Kuhn's Paradox

Friday 19 February 2016 by Bradley M. Kuhn

I've been making the following social observation frequently in my talks and presentations for the last two years. While I suppose it's rather forward of me to do so, I've decide to name this principle:

Kuhn's Paradox

For some time now, this paradoxical principle appears to hold: each day, more lines of freely licensed code exist than ever before in human history; yet, it also becomes increasingly more difficult each day for users to successfully avoid proprietary software while completing their necessary work on a computer.

Kuhn's View On Motivations & Causes of Kuhn's Paradox

I believe this paradox is primarily driven by the cooption of software freedom by companies that ostensibly support Open Source, but have the (now extremely popular) open source almost everything philosophy.

For certain areas of software endeavor, companies dedicate enormous resources toward the authorship of new Free Software for particular narrow tasks. Often, these core systems provide underpinnings and fuel the growth of proprietary systems built on top of them. An obvious example here is OpenStack: a fully Free Software platform, but most deployments of OpenStack add proprietary features not available from a pure upstream OpenStack installation.

Meanwhile, in other areas, projects struggle for meager resources to compete with the largest proprietary behemoths. Large user-facing, server-based applications of the Service as a Software Substitute variety, along with massive social media sites like Twitter and Facebook that actively work against federated social network systems, are the two classes of most difficult culprits on this point. Even worse, most traditional web sites have now become a mix of mundane content (i.e., HTML) and proprietary Javascript programs, which are installed on-demand into the users' browser all day long, even while most of those servers run a primarily Free Software operating system.

Finally, much (possibly a majority of) computer use in industrialized society is via hand-held mobile devices (usually inaccurately described as “mobile phones”). While some of these devices have Free Software operating systems (i.e., Android/Linux), nearly all the applications for all of these devices are proprietary software.

The explosion of for-profit interest in “Open Source” over the last decade has led us to this paradoxical problem, which increases daily — because the gap between “software under a license respects my rights to copy, share, and modify” and “software that's essential for my daily activities” grows linearly wider with each sunset.

I propose herein no panacea; I wish I had one to offer. However, I believe the problem is exacerbated by our community's tendency to ignore this paradox, and its pace even accelerates due to many developers' belief that having a job writing any old Free Software replaces the need for volunteer labor to author more strategic code that advances software freedom.

Linksvayer's View On Motivations & Causes of Kuhn's Paradox

Linksvayer agrees the paradox is observable, but disagrees with me regarding the primary motivations and causes. Linksvayer claims the following are the primary motivations and causes of Kuhn's paradox:

  1. Software is becoming harder to avoid.
  2. Proprietary vendors outcompete relatively decentralized free software efforts to put software in hands of people.
  3. The latter may be increasing or decreasing. But even if the latter is decreasing, the former trumps it.

    Note the competition includes competition to control policy, particularly public policy. Unfortunately most Free Software activists appear to be focused on individual (thus dwarfish) heroism and insider politics rather than collective action.

I rewrote Linksvayer's text slightly from a comment made to this blog post to include it in the main text, as I find his arguments regarding causes as equally plausible as mine.

As an Apologia for the possibility that Linksvayer means me spending too much time on insider politics, I believe that the cooption I discussed above means that the seemingly broad base of support we could use for the collective action Linksvayer recommends is actually tiny. In other words, most people involved with Free Software development now are not Free Software activists. (Compare it to 20 years ago, when rarely did you find a Free Software developer who wasn't also a Free Software activist.) Therefore, one central part of my insider politics work is to recruit moderate Open Source enthusiasts to become radical Free Software activists.

Posted on Friday 19 February 2016 at 18:00 by Bradley M. Kuhn.

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Both previously and presently, I have been employed by and/or done work for various organizations that also have views on Free, Libre, and Open Source Software. As should be blatantly obvious, this is my website, not theirs, so please do not assume views and opinions here belong to any such organization. Since I do co-own ebb.org with my wife, it may not be so obvious that these aren't her views and opinions, either.

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