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PHOTO: Alicia Solsman

Sourcing the Community

The Sanctuary for Independent Media’s open-source workshop is all about utilizing the oldest resource around

By Chet Hardin

Michael Rabinovich, a software designer in his mid-20s, has his laptop cabled to a projector, and the first slide of the presentation he has spent weeks preparing fills a small, white screen. He watches anxiously as people file into the backroom at Troy’s Sanctuary for Independent Media. Behind him, lounging with computers in their laps, soaking up the free bandwidth, sit Armando Di Cianno and Andrew Andkjar, coworkers of Rabinovich at a small, start-up technology company. The two casual coders have his back, and throughout the next four hours will jump in to help Rabinovich lead a discussion on the exciting range of open-source software’s technological, political, and economic promise.

But first, Rabinovich asks the assembled: What is it you would like to know about open-source software?

“There are a dozen pieces of software to compete with Photoshop,” a woman says. “How do you know what to download?”

The writer wants a word processor that performs simply and effectively, “not like the crap they got out now.” The unemployed college student is interested in open-source software for financial reasons. The Perl developer wants to make his living without being tied to Microsoft.

“I don’t know much about open source,” an older woman volunteers, “but I know one thing for sure—I hate Microsoft.”

Everyone agrees. Microsoft sucks.

“I think we can answer most of your questions,” Rabinovich says.

Di Cianno chuckles.

“Hopefully,” Rabinovich concedes, and he launches into the history of open source, starting in the mid-1970s, with an MIT hacker and some flaky proprietary printer drivers.

“The future of software wasn’t necessarily proprietary,” Rabinovich says. Back in those days, hardware was king and software was secondary. Few people were thinking about the thousands of ways to make money off of software; they were just thinking about making the hardware work. The future was wide open; people freely shared their code. When proprietary software started to take off, it was considered by many as an affront to progress.

In 1998, when Netscape, once a frontrunner in the Web-browsing software racket, was collapsing, it decided to release the source code for its browser.

“It was a swan song,” Rabinovich says. And from the open sourcing of the Netscape code, Mozilla was born.

Mozilla is the producer of the incredibly popular Web browser Firefox. This browser is arguably the most well-known piece of open-source software around. People use it without even thinking about the political or social implications of the software, Rabinovich says. “It is well known simply because it works beautifully, and is extremely accessible.”

“Software that functions supremely is a natural outcome of the open-source development process,” Rabinovich adds, “and if regular people choose to dig down a little deeper and realize that Firefox is actually open source, they will probably be only slightly surprised. As more and more software is developed by using open-source methodologies, people will be less surprised every time.”

This is one of seven such workshops offered this spring by the Sanctuary as a part of its Be the Media series. The goal of the workshops, as described by Steve Pierce, is to move forward the promise of new-media technologies, in which people are not just passive consumers, but active participants. “Where people aren’t just looking at the works other people produce,” he says, “but produce the work themselves.”

“With the explosion of information technology in our lives, we think that it is a liberating force. And it is not,” Branda Miller adds. “These media tools are just tools like anything else. And we need to think of old-fashioned tools like community building, social networking, the relationship of a local place and how that connects to a virtual space.”

“I think there is a growing consciousness that there is some sort of scam that people are trapped in with all of this incredibly seductive technology,” she says. “And part of this workshop is about waking up.”

People who have been bred to be software purchasers are realizing that this is not right, says Pierce, and the attraction of open-source is that it offers an honest, free alternative. “If you just participate, pay attention, if are a participant in the process and not just a consumer, than you will get more out of it. You will have control.”

And control is definitely what people have come for today. The concern over who exactly controls their computers is palpable. The continual updates, downloads, patches, though not necessarily nefarious, leave this crowd with the sense that someone else, someone they don’t trust at all, is doing something suspicious with their computers—spying on them, manipulating them, cheating them out of money and time.

Miller agrees that most people simply don’t trust the media giants, and thinks that the interest in open-source software is indicative of a larger media-reform movement. The tools are available for people to create their media, their own news, and avoid the currently oppressive system that propped up by the almighty dollar.

It’s this freedom from corporate constraints, the intellectual freedom that open-source software presents that is so appealing to Rabinovich and his cohorts. They talk excitedly about Venezuela, and how that country has just passed an open-source law, transitioning all of its public agencies to open-source software.

They mention how the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has brought the principle of the free exchange of information ingrained in open source to its academic knowledge by offering OpenCourseWare. With OCW, MIT has made much of its course material available online, completely free.

“So we can take college courses for free?” an attendee asks.

“Yes,” Rabinovich replies.

“Great!”

“Except,” Andkjar adds, “you don’t get the degree.”

“Big deal!” the attendee dismisses. “You get the information!”

chardin@metroland.net

For more information about the Sanctuary for Independent Media’s ongoing Be The Media workshop series, visit www.the sanctuaryforindependentmedia.org.


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