open source software.

Towards the end of that discussion I put the position that software choice was connected to political questions, democracy and ideology. Peter Ruwoldt was in agreement but apart from that there wasn't much discussion about the points I raised. I'm blogging these thoughts here because I want a permanent record, I'd like to develop these thoughts further. There are some references to earlier parts of the discussion on the Vic list which I haven't edited out, the overall argument is still clear enough IMO.

Here's what I said on the Vic teachers IS list:

at times through this discussion in this thread and the .NET thread it has been said by some that, "we live in a democracy, so we will choose what we want to choose"

I've been thinking and some of Michael's comments reinforce this, that teacher / school democracy is very limited, Con has already made the point that the playing field is not level due to the MS cut price agreement, other contributors have indicated that they are going to be pragmatic about software choice, the agreement exists so use it

I remember deciding to learn UNIX about 20 years ago, putting a few things in place to facilitate this but eventually abandoning the effort because it was too hard using one system at school and another at home - what sort of democratic choice was that?

here is something Michael said that reinforces the point:

> Con, with the greatest respect to you and the teachers in our schools, if you ask them what their greatest limitations in teaching are, one of the biggest is lack of time. This is expressed in many ways such as discussing the crowded nature of the curriculum, the burden of administration that goes with the job now, and a whole range of other things. To impose upon them the need to learn new software merely because you and I may not like the fact that Microsoft have market dominance and we'd like to challenge that, would be far worse an imposition of our views than the suggestion that forcing use of MS Office on students causes them to pirate software.


> To summarise, I will use whichever product best and most expediently suits the needs of our staff and our students. Our staff will do much the same within the limitations of knowledge, time and support. Unfortunately, the hurdle for most staff in this respect is significant given high workloads unless there is a significant demonstrated benefit. This is no different for IT than any other subject too.

So, we have a situation where the choices may seem insignificant (both products of comparable quality and / or not worth the time and effort to check out in detail), combined with lack of teacher time (extreme problem), ageing teacher workforce (generational issues), limited access to computer rooms for many teachers (perhaps partly due to money being wasted as Con has documented) combined with an infrastructure in which MS and governments have colluded in a cut price agreement on schools which favours an already existing monopoly

How is that democracy, when to break out of the mould being imposed requires such extreme effort and sacrifices in time and energy to develop the awareness and skills to make the change?

I also wanted to respond to the point about "not being pressured to change or make choices for ideological or political reasons"

This has come from both side of the argument, for instance Con has said:

> >Ahh, once again, let's invoke the 'ideological dislike of Microsoft' claim. ;-)
> >Sorry, this is about money. This is about industry competition. This is about pushing open standards. This is _not_ an argument relating to an 'ideological dislike of Microsoft'. If you've read such an argument anywhere in _any_ of my statements, please point it out.

What do these words mean?

An ideology to me is a *set* of intertwined beliefs made up of smaller beliefs such as it's a good idea to save money, it's a good idea to have real competition (not monopoly), it's a good idea to have open standards, it's a good idea to publish and not hide the source code, it's a good idea to have thousands of people working collaboratively on the internet to produce software and its a bad idea for governments to lock teachers into one platform. Taken together those ideas to me make up an ideology.

Bill Gates understands this when he calls the open source movement "communist", earlier this year, and the open source leaders on boing-boing understand it when they respond by publishing red flags with the creative commons license on it in response.

When teachers go along with the pragmatic decision of using MS / proprietary software because they are more or less forced to for the reasons outlined above then why is that not an ideological choice? My understanding of ideology is that to just go with the flow, not stand on soap boxes, to be an ordinary joe is making a choice to support the status quo, a status quo which I believe has been demonstrated and not refuted to be in favour of MS / proprietary software.

This is what I've been doing for the last 20 years when I've used proprietary software after regretfully abandoning efforts to learn UNIX / Linux and just dabbling in open source or using it in another environment where it is dominant, such as the internet.

I always believed that I was making an ideological decision (regretfully) because it just seemed too hard to go down the path I wanted to go down. Things have now changed, we have the intenet, we have teachers lists, we have the opportunity for more collaboration and communication amongst ourselves. The free software movement has split and morphed into the open source movement. The o/s software is improving further in leaps and bounds. Whole countries and states in Australia (ACT) look seriously at open source tenders.

I'm suggesting that it is ideological / political, for those on the soap boxes supporting a position and also for those who claim not to be on soap boxes.

OK, you may not see it like that but tell me where I'm wrong.
Do we have real democracy in software choice?
What does ideological / political mean?

I also wanted to say something about the use of the word "piracy" - it's a grey area IMO - breaking software copyright should not be put in the same category as stealing ships on the high seas - the American lawyer Lawrence Lessig, creator of Creative Commons has written at length about this - but I would need to research it more to present an alternative argument - my current position is that there is a need for copyright law to change for a variety of reasons, in particular with regard to digital media


Anonymous Simon said...

Do we have real democracy in software choice?

How does one measure students becoming enriched, highly competent and creative with technology when the tools are essentially 1-dimensional. My thought is this; that we are given a framework that provides the educational community with access to “popular” software ensuring that learning is done on an even playing field. At base value this is not real democracy but it also doesn’t lock us in either. Schools have choice (democracy) and can choose to explore them today.

Tomorrow…well that’s a different kettle of fish. I’ve been hearing the word ‘mandate’ a lot lately.


10:31 PM  
Anonymous Simon said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

10:34 PM  

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