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PowerToGNU: Linux and why free software hasn't given power to the people... yet

Con Kolivas has quit developing for the Linux kernel. He had made some very appreciated performance improvements for desktops, and quit because without a way to quantify these improvements in a test, they were not being accepted by the full-time developers, who are mostly employed by major users of Linux for giant servers.

This is an important point for every open source free software project, no matter how friendly we think we are:

I think the kernel developers at large haven't got the faintest idea just how big the problems in userspace are. It is a very small brave minority that are happy to post to lkml, and I keep getting users telling me on IRC, in person, and via my own mailing list, what their problems are. And they've even become fearful of me, even though I've never viewed myself as a real kernel developer.

Giving users power – as in we're looking to them for our next paycheck – sure might make them a bit bolder and all of us developers a bit more responsive to their diffuse needs.

That's what we at Agaric hope the forthcoming PowerToGNU and PowerToDrupal web sites can help do, simply by joining a central place to post needs and wishes with a central place to contribute and receive money or other resources.

The need for regular people to have power is true not just in political affairs and not just in software development, but across the economic spectrum. This need for regular people to have more power isn't about abstract philosophical beliefs but because things would be better.

That's all I could think about when I read the following. Kolivas described the golden era of computing hardware innovation in the 1980s, and then said:

Hardware has since become subservient to the operating system. It started around 1994 and is just as true today 13 years later. Worse yet, all the hardware manufacturers slowly bought each other out, further shrinking the hardware choices. So now the hardware manufacturers just make faster and bigger versions of everything that has been done before. We're still plugging in faster CPUs, more RAM, bigger hard drives, faster graphics cards and sound cards just to service the operating system. Hardware driven innovation cannot be afforded by the market any more. There is no money in it. There will be no market for it. Computers are boring.

The result:

the desktop PC is crap. It's rubbish. The experience is so bloated and slowed down in all the things that matter to us. We all own computers today that were considered supercomputers 10 years ago. 10 years ago we owned supercomputers of 20 years ago.. and so on. So why on earth is everything so slow? If they're exponentially faster why does it take longer than ever for our computers to start, for the applications to start and so on? Sure, when they get down to the pure number crunching they're amazing (just encode a video and be amazed). But in everything else they must be unbelievably slower than ever.

PowerToExchange is the PWGD philosophy applied to the market. Even before we get to the greatest problem of deadly unfair inequality of wealth, there are major coordination problems that prevent human needs from being taken into account in economic decisions made within our global human society every day.

This is a huge question. How do we aggregate the needs of large or even small numbers of people so that what is best for everyone actually gets done?

I was arguing with my grandfather about medicine patents. He argued they were necessary for the resources to be spent on developing new medicines. Anything else would be "the end of democracy" (which apparently means market capitalism to someone who has grown up with 50 years of cold war propaganda), with the government running industry. I argued that the monopoly patent system is just a way of the government giving drug comparies money, enforcing a right to extort money from sick people. (I wish I'd thought to say the sick people line; it makes it sound so terrible.)

Instead, I argued, we could certainly devise a way to fund research (which the government does a lot of anyway) and the costs of making something reproducible and distributable on a large scale without the obscene profits, vast expenditures on marketing and bribing doctors, manufacturing illnesses to fit the medicine, incentive to make minor changes to extend a patent rather than true advances, and inefficiency in scientific collaboration caused by outlawing for patented ideas the natural process of extending and building on others' ideas.

But: we do need to devise that better way.

It's awful to admit, but a system that works with obscene injustice is better than no system at all, or a system that doesn't function.

Sure, the drug companies or rather the pharmaceutical industry including all the government participation is horrible in many ways, but it succeeds in some core functions.

We need to prove we can get things done in other ways. Hobbyist hacking plus large company investments exemplified by GNU-Linux is a powerful combination and has resulted in great things and proven the possibility of non-proprietary innovation reaching many users. It can't be forgotten that the politically motivated software development of many, many people, including a certain Richard Stallman, was and is absolutely essential for every part of what is known as the Linux phenomena. More to the point here, GNU-Linux's success is hardly proof yet that medicine could be done the same way. The organic growth of any free software project does not naturally – in a political, economic, and legal environment built by and for proprietary gain – attract the level of involvement, of work-hours, typically at the command of governments and corporations. The development model is superior in so many ways, it's no question what we want. If the funding model were anywhere close, freedom would reign for any field involving ideas and we'd be that much closer to justice.

Con Kolivas pointed out some very important difficulties from the inside of Linux kernel development that my Dad could have diagnosed without knowing anything about software: follow the money. Who pays? Who is really in control? This always matters in the long run. and other PowerTo websites are a beginning to answer this challenge with how can we do free software or medicine research right.

How can we fund innovation that is available to all?

How do we fund innovation that puts everybody's needs first, not just the needs of big players?

How do we give power to the people, to ourselves?

This transcends a little bit the question of markets. We are in a money-based system, so we're expecting to talk about getting money to the people who do the work. But PowerTo, like PWGD, is at its root about coordinating and planning in ways that are best for everyone. This could be the type of tool that a true participatory democracy could choose to use or, rather, what I'm really trying to say is that mass, uncoerced coordination isn't a method for reaching a single goal (overthrow an unjust economic system, start a club) but is the way in which we can organize ourselves.

Largescale coordination whenever we need to is how we can live free lives, get rid of unjust structures of authority, and not ever be held hostage by corporations or governments saying "only we with our size, our hierarchy, our coercion can do what you need or want; you'll have to take all that bad karma and pay us our taxes and fees and we'll still only give you what we want to give you anyway."

Open source free software is a better development model and it increases people's true freedom, and the same principles apply to many other aspects of life, in particular anything that has to do with ideas– so any important business.

If we can get the funding model down, so that the resource gap is closed between free and proprietary approaches, there will be no contest.

Especially if we can ensure the funding model gives control to the people affected (in the software and most senses, users), we have a fantastic double-power behind improving people's lives.

The free rider problem ("well, if I don't put money in, someone will and I can still benefit") though real is not the fundamental problem here. The ease with which you can actually put up money for what you want, and expect it to make a difference, is the problem.

I, and I'm sure others, will fund what they want and need. Surely sick people and their friends and family are interested in funding medicine and cures. I really think that the tools for this aggregation of needs and desires can be made in Drupal and can have quite an effect, if enough people can see the potential.

The pay once, have forever approach implied by funding development of free software is very preferable to me in any case, and I hope to others. You and others pay again when you need another feature or a bug fixed. We could also let people sponsor what they like on a monthly basis if they like.

It's a problem of coordination. The point of the tools are to make decentralization work better, but the tools themselves have to be in some way centralized, to make it work efficiently. So the tools themselves must be open source free software, transparently used, and ideally implemented by a not-for-profit. So PWGD in coordination with PowerToExchange, perhaps.

That's the dream, folks. Now back to making a living in open source free software by using it to build things people need: web sites, of course, in Agaric's case. Although by now I'm sure Dan broke up the collective...


And another in the field

FOSS Factory is the only website where the community collaborates on every aspect of free/open source software production, including design, funding and development. Our mission is to help accelerate the advancement of free/open source software.

Haven't researched it yet.

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