Bits of Freedom
Bits of Freedom

Tinkerer and thinker on everything free and open. Exploring possibilities and engaging with new opportunities to instigate change.

Jonas Öberg
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Jonas is a dad, husband, tinkerer, thinker and traveler. He's passionate about the future and bringing people together, from all fields of free and open.

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Bits of Freedom

Bootstrapping freedom and openness

Jonas ÖbergJonas Öberg

Question: Is it legitimate to use proprietary software to further free and open source software?

Through this article, I will try to approach this question by taking a look at the history of free software and open educational resources, relating this to what I will refer to as the process of bootstrapping freedom and openness.

The history of open educational resources is a useful starting point, as it is the most known. You may not have thought about it, and I certainly did not pay much attention to it. But the fact of the matter is that most of us have learned to read and write, do maths and science, with non-open educational resources.

One of my favorite books in school was Alpha - Mathematics Handbook by Lennart Råde. In its barely 200 pages it covers the fundamentals of mathematics: set theory, algebra, number theory, the details of geometry and trigonometry, functions and even has a section on programming and numerical analysis, together with probability and statistics. It's God's gift to any budding science geek.

All rights reserved. This book, or parts of it, may not be reproduced in any form without written permission of the publisher.

It's not an open educational resource. The knowledge it contains is certainly available: I've used it many times, but the actual resource is not. Which is a shame, because it's tremendously useful.

But in a twist of turns, the knowledge that this book has given me, I've been able to use successfully in creating open educational resources. I would even hazard a guess by saying that as much as 100% of the open educational resources which exist today has some basis in non-open educational resources.

I don't think we're yet at the point where someone can grow up without ever touching non-open educational resources. We're just not there yet. We're still bootstrapping.

The portion of open educational resources over non-open resources have certainly increased, and it increases by the day. It's not a slow shift. It's shifting fast. But the amount of work it takes to actually get open educational resources into all walks of life is simply so significant that it'll take us a while to get there, even if we're caravanning down the track faster than we ever have before.

In free software, the situation was much the same, and it's a story which has repeated itself several times over the last 20-30 years. Writing a free software compiler for a new computer may involve using a proprietary compiler the first times you do it. Eventually, the free software compiler reaches a stage where it can compile itself, but it's only from that point on you can truly use only free software.

Reality is of course a bit more complicated, and bootstrapping a compiler often involves several different steps of increasing complexity and sophistication. You can also try compiling the software by hand, use a cross-compiler, or any number of other tricks, each with their own pros and cons.

When you're in the bootstrapping phase, you often need to make tough decisions. You can take the long road, or the shortcut. Which one you choose depend on a lot of aspects, but both will ultimately get you to where you're going.

If you want to go to the top of the Eiffel tower to join the meeting of the "No Elevators in My Back Yard" group, you can make a decision if you want to take the stairs or the elevator. You may be inclined to take the stairs, but you'd be sacrificing some more of your time if you do, and the meeting may be over when you get there. Or you take the elevator, sacrificing your philosophy of "No Elevators", but are able to join the meeting and eventually succeed in lobbying for an elevator liberation legislation across all of Europe.

The analogy can only stretch as far, but the point as you may imagine is that you need to be very aware of what your goal of any activity is, and act according to what makes you most efficient in reaching that goal.

On a macro level, free and open source software is still bootstrapping. We face proprietary software almost on a daily basis, even as the number of free and open source software packages increase. There's still work to do.

Question: Is it legitimate to use proprietary software to further free and open source software?

If that is indeed your goal, then yes. The reason this sometimes becomes problematic is that we're lazy. There are situations where we sometimes end up using proprietary software for no good reason: we should be watchful of such situations and try to replace what proprietary software we have with free and open source software.

Over time, the portion of free and open source software will grow, and the use of proprietary software will diminish into nothing. Our actions in the end will not be judged on whether we used 20% or 3% proprietary software to get there, but whether it took us 5 or 50 years to get there.

Jonas Öberg
Author

Jonas Öberg

Jonas is a dad, husband, tinkerer, thinker and traveler. He's passionate about the future and bringing people together, from all fields of free and open.