I went to the Software Freedom Day 2008 event in Boston today. It was a good opportunity to learn about the fascinating things people are doing with free software (and free culture ideas in general), as well as to learn about some of the major threats to our freedom, and some things we can do about them. Thanks to everyone who was involved.
Some nifty things:
- Máirín Duffy spoke about how she makes, among other things, the Fedora Project's artwork (web graphics, signage, CDs, etc.) using only free software tools. This is a shining example of how users of free software gain autonomy: her clients can fix up or update her work instead of having to ask her to do it. This would be much more difficult if those people, who are not graphics professionals, had to shell out $1100 for Adobe Creative Suite. Open formats are a huge plus, too: being able to programmatically modify images at a high level is a huge time-saver.
- CHDK is free firmware which supplements the firmware in some Canon digital cameras. People are using it to add all kinds of awesome new features to the camera, such as battery meters (not available on low-end cameras), RAW support, live histograms, focus and exposure bracketing, automatic photography of lightning, and reversi. And high speed photography which, seriously, looks like some of those Doc Edgerton strobe photos, except they were taken using a $100 digital camera.
- "What if Wikipedia only allowed you to enter statements that were true?" Cameron Freer is building vdash.org, which will be a wiki of computer-verifiable proofs. Imagine: our kids might learn math out of interactive textbooks where you could click on any step in a proof and ask "Why?" and it would expand to fill in the gaps in the proof. That would almost be straight out of The Diamond Age.
- Aaron Swartz talked about his newest venture, watchdog.net, "a hub for data about politics". But he also talked more generally about the somewhat unconventional ways in which he is trying to coordinate people to help get public data onto the internet. The idea that there are certain kinds of knowledge that rightfully belong to "us" (the public) and not any one single entity is quite refreshing in this age of government/institutional opacity.
Now, for the bad news. The two most talked-about threats to free software were mobile phones and DRM. The big two software makers have done a good job of convincing people that they shouldn't care about freedom on phones because it's "just a phone". But if you think of all the things you can do on phones nowadays, you realize that you really don't want to surrender your autonomy there, regardless of what your phone maker claims. DRM is a little better. It has been somewhat widely discredited in a number of high-profile incidents now. Sadly, that doesn't keep people from trying it.
Advocating free software should be easy, right? (Ed.: apparently, no.) After all, the big proprietary software companies have made huge missteps lately. They just can't stop making their software more and more restrictive and obnoxious! Not to take pride in the misfortune of their customers, but I believe there is a good chance that in the short term future it will become increasingly clear to many "ordinary folks" that proprietary software is not just a theoretical hazard but a real liability. Multiply that danger by the pervasiveness of software in our everyday lives and business, an extent which probably even most technically-minded people fail to completely appreciate. So I believe that projects like Mako Hill's Revealing Errors are a critical link in helping people, especially non-technical people, understand the importance of free software.
Happy 25th birthday to GNU! Richard Stallman gave a lightning talk about the story of GNU, among other things. To hear it from the horse's mouth on this anniversary helped to put in perspective how far we have come in the last 25 years, and how far we still have to go. (Boy, do I feel odd personally identifying with a movement that is older than I am.) May the next 25 years be just as productive.