Friday, November 16, 2007

Decoding Liberation at the Wolfe Institute

Yesterday, the Wolfe Institute at Brooklyn College hosted an interdisciplinary colloquium to celebrate the release of Decoding Liberation. The featured speakers were Tim Shortell and Benjamin "Mako" Hill. Robert Viscusi of the Wolfe Institute kicked things with a little welcome spiel, pointing out the importance and relevance of the free software community's discourse about creativity and 'intellectual property' to the humanities ("Shakespeare wouldn't have been able to publish in today's copyright regime"!); Scott Dexter read out parts of Decoding Liberation's introduction; I followed with a brief discussion of how the book project started and what its various chapters covered, and then handed off to Tim Shortell.

Tim started with a little recounting of how he came to encounter the free software philosophy by way of his experiences while working as doctoral student in social psychology that wanted to write text-processing tools for discourse analysis. The fledgling community of researchers in that field gladly shared code and techniques, enabling each other to build on the shared work and to go further than anyone would have been able to go on their own. Tim then proceeded to ground his discussion of Decoding Liberation on the theme of alienation, finding various manifestations of it in the different chapters: alienation of workers from their products, of users from technology and within the science of computing, of scientists from the works of other scientists. He then framed a few questions about possible futures for free software and turned it over to the audience for discussion. This first stage touched upon some expected themes: the reluctance of corporate incumbents to let go of established business models that stress proprietary regimes, the applicability of free software concepts and models to other fields, the possibility of reworking notions of knowledge as a commodity and our understandings of intellectual property.

For the next stage, I introduced Benjamin Mako Hill, who began by providing some interesting perspectives on the real and supposed differences between the free software movement and the open source movements, stressing that differences were largely tactical rather than ideological. There were some interesting historical notes, and the notion was developed that the freedoms of free software, as developed and articulated in the Free Software Definition, the Open Source Definition, and the Debian Free Software Guidelines were by far the most important principles for the community, more important than any ideological differences, whether political or technical (I loved the story about the two Debian developers who, in the course of arranging a key-signing meeting, found out that one was a delegate for the Republican National Convention, and the other a protester). Mako then went on to talk about how the community's strongest point was its institutional independence, its ability to respond to user needs in a manner and fashion unknown to its proprietary counterpart, and its dire need of bug-catchers to help iron out kinks in development efforts. Mako's talk was followed by more interesting discussion about the extension of free software notions to literature, the possibility of free software extending its reach into domains like gaming where it lags, and clarifications of copyleft, the problem of patenting, and the importance of free software to computer science pedagogy.

All in all, a great discussion, very educative and thought-provoking. My sincere thanks to the audience, to the speakers, and to the Wolfe Institute.

As a reminder, the Center for Place, Culture and Politics will be hosting a book party for us at the CUNY Graduate Center on November 29th (6PM - 8PM).


Anonymous J.B. Nicholson-Owens said...

Is there a recording of this event? I'd like to hear what the presenters had to say in their own words.

J.B. Nicholson-Owens
Digital Citizen

5:18 PM  

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