By Kurt Cagle
February 17, 2009 | Comments: 1


Free adj, frē, Middle English, from Old English frēo; akin to Old High German frī free, Welsh rhydd, Sanskrit priya own, dear.

1 a: having the legal and political rights of a citizen b: enjoying civil and political liberty c: enjoying political independence or freedom from outside domination d: enjoying personal freedom : not subject to the control or domination of another.
2 a: not determined by anything beyond its own nature or being : choosing or capable of choosing for itself b: determined by the choice of the actor or performer c: made, done, or given voluntarily or spontaneously
3 a: relieved from or lacking something and especially something unpleasant or burdensome --often used in combination b: not bound, confined, or detained by force
4 a: having no trade restrictions b: not subject to government regulation cof foreign exchange : not subject to restriction or official control
5 a: having no obligations (as to work) or commitments b: not taken up with commitments or obligations
6: having a scope not restricted by qualification
7 a: not obstructed, restricted, or impeded b: not being used or occupied c: not hampered or restricted in its normal operation
8 a: not fastened b: not confined to a particular position or place c: capable of moving or turning in any direction d: performed without apparatus e: done with artificial aids (as pitons) used only for protection against falling and not for support
9 a: not parsimonious b: outspoken c: availing oneself of something without stint d: frank , open e: overly familiar or forward in action or attitude f: licentious
10: not costing or charging anything
11 a (1): not united with, attached to, combined with, or mixed with something else : separate (2): freestanding b: chemically uncombined c: not permanently attached but able to move about d: capable of being used alone as a meaningful linguistic form
12 a: not literal or exact b: not restricted by or conforming to conventional forms
13: favorable --used of a wind blowing from a direction more than six points from dead ahead
14: not allowing slavery
15: open to all comers
-- Courtesy Merriam-Webster Dictionary

The paradox of contemporary life is upon us. I paid $2,000 for the laptop upon which I type these words, in addition to a hundred dollars a month paying for online access, yet the editor I'm using is a web page within a free web browser, connected to a server that is running either Linux or Open Solaris, which was downloaded for free from a distribution disk that no doubt someone paid for, albeit at a cost of pennies. Yet the time and energy to creating these operating systems were non-negligible, representing thousands of man years in total dedicated to writing this free system.

My time writing and editing for O'Reilly is not free - I get paid a certain amount each month based upon an ostensible number of hours that I commit, though truth be told, I exceed that amount regularly. Is the work that I do outside of that time free, or does this represent a tacit acknowledgement that I feel that what I write is important enough to reduce the "contractual" obligation of hours?

Upon my system is other free software - in most cases open source applications, in some cases evaluation copies that I will use until their time runs out, in other cases review copies that I was given in order to provide a better "review" of software or hardware (relatively little of that). I listen via a free music player to files downloaded from YouTube or the occasional ripped album (which I have usually purchased before hand, though on occasion a library copy does pass through that filter). I could get the paid version for a few dollars, but I find I don't really have the need for it.

I used to have a few torrented applications - primary "productivity apps" - but in this case the cost of "free" was too much potential exposure to trojan horses and viruses, which cost me time and frustration. Sometimes free can be very expensive indeed.

When you read these words, they will be free to you ... that is to say, you're not likely to give me - or O'Reilly - money for these words. Ultimately, what I write here is an advertisement to draw you to this site, to buy books which are not free ... though they are a good value, the marketing department reminds me, a sentiment that I generally agree with :-)

Yet it is arguable whether you would choose to read these same words if they were not free. There are those, including Walter Issacson, a former publisher with TIme Magazine, who argues that the solution to the woes of the publishing industry is mandatory micropayments. You do not get these deep thoughts for free; instead, they are worth fifteen cents, in essence.

Oddly enough, I think I'd rather be read for free. At free, you are able to take the value of my judgements at their face value, to weight them on their merit, and to choose to accept or reject them on rational grounds. For fifteen cents, if you read me and disagree, you will feel like a fool for wasting your money and not listen to anything else I say, while I will feel cheap - surely my wisdom is worth far more than fifteen measly cents. At fifteen cents, ironically enough, I may make a bit of money but will likely have minimal influence on people ideas, but for free, I will be read by a far wider audience, and indeed may have people come to me for help and be willing to pay for that help.

And for my own publisher, I'm a loss leader ... people will come to read me because I make sense (or because they know I'm good for an argument), and while I'm there they will see the ads, buy the books, and attend the conferences. Moreover, as my reputation grows, the more that I draw people to my publisher, so it is in fact beneficial for me to be read by a wider audience that can increase geometrically, rather than limit it to a fairly weak linear growth. Indeed, at some point my reputation can also serve to burnish the reputation of my publisher ... I'm probably not there yet, but it never hurts to keep that in mind.

