Code Free

Unleashing Progressive Politics on the Technopoly

Miguel de Icaza doesn't seem like a saboteur, but he spent the last 16 months building a bomb. From his desk at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma in Mexico City, the 26-year-old marshaled support from 250 volunteers around the world, most of whom he's never met. Together they tinkered and retooled, and, on March 3, Icaza tossed it out into the world.

At this point, the wise bet is to head toward the detonation— that's where things will start to get interesting. De Icaza is the coordinator— he won't accept a grander title— for a hugely ambitious software project called Gnome, which wants to radicalize you via your computer. Publicly released two weeks ago, Gnome is a conscientious objection to the greed, inefficiencies, and tyranny of the technology industry as we know it, packed into an executable file. From the heart of the capitalist technopoly, Gnome is a free software alternative to the Windows desktop— free to download from the Net, to copy, to alter.

"I'm not thinking of making money off it," says de Icaza. "We're trying to take software back to its scientific origins that it had [of] sharing ideas and the advancement of code for humanity." Hackers might call it a "Microsoft killer," but Gnome is more like a monument to public works in the digital age.

It's just one of many in an emergent "gift economy" of technology. Gnome runs on top of the Linux operating system, the most famous of the cooperatively developed free software projects. If Linux is the engine, Gnome is the four-door automobile designed for the Sunday driver: Linux talks to the hardware, and Gnome takes care of the visual interface and the applications. Like a stripped-down Microsoft Windows, Gnome comes with a spreadsheet program and Tetris clones, with a word processor soon to follow. While Linux has appealed mostly to hardcore programmers, Gnome is one of the first strategic attempts to draw "regular users" like "kids or secretary-people" away from proprietary software, says de Icaza, and over to entirely nonproprietary systems.

In their current incarnations, both Linux and Gnome can be mighty chores to install (see accompanying story); even fans of the operating system caution against doing it solo. But soon this may no longer be a barrier— Dell and IBM have hinted they will sell Linux preinstalled on machines in the near future. Rumors are now circulating that Microsoft might be preparing to kiss up to the enemy by making Windows applications compatible with Linux.

To see free software efforts like Gnome and Linux as merely technical innovations is to grossly underestimate them. After all, people never used to march in support of software. But last month, Linux converts across the country protested against Microsoft, demanding that the company refund the cost of Windows operating systems that they were forced to buy but never used. A mood of religious revival infuses the meetings of LXNY (lxny.org), a New York Linux users' group, with teams of audience members jumping at the chance to baptize computers with Linux at "Install Fests." Randy Wright, a LXNY member, with a T-shirt bearing the Linux slogan "Total World Domination," calls the group "an extension of the Peace Corps." Wright has volunteered to install Linux at schools across the city, like the Frederick Douglass Literacy Center in Bed-Stuy. He does it, he says, to "do something to mitigate the pain of there being haves and have-nots."

Software, it seems, has its first progressive politics. The catch is that many of the foot soldiers in the revolution don't necessarily see it that way. For them, the allure of free software is the freedom to choose better code— or write it themselves. "For the 99.9 percent of the people who develop [free software], it's not about politics," says Bernd Johannes Wuebben, a bond strategist in New York who, in his spare time, programs for another free software project called KDE. (Much like Gnome, KDE is a popular, free desktop.) "It's really about the idea to run what you want and do with it what you want. . . . We just want to get something done."

But "the issue was never to make money" with KDE, Wuebben says. That impulse is already radical, considering the inflated cost of software in the current "wealth-obsessed high-tech industry," as Tim O'Reilly calls it. O'Reilly, the publisher of the highly regarded O'Reilly programming books, has become a high-profile supporter of "Open Source," a less ideological branch of the free software movement. Open Source practitioners are fighting to convince private companies to "open" their code to the public, both to generate better software and to ensure that people can still make a living from creating it in the first place.

"Where information is often hoarded, it does take an act of conscious altruism to give software away," O'Reilly says. But for him, the revolution is not about socialist programming, but communication. "Computer source code is ultimately a form of speech, and a society that values free speech and the free flow of information endangers itself if it puts up artificial barriers."

O'Reilly's position points to the tangle of communitarian ideals and techno-libertarian practice that has held the movement together. Gnome itself is the result of a joint effort between public spirit and private gain. Red Hat Software, a for-profit distributor of Linux and accompanying free software, assigned a team of 10 programmers on its staff to help streamline and support Gnome for its 1.0 release. Red Hat makes money by making Linux convenient— the company sells a highly regarded "brand" of Linux and manuals about setting it up.

