Friday, March 21, 2008

Linux and Philosophy

"Richard Stallman is "The Great Philosopher"..."

--Linus Torvalds in Revolution OS



Lately, I have been stumbling upon Linux users who blog about Linux whose formal training involved Philosophy.

So what is fundamentally strange about people who have similar backgrounds or profiles so to speak?

Maybe nothing or maybe everything. Is it normal to find people who have the same formal educational background who share the same passion - such as writing about Linux?

What I found interesting about these people is their driving force. Writing about something that is free - in commercial terms - does not bring revenue. Yet despite that, they continue tapping their keyboards in the hope that they are heard.

Could it be that the main driving force to these writers may be the altruistic allure of Linux and the corresponding GNU Philosophy? Let's take a closer look.

Interestingly, you could always find specific terms jumping from the field of philosophy to the diverse field of Computer Science. A good example of such a term is the "Social Contract". Debian, a form of Linux or in more technical terms a distribution of Linux, in particular comes to mind when it used the term "Social Contract" and adopted it for use as the "Debian Social Contract".

It metamorphosed from being "just an agreement". It became stronger, more like a Constitution. Why is there a need for that? Why not just call it: "The Debian Guidelines" or "The Debian Policy"?

In fact, there already is a "Debian Policy" for those who wish to contribute. This is specifically catered to developers who want to share their talent to the community. Among the policies enumerated are:


You are not afraid of reading really LOTS of documentation before asking. You do your homework before.

You are not afraid of asking for help and hints from other developers to learn different approaches.

You are willing to try different solutions in programming. Not afraid of non-orthodox ways of thinking.


Find more about the Debian Policy here.

So who are these people with Philosophy backgrounds that are drawn to Linux?

Jeffrey Oldham
Co-Author of the book, got his Philosophy Doctorate at Stanford and is currently working with advanced algorithms.
Advanced Linux Programming

John Eikenberry
Wrote an article called Linux and AI, has a Master's degree in Philosophy, dealing with the "esoteric area known as phenomenological psychology"
Linux Gazette

Philosophical Geekess
A young prolific Australian linux blogger and web designer
Geekosophical

Jucato

A graduate of Philosophy at the University of Sto. Tomas, Tech Support at #kubuntu, kubuntu contributor
http://jucato.org



Maybe they are not unique after all. Maybe they are common. After all, so many has been written about Linux and Philosophy already that you can find 728,000 related entries in Google about "Linux and Philosophy".

The first entry as of March 21, 2008 would be Free Philosophy: The Beauty of Doubt.

Whatever their reasons may be. I am pretty sure that they are pretty interesting.

[UPDATE] Due to popular demand, I would be posting some interviews that I got from some of these outstanding philosopher cum Linux enthusiasts. If there are no objections, I already sent out some emails to some of them which include the following questions:

1. Please tell us something about yourself.

2. Which distribution do you use and why?

3. How would you link Philosophy and Linux?

4. Does writing about Linux bring you revenue? If not, then why do you write about it?

5. How do you feel about Linux the way it is now (in terms of trends, prospects, future,)?

6. What is so Philosophical about Linux

Well, I hope they reply.

[UPDATE] I'm very happy to announce that Jucato replied.

1. Please tell us something about yourself.

I graduated from the University of Santo Tomas, Philippines with the degree of
Bachelor of Arts Classical major in Philosophy in 2004. I've been a Linux and
Free Software user for over 2 years now, starting with Kubuntu in January of
2006. Ever since I've gotten my Linux feet, I've been contributing to Kubuntu
and KDE in user support and a few patches here and there.

I have a confession to make first. After graduating from college, my
(academic) Philosophy knowledge has sort of fallen by the wayside. I've been
meaning to "review" my notes and books in college, but haven't really
scheduled it into my life just yet. So don't expect lofty/deep philosophical
discourses from me. :D


2. Which distribution do you use and why?

I started with Kubuntu as my first GNU/Linux distribution. My criteria for
choosing my first distro was quite simple: I needed a 1-CD (easy to download
and burn, didn't have DVD burner back then), KDE-based, Debian-based distro
that was popular enough to have a good/big knowledge base, and it should have
a newbie-friendly community. Kubuntu easily fell into that category
(SimplyMEPIS was the other contender). So I used that as my first distro, and
everything just worked beautifully, so I had no reason to switch.

Fast forward 2 years later, I'm now using another distro: Source Mage
GNU/Linux, a source-based distro with a fantasy/RPG metaphor. This time my
requirements have been different. I wanted a source-based distro that gave me
full control over my system (rules out all binary distros) and had a small
but active and friendly community (rules out Gentoo on the "small" part). I
was also quite interested in the RPG-like setup. So I've been using it on my
desktop since September. Kubuntu remains my binary distro of choice for my
laptop.