Physical things cost money. The oil you use to drive the car that you bought to drive to the house that you pay a mortgage on are all physical things - they require processing and physical materials and labour, and each of these can only be acquired via the steady application of money. Yet its worth thinking about each of these in the context of free.

We could work for free - but only until such time as we need to feed ourselves, clothe ourselves, secure that internet connection, provide for our family, or need to get health care. Of course we could barter - I'll provide writing services to my doctor if he will help me get rid of this nasty cough, or to the grocer if she will give me groceries for a week. Yet such barter is generally not transferable - the grocer may not be ill, so cannot trade medical services for groceries. Moreover, barter transactions require a process of establishing the worth, or value, of an exchange prior to that exchange being made. Is my deathless prose worth a t-bone steak? or a hamburger? What if the grocer is unhappy with the prose I wrote, but has already given me the steak? I cannot exchange it for hamburger at that point.

Ultimately, the financial crisis that exists right now is due in great part to the realization that the valuations that had been placed on things no longer hold. Some people sold the financial equivalents of what they claimed was t-bone steak, but which was, in fact, not even hamburger, and all of a sudden, the question of what exactly backs up the money that you own comes into question.

Deflation occurs when the prices of things drop. The prices of things drop when people either are holding onto their money for fear that they may not get more, or because they have no money ... or both. When the economy is good, we feel more confident in our ability to get more money in the future - this is what credit is ultimately about. Credit is a lien on these future earnings and the surety that those earnings will be sufficient to pay back the loan on a regular basis. At this stage, no one has confidence in their future earning power - not individuals, not companies, not banks, not governments.

People spend less and save more. They don't buy as much coffee, they don't go as far on trips, they don't buy cars as often and buy ones that are more fuel efficient when they do. Businesses sell fewer cars, less coffee and gasoline, less hamburgers at the fast food restaurants on the routes that people travel less frequently. Eventually, those businesses fail because the revenues do not even cover expenses. Governments are forced to cut staff and provide less service, as California is days away from doing.

What are things worth? That free software suddenly becomes quite valuable to someone - it lets governments survive with fewer civil servants, it may help distressed businesses survive with fewer people. Yet this is a dual edged sword - those are people that aren't being paid.

Would commercial software be any better here? Probably not. If the company who produced that software is enlightened, it's possible they are putting that money into R&D, but far more likely that money is being paid off to investors, either directly in the payment against loans or indirectly in the payment of dividends ... or it's being kept as a rainy day fund to buy back stock from those investors to increase the share price when times are better. Most large commercial companies have two classes of stock - preferred stock and common stock. The preferred stock is usually owned by large investors, typically representing a very small pool of very wealthy people, and it is this stock that usually pays out sizable dividends; common stock, owned usually as part of mutual funds or other "investment vehicles" by individuals, has a far more erratic dividend schedule (if it pays out at all).

That free software, on the other hand, will usually need to be adapted to a company or agency's needs. An organization that can't afford a full time employee outright can still usually pay for a programmer and/or a designer for specific needs, putting money into the hands of those who actually are performing the work. That money in turn will go toward improving the software overall, which others can then use perhaps to start their own businesses. Needs don't go away when times are tight, and someone who can use these tools to satisfy those needs is creating a business that will likely sustain itself through the hard times, and may even grow over time as more and more people make use of those services.

However, this will be accompanied by something else. Most programmers, engineers and technologists tend to be remarkably bad as business people during the boom times, because their natural inclination is to solve a problem, to help a person, or to find out why something is going wrong first, and only then think about money. This is why you find so many engineers in business as founding entrepreneurs - they build the company because they are focused on solving a problem or meeting a need.

The ones who do make it rich in the boom times are typically the ones who are adept at parting you and your money. A stock broker, an investment banker or hedge fund manager is, at the end of a day, a salesman - someone who comes to you and promises that if you give them large sums of money, they will give you even larger sums of money in return. They aren't interested in solving your problems - indeed, what they know is that if they fail, they can always blame the market ... and they will still collect their fees and bonuses.

Indeed, most CEOs past the first for a company are also sales people, and they are often adept at running successful visions of business into the ground when things get rough precisely because they are no longer focusing on solving a problem or meeting a need, but rather satisfying an investor pool and keeping the stock price attractive.

We have built a cult of personality around the CEO, the hotshot trader, the rock-star financial analyst, because they have the "bling" - the MacMansion in Connecticut with vacation homes on the Riviera and Fiji, the on-call private corporate jet, the Armani suits. They have learned the secrets of appearing successful because this is necessary to their jobs - a salesman who looks down on his luck will not inspire people with confidence in what he is selling - and because the media is attracted to the illusion of success this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy ... so long as the means exist to maintain the illusion.

We are now entering a time in which these illusions are being stripped away. Transparency in business (and transparency in government) calls into question the pretense, forces the CEO to defend the artificially inflated numbers, the governmental secretary the million dollar bathroom. As with most illusions, there is a period where people have still suspended their belief and are in denial about the reality, but that eventually gives way to anger as they realize the magnitude of the deception.

