Freedom’s just another word for being in control

Big engine, little car!
Big engine, little car!CC-BYStephen Bowler

Using a computer is kind of like using a car. The device lets you do all kinds of things. It needs some maintenance. Most owners show some pride and prejudice about their chosen brand/model/etc. Owners like chatting about the pros, cons, features, etc. of the model they own, etc.

Users of Free & Open Source Software (FOSS) – especially Linux users – want to get under the hood, figure out how the engine works, re-configure the timing and so forth to get better performance, customize the paintjob, etc. We want to know, to understand, to be in control.

Most users just want to get in the car and drive. Let it get you where you’re going – who wants to know the details of how an internal combustion engine works? For the most part that works OK. But the less you know about how the device works, the more you are  at the mercy of mechanics.

Many computer users can do basic maintenance tasks (check the oil, add brake fluid) and deal with minor issues. They’re not completely helpless. So who needs Linux or FOSS?

The problem is that things are changing. Computing devices and the things we do with them are changing and users have less and less control. Go watch Alistair Croll’s brilliant presentation: “Clouds of Loving Grace: the other war on General-Purpose Computing (or read the related post by Cory Doctorow: “Lockdown: The coming war on general purpose computing” or his follow-up talk on “The coming civil war over general purpose computing“).

Consider devices: when you’re using something like an iPad, it’s literally impossible to get under the hood. No maintenance, no performance enhancement. You are not allowed. Imagine your car’s front hood welded shut. And not only must you go to a specialist for any repairs or modifications, but you also have to go to one licensed by the manufacturer. No use going to a mechanic at the corner shop: you have to go to the dealer itself to get service.

Consider software: when you’re reading digital books, you are locked into specific software or particular devices. Buy an e-book in PDF form and you have to use a registered copy of a specific Adobe e-reader. Want to transfer it to your tablet? Sorry. Not allowed. It’s like only being allowed to listen to certain radio stations in your car. (And no use buying a new device made by another maker – you’re stuck with that brand.)

Consider the cloud: when you store things in an online service like Dropbox or Google Drive, you get a great service but it’s at the discretion of the company. If they want to change terms, or stop the service, or if they go out of business… that’s it. You’re out of luck. Remember Google Wave? Remember when Ning stopped providing free service? The only choice was to accept their new terms or go elsewhere. Imagine if Peugot went out of business and your car disappeared. Suppose Toyota went completely green and you had to pay to upgrade your car’s engine to a hybrid one, otherwise your car would just stop working.

Sure, these limited, controlled devices and software and services make life easier. It’s less messy. Things just work. But they work the way the companies allow them to work, not the way you want them to. They work fine until they don’t …and then you’re helpless. You as the computer owner or user are not in control. The corporations are.

It’s all about control. Computer users have less and less these days. It’s why Linux and FOSS make sense. It’s all about freedom.