The Distributist Review - Three Acres and a Penguin: Why Distributists Should Try Linux

Originally published by Bill Powell at The Distributist Review.

Gripe, gripe, gripe. Globalization swallows the globe. Monsanto poisons your popcorn. Big Business and Big Government team up to embed RFID tracking chips in schoolkids. And distributists love to hate the whole mess. Cheers!

Well, friends, I have good news. Linux. It's time to free your computer.

Have you heard of Linux? Maybe you went to download Firefox (a free web browser), clicked around, and noticed that after "Windows" and "Mac" there was "Linux", with a little penguin. (His name is Tux.) Maybe you're periodically forced to interact with your IT department, and you've overheard "Linux" as they discuss their arcane secrets. Maybe you're way ahead of me, and are irritated because I'm probably not going to mention OpenBSD.

Or maybe you have no clue what I'm talking about. What is Linux? Basically, Linux is a pile of programs that lets you take your computer, strip it down to the bare hardware, and start fresh. Linux is an alternative operating system . If you just download Firefox, you're still in Microsoft Windows or OS X. When you download Linux, you're in Linux.

Why is this good news for distributists? Because Linux is free . Not only "free as in beer," but far more importantly, "free as in speech." You can download Linux and use it as you will. You can try free alternatives for almost any task you can think of: email, browser, word processor, spreadsheet, graphic design, typesetting, games, and many more. You can customize most of these programs, as well as the overall window manager, beyond your wildest pre-Linux dreams. You can also remove any application that annoys you. (Try removing IE.)

You can even read the source code; and if that sounds silly, you can rest assured that thousands of other programmers do read the source code. Why does this matter? Computer programs are made up of hundred, thousands, or millions of lines of code, and in the world of Microsoft or Apple, that code is proprietary . It's generally illegal to read the code unless you work for Microsoft or Apple. In fact, when you buy the program, you don't even get the source code. You only get (no, you rent) the computer-readable binary code, which looks like gibberish and can't be altered. It works (hopefully) but you are not allowed to know how. Or fix it.

Imagine if you could only fill your car with gas from Exxon. Or only get an oil change at the dealership. Or if it was illegal to open the hood of your car unless you worked for the manufacturer. Even if you had no desire to be your own car mechanic, these rules would seem a bit draconian.

So why this paroxysm of intellectual property law for computer software? It's understandable; when advances in computing made it possible for companies to sell software to non-programmers, they quickly noted that you could pay a hundred thousand dollars to develop a vital program, and your competition could copy it the next day. They thought sharing wouldn't work. They were wrong.

Whether the proprietary model is moral is beyond my allotted portion. It's certainly obvious that, permissible or not, it drastically curtails the freedom of the user. It seriously tips the balance of power towards the corporation. How would you feel about a brake job if it was illegal to have a rival company check up on the work? You probably store plenty of private information on the same computer that mysteriously connects you to the Internet; wouldn't you prefer that this computer had no secrets?

Linux is exciting because it turns the proprietary model on its head, and it works . Linux is often called open source or simply free (or libre) software ; the basic idea is that you can read the code, tweak it, add to it, re-release it, even charge money for it. For instance, I charge money for customizing an installation of web site software. You get a web site that's based on a common, powerful, well-supported program, but I make it unique for you. Anyone can do anything they like with the code except try to lock up the portions they used. The code stays free.

So where does all this code come from? Why do programmers spend millions of hours on code they will give away?

This also should excite distributists. Free software is a unique ecosystem. (I'm going to stop saying "Linux" now; it sounds cooler than "free software," but it actually has a definite technical meaning, and it isn't the only free OS in town, either.) A program is not like an apple. If I share my apple with you, we each only get half. (Which is why it matters who owns an apple tree.) If I share my program, we both have a full copy; and I benefit from your feedback.

Every program's niche is different. Many programs happen simply because the programmers want or need them. Major programs might be the work of a non-profit foundation, as with Apache (which runs more than half the servers on the Internet), or subsidized by a for-profit company so the code can be reused elsewhere, as with OpenOffice.org (a free office suite which also runs on Windows or a Mac). Some companies offer free software, and charge money for support. Some programmers seem to live on donations and advertising. People do what works.

Chesterton fought for economic liberty, and knew it was bound up with political liberty. Today, he would say that both are bound up with digital liberty. Do you own a computer? Especially a spare older computer you can wipe clean without fear? Try a few free Linux lessons. Or if you'd like to stay on your current operating system, at least try a free web browser or word processor. If these are the tools you use every day, why not choose tools you can make your own?

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