In time, imbalances correct themselves. When Obama imposed a $500,000 cap upon salaries for company officers of financial companies that took TARP money, one bank CEO warned of an imminent brain drain as bankers headed for other companies, but in truth, the warning was specious - it is likely that many of the banks will end up being nationalized at some stage, at which point salary caps are moot, and those who have benefited most (and in some respects have caused the most damage) are already on their way out.

This cap, and other corporate governance changes, will end sweeping through boardrooms worldwide, shaking the leeches and charlatans out of the system and putting in their places people who are more interested in solving problems than creating them. It won't happen immediately, and it won't happen without a lot of push back on the part of the establishment, but inertia is no longer on their side.

However, deflations also strip away other illusions - the illusion that we can continue to live without considering our impact upon the environment or upon other people we share our environment with, the illusion that some people automatically are entitled to more privilege than others, and perhaps most fundamentally, the illusion that we can get something for nothing.

We have built an economy where skill, talent and perseverance are as often as not seen as threats to be discouraged rather than traits to be prized. Invention is penalized unless it can be harnessed to ultimately produced dividends for stockholders, and patents, originally designed to protect inventors, now serve only as legal fodder for corporations. We have an economy built around the need to spend, even when the most rationale action that someone can do today is to save every penny. Not surprisingly, this economic system is collapsing.

Free software is not free - it comes with an implicit obligation that you respect the rights of its creators, and that you give something back from your use of the software, from code libraries to promotion to documentation, to the larger community. It's possible, indeed probable, that this ethos, derived by programmers and engineers to solve some very real problems, may in fact be a sound model on which to build an economy.

Provide a common framework to assure people at least a minimum foundation on which to build - a solid educational system that extends through life (and which includes opportunities to teach as well as learn), the assurance of health care at a level to assure the general fitness of the population, mechanisms to insure that people have adequate food and shelter. Establish transparency of business and governmental practices to protect against the excess accumulation of wealth, power and privilege. Require a mandatory period of public service in some capacity - not just the military, but within education, governmental IT, infrastructure development, health care, legal aid and so forth, that can be used as "payment" for advanced educational opportunities (and can also teach vital skills and can serve to round out a resume for those coming into the workforce). Provide universal access to information technologies and training in the skills to use them.

Finally, recognize that markets can only be truly free if companies are free to fail - that business investment is a risky proposition, and that no investor is guaranteed a risk free investment. Recessions are a stress test for businesses, and not all businesses will pass that test. The ones that fail free up capital, people and market opportunities that other, more effective businesses can grow into. This is as true of banks as it is of automobile manufacturers as it is of software companies, and attempts to save overlarge companies (in order to save the jobs in those companies) will only prolong this process. Companies that are too large to fail are too large to change, and will only perpetuate bad business practices for the production of obsolete products or services that can only be sustained by artificially induced "need".

None of this is new. This above "vision" in fact describes the economies of many northern European countries that have weathered the financial crisis quite well, even as the US continues to sink into recession, and that are, in many ways, technologically and socially more advanced than the United States. Not surprisingly, many of them have also been strong advocates of open source software, open standards, and agile methodologies in their programming efforts, because it's reflective of their culture overall.

Freedom is not just a political concept. A person who is beleaguered by debts acquired not by "living the good life" but just trying to meet the needs of food, shelter, clothing, and survival for herself and her family is only marginally more free than an indentured servant. She becomes fearful for her job (the only lifeline to her economic security), becomes afraid of seeking out other jobs for fear that it will jeopardize her existing job, and performs work that she may even hate because the alternative is living on the streets.

This is not freedom - this is serfdom. Serfs worked the farms of their overlords not out of loyalty, but out of the realization that not doing so would guarantee abject poverty and persecution for them. Serfdom becomes possible when economic disparities become too wide, and is incredibly destructive to the ability of a culture to adapt to an increasingly changing world. It is not something that we need to be carrying into the twenty-first century.

Feel free to leave your comments.

Kurt Cagle is an Online Editor for O'Reilly Media. You can subscribe to his articles or follow him on Twitter.

You might also be interested in:

1 Comment

Great blog. I find myself reflecting on this conundrum quite often these days. Of course, even "free" can have indirect costs, or opportunity costs.

GNU, OSF, etc would not exist without a society that has sufficient basic resources (food, water, electricity, communications infrstructure, order) to allow for the creative moment.

It will be interesting to see if the cooperative effort of todays "free" can generate enough socioeconomic development globally to support the loss in traditional transactional exchange.

Unfortunately, I think "organized" government will ultimately prove to be the undoing of these efforts...through an unwillingness to adapt to the same forces that are impacting competitive and laissez faire private economics.

News Topics

Recommended for You

Got a Question?