I’ve been thinking about what we learned about freedom from the open-source movement.
I think one of the more important benefits of freedom is that it is generative. You can glue things together in ways that create completely new things. For example, you can take the Internet, existing computers and the ability to write software (originally the Mosaic browser) and create a whole new ecosystem – the World Wide Web.
What if you didn’t have the freedom to transmit arbitrary data on wires? You’d have the telco monopoly and no Internet. If you couldn’t talk to anybody you want? You’d get the original walled-garden AOL. If you couldn’t write arbitrary software?
But there’s nothing specific to software in this lesson. What if you couldn’t freely associate? If you couldn’t invest in arbitrary ideas? If someone else made the decisions for you?
Another question is how much could we go beyond the current state of affairs. I think we could have significantly more freedom in technology and obtain much richer outcomes.
For example, if reputations systems were not stuck in walled gardens, such as eBay and Amazon seller ratings, we could have a global reputation system. Such a system will be immensely more useful, since it could be used to guide us in every interaction rather than just the current 1%. I would guess that such a system could guide you to interesting content and interaction with uncanny accuracy. Such a system would have to be decentralized and user-controlled to protect the users’ interests.
Another promising direction is the Google Android phone OS. If you buy one of the unlocked ones (also known as dev phones), you can re-compile and install the OS and any applications you want. Google maps is one mobile killer app, but there will be more, and I would guess the truly groundbreaking ones will not pass the iPhone store gateway keepers. (see here, here and many others).
I sometime pay a price for being an early adopter and eschewing closed solutions. Yes, the iPhone is very slick and music from the iTunes store was tempting even when it was all DRM. But I think in the long term open solutions will be much more valuable. The original AOL was nice for the time, but it’s dead now.