New Ground on Terminology Debate?

Wednesday 23 June 2010 by Bradley M. Kuhn

(These days, ) I generally try to avoid the well-known terminology debates in our community. But, if you hang around this FLOSS world of ours long enough, you just can't avoid occasionally getting into them. I found myself in one this afternoon that spanned three identica threads. I had some new thoughts that I've shared today (and even previously) on my microblog. I thought it might be useful to write them up in one place rather than scattered across a series of microblog statements.

I gained my first new insight into the terminology issues when I had dinner with Larry Wall in early 2001 after my Master's thesis defense. It was first time I talked with him about these issues of terminology, and he said that it sounded like a good place to apply what he called the “golden rule of network protocols”: Always be conservative in what you emit and liberal in what you accept. I've recently noted again that's a good rule to follow regarding terminology.

More recently, I've realized that the FLOSS community suffers here, likely due to our high concentration of software developers and engineers. Precision in communication is a necessarily component of the lives of developers, engineers, computer scientists, or anyone in a highly technical field. In our originating fields, lack of precise and well-understood terminology can cause bridges to collapse or the wrong software to get installed and crash mission critical systems. Calling x by the name y sometimes causes mass confusion and failure. Indeed, earlier this week, I watched a PBS special, The Pluto Files, where Neil deGrasse Tyson discussed the intense debate about the planetary status of Pluto. I was actually somewhat relieved that a subtle point regarding a categorical naming is just as contentious in another area outside my chosen field. Watching the “what constitutes a planet” debate showed me that FLOSS hackers are no different than most other scientists in this regard. We all take quite a bit of pride in our careful (sometimes pedantic) care in terminology and word choice; I know I do, anyway.

However, on the advocacy side of software freedom (the part that isn't technical), our biggest confusion sometimes stems from an assumption that other people's word choice is as necessarily as precise as ours. Consider the phrase “open source”, for example. When I say “open source”, I am referring quite exactly to a business-focused, apolitical and (frankly) amoral0 interest in, adoption of, and contribution to FLOSS. Those who coined the term “open source” were right about at least one thing: it's a term that fits well with for-profit interests who might otherwise see software freedom as too political.

However, many non-business users and developers that I talk to quite clearly express that they are into this stuff precisely because there are principles behind it: namely, that FLOSS seeks to make a better world by giving important rights to users and programmers. Often, they are using the phrase “open source” as they express this. I of course take the opportunity to say: it's because those principles are so important that I talk about software freedom. Yet, it's clear they already meant software freedom as a concept, and just had some sloppy word choice.

Fact is, most of us are just plain sloppy with language. Precision isn't everyone's forte, and as a software freedom advocate (not a language usage advocate), I see my job as making sure people have the concepts right even if they use words that don't make much sense. There are times when the word choices really do confuse the concepts, and there are other times when they don't. Sometimes, it's tough to identify which of the two is occurring. I try to figure it out in each given situation, and if I'm in doubt, I just simplify to the golden rule of network protocols.

Furthermore, I try to have faith in our community's intelligence. Regardless of how people get drawn into FLOSS: be it from the moral software freedom arguments or the technical-advantage-only open source ones, I don't think people stop listening immediately upon their arrival in our community. I know this even from my own adoption of software freedom: I came for the Free as in Price, but I stayed for the Free as in Freedom. It's only because I couldn't afford a SCO Unix license in 1992 that I installed GNU/Linux. But, I learned within just a year why the software freedom was what mattered most.

Surely, others have a similar introduction to the community: either drawn in by zero-cost availability or the technical benefits first, but still very interested to learn about software freedom. My goal is to reach those who have arrived in the community. I therefore try to speak almost constantly about software freedom, why it's a moral issue, and why I work every day to help either reduce the amount of proprietary software, or increase the amount of Free Software in the world. My hope is that newer community members will hear my arguments, see my actions, and be convinced that a moral and ethical commitment to software freedom is the long lasting principle worth undertaking. In essence, I seek to lead by example as much as possible.

Old arguments are a bit too comfortable. We already know how to have them on autopilot. I admit myself that I enjoy having an old argument with a new person: my extensive practice often yields an oratorical advantage. But, that crude drive is too much about winning the argument and not enough about delivering the message of software freedom. Occasionally, a terminology discussion is part of delivering that message, but my terminology debate tools box has a “use with care” written on it.

0 Note that here, too, I took extreme care with my word choice. I mean specifically amorality — merely an absence of any moral code in particular. I do not, by any stretch, mean immoral.

Posted on Wednesday 23 June 2010 at 18:55 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 with my wife, it may not be so obvious that these aren't her views and opinions, either.

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