"If you're in a revolution, it takes a combination of interests," says Bob Young, CEO of Red Hat. "In the American Revolution, you had the Patrick Henrys with their Give me libertys and you had the New England bankers buying the cannons and rifles to win the war." (Red Hat now ships Gnome as the default desktop for its release of Linux.) According to Jay Sulzberger, the "corresponding secretary" of LXNY, Gnome "would have gotten nowhere if Red Hat hadn't hired people to work on it." A desktop project is so complicated, he says, that "there are some things you have to pay people to do."

Gnome's release may prove the ultimate test of the free software movement, just as corporate interests threaten to co-opt its growing social force. Over the past year, the industry's blue chips— like IBM, Sun, Oracle, and Netscape— have cozied up to the free software community to improve their product lines. The arrangement usually works like this: a private company releases its proprietary code to the public, angling to harness the collective intelligence of programmers on the outside. Then, volunteer coders begin tinkering, drawn by the challenge, their own needs, or rush of "ego-boo" when their contributions get accepted.

The highest profile example came last spring when Netscape released the source code for its Mozilla Web browser onto the Net. Within hours, a team of independent hackers called the Mozilla Crypto Group had sent in a fix. So far approximately 30 unpaid coders have helped refine Mozilla. But the success of Netscape's gambit remains to be proven; after a year of development, the collaboratively developed "next generation" browser has not yet been released.

With so many private companies starting to rely on the goodwill of programmers, it's not clear just how long the charity will last. And some are arguing that the popularity of Linux is overshadowing the philosophy that engendered it. Richard Stallman, the head of the Free Software Foundation (fsf.org) and a MacArthur grant winner, believes the civic principles of the community are already at risk from the onrush of corporate investment, which turns all eyes to the bottom line. "Imagine a democracy," Stallman says, "where they said, 'Democracy only works if the country is profitable, otherwise, it's not working, and we should switch to a dictatorship.' " Open Source proponents approach free software "with the view that there is no moral issue here . . . [focusing] on the practical, short-term benefits."

That's because the long-term future for private companies that have amassed their millions on proprietary code is one of diminishing returns. And, if the free software movement has any say, diminishing audiences. "Windows has to be the most profitable program ever written, protected by more legal barbed wire than any other program in existence," says Jeremy Lee, a coder who lives in Australia. "The hacker response? We'll just write another one."


Beware All Ye Who Install Linux Here

This sidebar was supposed to be about surgical calm in the face of output like "dev/hda1: invalid argument." I was supposed to be writing it at Miller Time.

But after five days of trying to install Linux (Red Hat's 5.2 version, $49.95) on my laptop, I can tell you it whupped my ass. Not just mine— my friend Ari, who has done many installs without a hitch and whom I bribed with pizza to come help, was also stumped. Which is bad news for Miguel de Icaza, Gnome, and the rest of the free software movement banking on large-scale conversion to the system. I'm one of the joiners, and if I can't get the revolution mounted on my D:/ drive, there's little hope for de Icaza's "kids" and "secretaries," who couldn't give two whits what drivers their PCMCIA cards need.

I had been warned. LXNY secretary Jay Sulzberger cautions, "Never install Linux alone." I use an IBM ThinkPad 560E, and the first truth you learn about installing Linux is that laptops are tricky test subjects. That's because laptop manufacturers throw a motley array of equipment into the machines and slap a single label on it all— easier for them, but terrible when you need to lift the hood.

First, I needed to "partition" my hard drive to make space for Linux— akin to giving the computer a split personality. Since virtually all PCs come with Windows pre-installed, I preserved a partition exclusively for Windows 95, and created a handful of partitions for Linux. (This step flirts with total data loss on the Windows end, so you must make sure you're prepared to deal with a vegetable if the process goes awry.) Then I tried to install the necessary files from the Red Hat CD-ROM. (There are three other popular Linux distributions— Caldera, Debian, and Slackware.) Installing from a CD-ROM, of course, assumes your machine can "mount"— recognize— your CD-ROM drive. Mine couldn't.

From there, it all spiraled downward. To get advice, Ari and I consulted the oracles via newsgroups— comp.os.linux.advocacy and comp.os. linux.setup— but as of press time, my predicament hadn't lured any takers. I sent e-mail to Red Hat support, which replied promptly, but every answer led to more questions. As a last resort we tried IBM, which was a total loss. The only information I could find on the Web site was that my "eyecatching" Thinkpad is "ultraportable without compromise."

If you're thinking about converting to Linux, you may want to wait for Dell or IBM to buck Microsoft and ship machines with Linux and Gnome pre-installed. Chances are it will be soon. For my part, if all else fails, I'll offload my machine to the group brain at the next LXNY "Install Fest" (which includes a real Miller Time at the end). — A.B.

New York has three Linux users' groups, which meet monthly. Check LXNY.org, NYLUG.org, and LUNY.org for more details.

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