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You are here: Home Bulletins 2023 fall Free software: An investment in human potential

Free software: An investment in human potential

by Devin Ulibarri Contributions Published on Dec 06, 2023 12:29 PM

Lately, there has been a lot of news that highlights the achievements of machines. We are constantly bombarded with updates about what new trick a large language model can do, the latest machine learning innovations that are being worked on, and the substantial investments being made into business startups that specialize in "A.I." There is much speculation over the potential of these machines -- what they can do and learn. While achievements generally should be celebrated, there is something unsettling about the fervor we are experiencing today. Let's take a moment to examine what seems to be a dangerous trend toward investment in machine learning over human potential and explore the implications of this trend for the free software movement.

Image of a person inside a box with various levers, as a person stands above the box, seemingly playing chess. The Mechanical Turk, also known as the Automaton Chess Player. For years, it fooled many people into thinking that it was truly automated.

First of all, the free software movement has always been about human potential. Free software activists fight for freedoms on the software running their devices because it ultimately protects and expands their own potential -- both as individuals as well as community members. When we lack computational freedom ourselves, we lack the important access we need to unlock our potential. In many ways, it's because we believe in our own (individual and shared) potential that we fight for our freedoms.

Proprietary software, on the other hand, locks people out of their potential by denying them their freedoms. Source code is hoarded away, along with the potential to study or modify it, for no one but the developer to see. Developers are tasked to design methods of restricting the ways in which software is used, or what we call "Digital Restrictions Management" (DRM). DRM denies people the potential to do many things, including strengthening their community through sharing.

And, of course, all of these things require resources, whether those be financial or not. Creating a proprietary license typically requires financial resources spent on hiring a lawyer to draft an End User License Agreement (EULA). Implementing DRM requires hiring a team of developers to engineer it. People and businesses who develop proprietary software are ultimately making investments into methods and procedures -- whether legal, digital, or otherwise -- that have a consequential negative impact on the realization of potential of real-life human beings.

Free software requires resources, too, but it's not spent on drafting a customized EULA or on designs that will prevent people (including the licensee) from using the software as they wish. In fact, it could be argued that an investment in free software is one of the most efficient, least wasteful investments that could be made, because few, if any, resources are ever spent on such things. The majority of a project team's resources are spent developing and improving the software at hand, solving problems, and helping others do the same. And while an entire budget cannot go toward development, the ratios for resource allocation (i.e. investments) for free software projects tend to be more human-centric, by far.

And regardless of the particulars of a given project, an investment in free software offers benefits that proprietary software never can. Whether it's your time or money that you spend assisting free software development, those who use the software are empowered with freedoms that they can take with them. Future generations will be able to better fulfill their potential by freely studying and improving upon the software. Additionally, free software and DRM-free media make historical preservation and anthropological research possible in a way that restrictions cannot, allowing for future generations to better understand and reflect upon how we got to where we are today.

But what can we take away from all of this? Well, first we can insist on technology that fundamentally respects human potential and whose development is not at the expense of progress in other human endeavors. Free software was designed to respect the dignity of the people using it. Only free software places "user" as equal to "developer" in a moralizing gesture of trust, democratization, and empowerment. As for endeavors whose overall consequences are less well understood, such as machine learning and large language models, we should insist on the same principles of community and the dignity of granting the same freedoms that we enjoy ourselves.

While we continue to make strides in technological innovation now and in the future, let's not forget about the potential that people inherently possess. As progress is made that improve how machines work, let's make even more of an effort to recognize all the human effort that has gone into such advancements. And when resources are being allocated to software projects, please insist that the software be free software, because an investment in free software is an investment in our future and our ever-growing potential as a species.

Illustration created in 1789 by Joseph Racknitz. Public domain.

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