IT HAS long been a cherished goal of radicals to own the means of production. While Ubuntu is software libre, it is not entirely in the public domain. Instead, protected by the Free Software Foundation’s GNU license scheme, the software is released periodically to a community of computer users around the world who enjoy all the benefits of free applications such as Mozilla Firefox, Sun OpenOffice and Rythmnbox but instead of being simply consumers of software, bound by the legal quagmire of Intellectual Property law that continues to strangle innovation, each user is considered an important part of the “liberatory process” by which all may participate in the collective production of the operating system. In fact, users are encouraged to make copies of the OS and to give the software away, and as one quickly learns on the Ubuntu forums and Ubuntu brainstorm, the best way to get anything done, is to do it yourself.
This is part and parcel of the Ubuntu Linux experience, marketed as “Linux for Human Beings” and is a complete reversal of the old way of doing things, in which large corporations such as Apple or IBM delivered the holy sacrament of the operating system for which users had to part with their hard-earned cash. How is all of this possible?
Well for starters, there is the Linux kernel on which Ubuntu is based. The Linux Foundation is responsible for the kernel development and those with the inclination may join the kernel development mailing list and participate in the process by which code is derived. Then there is the Free Desktop. Not one but several. Ubuntu contains Gnome by default, but there are also variations such as KDE and XFCE. Each with a loyal following. If desktop development doesn’t appeal to you, then there are the free applications. About 25 000 individual pieces which make up the upstream Debian distribution which finds its way into Ubuntu via a unique package management system called synaptic.
Is anything actually Ubuntu aside from the wallpaper and boot logon screen? This is not simply a rhetorical question. Canonical, the company tasked by founder Mark Shuttleworth, to oversee the development of the distribution of Ubuntu, is adamant that the community should give energy back to the community process and not simply leech off the development of those who have gone before. Once criticized for not doing enough upstream in the development of the kernel, Canonical now sits on the Linux Foundation board and plays a critical role in the progress of new development such as the notification scheme which assists developers in integrating applications on the Gnome desktop.
The result is very different from what one might expect from a community which appears to have made good on the old Marxist notion that workers should not simply take ownership of the means of production but change the mode of production too (the way things are produced) in order to lead better lives. Ubuntu, instead of simply giving “workers” more power and say over what they produce, has actually taken things a step further, in effect transforming the mode in which production occurs by adhering to the following principles:
- Every computer user should have the freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, share, change, and improve their software for any purpose, without paying licensing fees.
- Every computer user should be able to use their software in the language of their choice.
- Every computer user should be given every opportunity to use software, even if they work under a disability.
Similar in essence to the four key principles of the Free Software Foundation , the result is the production of a unique free and open source software system which takes the principle of Ubuntu outlined by Nelson Mandela and the Mandela Foundation to heart. Ubuntu has thus become one of the major Linux distributions by sticking to its guns and is rapidly taking over the market for operating systems previously held by Microsoft and Apple. This is not simply because Ubuntu is better, but because the experience is a lot more inclusive and less alienating than the “consumer technology experience” users have with the competition.
Try making a suggestion for improvement to Microsoft Windows? Think about communicating with the Apple company? The difference between the overtly capitalist machinations of profit-making versus the egalitarian and social goals of Ubuntu are stark and somewhat extreme. Exchanging the corporate blue of Microsoft for the ubiquitous brown of Ubuntu, one moves from being a consumer at the mercy of a large corporation to a producer of a collective software project. The revolution takes some getting used to, but in the end, the process is rewarding.
The beauty of Ubuntu is that one can compile software from source, allowing unique adjustments to be made which benefit the ad hoc way in which modern computer hardware is produced. In effect, one is able to tailor-make a system to the similar degree of precision one finds on an Apple Macintosh, and the end-result is more speed and a far cry from Windows.
Ubuntu is thus changing the mode of production from cradle to cradle, from a system based upon capitalist exploitation to a system based upon mutual shared interest and voluntary cooperation. Will it succeed in altering the modus vivendi behind capitalist accumulation by preserving online freedom for future generations? The rapid pace of development has made Ubuntu more popular but also less of a tight-knit community. As new converts arrive, they find a confusing array of information left behind by the Ubuntu collective in its biannual production cycle. As most new-comers are surprised to learn, Ubuntu Linux is constantly updated and there are new releases once every six months.
This is part of the overall Linux philosophy of “release early, release often” and one can be forgiven for thinking Ubuntu Linux users to be a bit mad, since it would appear that they build systems which they break in order to move from one release to the next. (Please see my solution on Brainstorm) Will such a free and open community survive the inevitable strain on communication as each success brings with it new problems and challenges?
Aside from criticism about the complexity of the processes involved and the relentless pursuit of progress, one can always hope that we are moving from a society based upon greed to a society based upon sharing and cooperation. Freedom, it would appear, has won the day for now, and in the face of abject poverty, the open source community is defying a world in which the majority of the earth’s population are still enslaved by large corporations who continue to practice a form of exploitation and monetary accumulation best left behind in the Twentieth Century. Will Ubuntu make a difference in the end?
Our rights to share, create and produce software unencumbered by restraints on intellectual property deserve to become the basis for a new society whose existence can be measured by the thousands of postings online, from sites which offer free ubuntu tutorials, to pages of instructions on how to go about modifying Ubuntu. Ubuntu is thus not merely a philosophy, but an example of the way in which society may be transformed, a blueprint for the future. It is up to us, Ubuntu users everywhere, to carry the flame to new heights, to open source the entire economy so that the revolution in the world of software may make its way into the hardware — the real nuts and bolts that drive our civilisation.
— David Robert Lewis