For those of you that might not know, I use Ubuntu Linux on all the computers at my house (4 total.) I’ll be the first one to admit that I self-identify as a “geek.” I’ve literally grown up with computers. Not only in the sense that I’ve always been around them, but also that they have come of age as I have. The laptop I bought a couple years ago was the first computer I’ve ever owned that I didn’t have a hand in building. I designed my first web site using Notepad. Yet my geeky-ness is only a small part of who I am (as this blog reflects.) In fact, my relatively newfound interest in Linux has been influenced just as much by my concern for social justice. As Linux becomes more usable for a broader range of people, it is important to recognize the wide range of reasons why “common folks” (i.e. not “geeks”) might be using it and the social implications that entails.
Open Source & Freedom
Linux is an operating system that is based on the “open source” model. In explaining what open source software is, the discussion often shifts quickly to the issue of freedom. One of the attributes of Linux that is often used to convince people to try it is because it’s free, it costs them no money to use it. While this is sometimes true, it is a distortion of the freedom of open source. The phrases that are often used in describing the freedom of open source are “free as in beer” and “free as in speech.” Put briefly, not all open source software is necessarily available free of charge. In fact many of the versions of Linux that are used by businesses and corporations can cost quite a bit. However, true open source software is always free as in speech.
At it’s most basic definition, open source is software where the end-user is allowed to change the source code of the program to suit their needs or desires. This means that if a user is technically savvy enough to know how to make changes in the programming language the software is written in they can adapt it to their particular situation. Often times users are then allowed to redistribute their new version. This contrasts with the “closed source” model, which has been the predominant method in the computer industry and used by companies like Microsoft, in which the end-user is given permission only to use software as the original author intended, and does not allow for any unauthorized changes, modifications, or distribution.
Why does it matter?
For those who could not edit the source code of a program if their life depended on it, why should you care whether or not the software you use is open or closed source? I’ve heard “open source evangelists” take a number of different tacts to this. One is the economic route – the scenario mentioned previously based on acquiring software that is “free as in beer.” While this may appeal to some people’s purse strings, I think it trivializes some of the larger implications of open source. Besides, most average users will never install a new operating system, so to them whatever version of Microsoft Windows (Or Mac OS X) came preinstalled on their computer probably seems just as free in this sense. Similarly, it is an unfortunate reality that software piracy leads to many people acquiring closed source software for free using less-than-legal methods.
In my mind, the attractiveness of open source (and in turn Linux) is that it is a more socially just model for using technology. As a Christian and a concerned world citizen I care whether or not my actions are furthering social justice or hindering it. Open source allows people and populations to adapt and use software in ways that are most useful to their situation, whether it is because of language issues, social context, cultural differences, and so on. Large, closed-source software companies are often less interested in smaller, less economically viable markets because of their primarily profit-based nature. Meanwhile open source allows programs to be translated into many different languages and settings and to be easily (and legally) distributed.
Open source software is available for all different operating systems, with one of the most popular examples being the Mozilla Firefox internet browser. Another great open source program is OpenOffice.org, a full featured open source alternative to Microsoft Office. But in my opinion the ultimate expression of open source is the Linux operating system. Because of its open source nature, there are many different versions (called distributions) of Linux. I personally have chosen to use Ubuntu Linux, but there are many other no-cost options that are just as viable, such as Fedora, openSUSE, Foresight, gOS, and more.
The nice thing about many distributions is that they available on a “LiveCD” which allows potential new users to try the operating system without making any irreversible changes to their computers.
It is important to me to support business practices and institutions that I feel are working toward fairness and equality. This is especially true with technology, because it can create such a rift between the haves and the have-nots. For me, I feel that supporting Linux and open soure software in general are ways to make technology more accessible to a broader range of people. One way I see this happening is through initiatives that make old computers and hardware usable once again by installing Linux and then making them available to people and families that may not otherwise be able to afford a computer.
If you still don’t want to use Linux …
I’ll freely admit that not everyone will want to (or even be able to) switch over to Linux. I promise I won’t think any less of you, and if anyone else does then shame on them. However, there are still some things you can do to help support social justice issues when it comes to computers. If you are interested in open source and don’t want to take the big step of replacing your operating system, give Firefox or OpenOffice a try. If you don’t want to (or can’t for whatever reason) take that step and you still want to support socially just computing, then you might consider donating money to an organization that is working to further such values. I also realize that some of you may not be interested in doing any of these things, even if you agree that Linux and open source are great ways of making technology more accessible. However, there are still some things you can do as well.
Let me tell you a short story: I recently had some interactions with an organization that required me to complete some extensive paperwork for them. (I won’t name any names, but some of you who know me may be able to figure out the identity of this organization.) To complete this paperwork, I had to use a program that only runs in Microsoft Windows. This was a problem for me, since none of my computers use Windows as their primary operating system. Thankfully I was able to set up a “virtual” instance of Windows that allowed me to use this program, but had I not had access to a legitimate Windows license and install CD I wouldn’t have been able to use this program and would not have been able to fill out the important paperwork. After using the program I had to upload a file to this organization’s web site. I first tried this using Firefox on my Linux computer, only to have it fail. I called them and discovered that their web site would only work with Internet Explorer.
I share this story as an example of how you (and others) can support social justice through supporting Linux and open source software. Our actions must not stop at celebrating the fact that there is a free and fair alternative to often expensive and inaccessible closed source programs. Linux and open source software not only address a social justice issue but they also create another. Once people have access to technology and the internet, we must also do what we can to make sure they are not treated as second-class because they do not use Microsoft Windows. Companies and organizations need to realize this as they require the use of computer programs and web sites that only work with Windows.
I don’t expect this article will cause anyone who hasn’t considered using Linux to do so. If it does, by all means let me know how it goes and if you have any questions. It is my hope that together we can begin to help others understand that Linux and other open source programs are not only used by “geeks” anymore, but are a viable alternative for less privileged people in this country and throughout the world, for non-profit organizations (such as churches) who cannot afford to spend lots of money on computers and software, and for users like me who want to support social justice in the area of technology. Regardless of what operating system and other software you may use, it’s time to stop looking down our noses at one another and recognize the social implications of the way we all interact with computers.