[3. See below]

4. Does writing about Linux bring you revenue? If not, then why do you write
about it?

I wish it did. And maybe it could, in the future... But anyway, I do it, even
without getting paid, because of two reasons. First is that I like writing,
specially about things I'm passionate about. Although the actual process of
writing seems to be highly dependent on my moods (but I do have lots of ideas
for future writeups). The second reason is that I am eager to share what I
know or have learned, and also to learn from others in the process. That's
why I like to write on my blog, so that others can comment and share their
knowledge with me. Fulfilling those two things is somewhat enough for me to
keep on writing.


5. How do you feel about Linux the way it is now (in terms of trends,
prospects, future,)?

I don't have a krystal ball, so I can't really say anything about the future
for certain. I haven't used FOSS that long to be able to assess its current
status based on its past. All I can personally say is that I believe that
Linux and FOSS is at a very important stage in its growth. More and more
people are growing aware of problems with proprietary software and formats.
More and more businesses are seeing FOSS not just as a fad but as a genuine
opportunity for growth. But at the same time, Linux must not lose its sense
of self and be carried away by trends or be taken advantage of by
unscrupulous people. It must continually define and redefine itself to adjust
to the times yet remain steadfast in its identity. We have seen such a
process in the drafting of GPLv3.

I can also say that the movement now is not only on the area of free and open
software, but on the turf of open formats and standards. That's where the
battle lies now, IMHO.


3. How would you link Philosophy and Linux?
6. What is so Philosophical about Linux

I'll answer this two together, since I consider them to be similar and/or
related. I'm also going to replace "Linux" with "FOSS", since it applies more
to the movement than to a specific product (like the Linux kernel or
GNU/Linux distributions).

I think Philosophy and FOSS share certain qualities, such as how they both
started and developed through time. In the beginning, there was a free
exchange of ideas. Philosophers would have access to the thoughts and
writings of their fellows and would discuss, critique, or support them. They
would also build upon the ideas of their predecessors and contemporaries. It
was this freedom that enabled great thinkers throughout history to produce
such thoughts and writings that we now have in our hands. Free and Open
Source Software's history is also similar. The culture that gave birth to
Free Software, the hacker culture, was a culture that nurtured the free
exchange of ideas, in the form of software, or more specifically, source
code. Just as Philosophy grew and thrived in this freedom, so would Free
Software. This freedom is something that we should take care of and protect.

Another "link", although a very soft one, that I have between Philosophy and
FOSS is the fact that there are so many varied, and sometimes conflicting
philosophies interwoven throughout the "movement" (if you could call it
that). Not only is FOSS a bazaar of goods (source code/software). It is also
a bazaar of philosophies, of ideologies. There is no single, dominating,
shoved-in-your-throat philosophy. Philosophies can also change over time. It
adapts to the particular context that it is in.

What I probably find most philosophical about Linux and FOSS is the fact that
it is a melting pot for a myriad of different philosophies, or more
properly, "world views" (which, essentially, is what Philosophy is about).
Each project goals, each document, each license, is a resource for
philosophically thinking about that project. How do these people think of
software? How do they think of other people? How do they view society or
community? What do they think is the most essential aspect of software? What
is their "ultimate good"? And other stuff like that. The Free Software
Definition, The Open Source Definition, the Debian Free Software Guidelines
and Social Contract, the Ubuntu Code of Conduct, the BSD Licenses, the
Creative Commons, GNOME Human Interface Guidelines, KDE identity, goals, and
policies, etc. All of these give a glimpse of the world view of these
communities, of how they see the world of software, and how they think that
world should be.

Maybe if I had known about Linux more than 4 years ago, I would probably
written my thesis about Free and Open Source Software Philsophy. It's
probably an interesting and relatively unexplored field in academic
Philosophy. But I would probably have a hard time looking for an adviser and
convincing the faculty about my topic, since it's an unspoken requirement
that one should have a (relatively) known philosopher to use as our
reference. I'd imagine such a thesis would be a strange mix of social
philosophy (community structure, politics), ethics (freedom, sharing, law),
epistemology and philosophical pyschology (HCI), and other fields. Or maybe
it's high time for the thinkers of our age to come up with something we can
call the Philosophy of Free and Open Source Software.


--
Juan Carlos G. Torres
Jucato
1024D/6F507597

[UPDATE] April 6, 2008 John Eikenberry Replies to Interview Request