Without a Traceroute

Time to live.

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Personal Statement

The first computer I ever used was our family’s Gateway 2000. It had a 16 MHz 386SX processor, 2 megs of RAM and a 40 megabyte hard drive. It accepted both the large 5.25 inch floppies, and the newer 3.5 inch variety. For an operating system, it ran MS-DOS 5 and Windows 3.0. It was my mother who recognized early on the importance of computers to her son’s education and pushed for our family to save up and purchase one. When we got that first PC in 1991, home computers were still something of a rarity. Neither of my parents is particularly technical, but I think they enjoyed being early computer-adopters. I can remember using early dial-up bulletin board services that predated the World Wide Web. I have fond memories of playing old DOS shareware games downloaded from those BBSes.

While in grade school, I took a programming class for kids at the local community college. The idea that it was possible to write your own programs—to make the computer do exactly what you wanted it to do—came as a revelation to me. At school, I tinkered with the example games included with the QBasic programming language. I wrote new levels, modified parameters like speed and gravity, and added messages to the games to taunt my friends when they died.

I remained interested in computers through high school. I played games, occasionally wrote programs or built small websites. At college, I took a job working for the IT department, providing technical support for students and faculty at the school. I enjoy my job and I learned a great deal about computers doing it, but the epiphany that led to my Watson project only occurred last year.

In preparation for studying abroad in London, I decided I would need to get a laptop to take with me. I had always used a desktop in the past, and I didn’t have a lot of money to spend on a brand-new laptop. I bought a four-year old laptop used from a friend. Running Windows XP, the computer was so slow it was almost unusable. In an effort to squeeze more performance out the aging hardware, I decided to try installing Linux, an operating system like Windows or Mac OS, but with the distinction of being available entirely free of charge. After doing some research, I selected Xubuntu—a version of Linux with a reputation for performing well on old computers. Once I overcame some initial setup difficulties, I was quite pleased with the results. While my old laptop will never be a screamer, using Linux I was perfectly able to complete all of my day-to-day computer tasks: browsing the internet, writing papers, watching movies.

While I started using Linux for purely technical reasons, I soon became intrigued by the philosophy behind it. How could it be that all this software was provided completely free?

The difference between Linux and other operating systems like Windows or Mac OS X is that where those operating systems are developed by for-profit companies, Linux is developed by a worldwide community of volunteers. Linux is one of the most prominent examples of what is known as “free software”. It is important to note that when free software advocates say “free” they are not talking about price, but rather liberty. An oft-repeated explanation is that free software means free as in “free speech” rather than free as “free beer”. This confusion is a quirk of the English language, French and Spanish speakers naturally make the distinction between libre and gratis.

The GNU project, led by Richard Stallman, has outlined what he considers to be the four essential freedoms in software. They are as follows: “1) The freedom to run the program, for any purpose. 2) The freedom to study how the program works, and adapt it to your needs. 3) The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor. 4) The freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements to the public, so that the whole community benefits.”1 These are the freedoms that matter for free software; price is only a secondary consequence.

Coming from the world of proprietary software, where one is accustomed to thinking of software as a product, these are truly radical ideas. Free software is fundamentally different from the shareware games I used to download, which I could obtain for free, but not modify to suit my interests, and even from the QBasic games I used to tinker with, but which still belonged to Microsoft.

Free software like Linux allows me to do anything I want with my computer. It encourages creativity, exploration, and community. Since I first started using Linux, I have become an active participant in the ongoing social experiment that is free software. I post regularly on Linux message boards, helping other users find solutions to their problems. I test new software and submit bug reports to the developers. One of the most amazing things about free software is that if you encounter a glitch, frequently you can email the person who actually wrote the program and they will fix the problem in a matter of days. I even wrote and released my own small program to automatically alphabetize the icons on the desktop, when I couldn’t find an existing easy way to do so.

The idea that something as seemingly mundane as software could stir such passion may seem strange, but it can, and does. The issues at stake in free software are fundamental ones: freedom of choice, freedom of speech, freedom of expression. In an increasingly computer-oriented world, the issues that affect our software affect us.

Most people probably never consider the moral dimensions of their software use. Many people probably don’t even consider that software use could have a moral dimension. Users of proprietary software surrender essential aspects of their freedom to the companies that wrote the software. Today, when you buy a piece of software from the store, you aren’t even buying that program, only a license to use that program, and that license dictates what you can and cannot do with that software. Your data may be stored in proprietary formats that lock you into using only that company’s products to access it, or forcing you to upgrade to the newer version of their software because the cost of switching to a competing product is too high.

Even if you’ve never used Linux, or any other free software, you have likely benefited from free software. The internet was built using free software and open protocols. The Apache free web server has been the most popular server on the internet since 1996. Google uses their own customized version of Linux to run their servers. Competition from free software drives down prices and forces innovation, which benefits even those who don’t use free software themselves.

The restrictions inherent in proprietary software hurt the users of that software. In the name of preventing piracy and protecting the bottom line, they infringe on the rights of consumers. Free software offers an alternative, providing choice and freedom for users of software. In my Watson project, I want to meet with others who share my sense of dissatisfaction, and see what solutions they have to offer.

1 http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/free-sw.html

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