Thursday, January 08, 2009

Front Lines

When taxes go towards streamlining medical record keeping, the solutions obviously belong in the commons somehow. Copyleft doesn't mean "commie" it means "you paid for it already". The engineers didn't see how they could ethically sell you the same pile of bits over and over, whereas marketing had no problem with that (they live on commissions). So GNU banded with Linus and others to make the critical tool set free of charge. Only problem: it still takes a lot of skill to use them, especially well.

So when the government moves in on some disaster zone, working on collecting census information (demographics), that's not about throwing money at the private sector and saying "hey, we're too dumb to do this ourselves" (it's not about outsourcing). The government has engineers and scientists just like everyone else and contributes. Not only that, but it contributes in a generous open way that lets more private operations benefit. We call this a BSD or MIT license -- many names for it.

Other times, we're more restrictive, because we don't trust the private sector to not pirate (copyright) what wasn't theirs to begin with -- the historical pattern. Some memes are just too valuable, make too much sense, to let the moneymakers hog 'em exclusively for selfish gain, in their trademarked "legally piggily" fashion (Bucky's word for it, cite Critical Path). Governments aren't behaving mindlessly when they protect their assets from being dumbed down by scam artists, other brands of counterfeiter, snake oil salesmen or whatever.

People worried about all this wealth flowing into cyberspace, economists mostly, think it's probably misbegotten altruism, not long for this world. But the more intelligent picture is we have a layered stack with open and closed in a sandwich (like a Dagwood). The benefit of free tools is it levels the playing field, opens the game to many more talented players.

The reason economists needn't worry is there's still good old fashioned competition and the ability to keep trade secrets (secret sauces). A typical business will carve out a niche in some coral reef, e.g. Python + SQL + Django (a turf I'm familiar with), then value-add in some proprietary direction, or maybe it's just the data that's private (medical records, bank accounts, whatever transactions). The government, like IBM, like MIT, pumps new wealth into the commons, plus has its own way of keeping secrets.

The idea of governments contributing to open source projects, especially those aimed at internationalization, i.e. opening up the interfaces to local languages, keeping a distro nurturing to a nation's children, is not all that new. This ability to build some core icons into the GUI is what will help young citizens begin to learn their way about vis-a-vis their government sponsors and services.

Faculties will be assisted in forging those voluntarily alliances with agencies reaching out to assist, not just with dollars, but with state of the art teaching materials. Recruiting begins early, a high level of civic-mindedness becomes taken for granted.