The Drive to Write Free Software. Part 3

Evolution: Knowledge Wants to be Free

We have seen that an economic and historical analysis of this subject is useful, but not completely satisfying. Perhaps the real roots of the free and open source software movements lie not in economics or history, but in human nature itself.

If you step way back, and begin looking from a distance at the forces that drive life here on this planet, it does not take long to become aware of a force that we, for lack of a better term, call evolution. At bottom, evolution is about the dissemination of knowledge. In particular, it is about the dissemination of knowledge encapsulated in the genetic structure of the creatures that inhabit this planet. That is an odd form of knowledge, but it is knowledge nonetheless.

When people talk about genes, and about the evolution of a species, they don’t always think about mathematics or information sciences. But at bottom, genes are all about mathematics and information. Genes are a form of knowledge encoded in a structure that is not really so different from a computer language. The famous double helix that underlies our genetic structure is something that can be duplicated almost exactly on a computer. In fact, when it came time, in the 1990’s, to unravel the secrets of our genetic structure, real progress was slow until people began to use computers to map the human genome.

Genes track information in a manner that is directly analogous to the way computers encode information in bits and bytes. Genes have their own language, consisting of four characters, just as computers are based on a binary language. In other words, human genes are more than a little bit like little computers. Genetic information contains the code for the very structure of our physical being, just as the bits and bytes in a computer form the structure of a computer program. The information encoded in genes is the information that is used to determine the color of our eyes, hair and skin, the structure of our bones, the kinds of diseases we are prone to and are likely to resist, even to some degree the structure of our nervous system. All of these things are dependent on information encoded in genes.

The behavior of computer programs, and even their appearance, are also encoded in a series of bits and bytes not so different from the information in a gene. In other words, information is information, whether it is encoded in a human gene or encoded in a computer program.

If you want to understand the development of life on earth, you have to understand genetics. Life emerged from tiny one celled animals into complex creatures such as cats, deer and humans due to the different ways in which knowledge, encoded in genes, can be combined and recombined. This whole subject is explained beautifully in the extraordinary book Microcosmos by Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan.

But why did life evolve this way? Why weren’t genes content just to stay in little one celled animals? What force drove them to create more and more complex hosts? Genes are the driving force behind evolution. Without DNA and RNA and the whole relentless, combinatorial drive to evolve, life as we know it would not exist. Why is the information in genes continually reaching out to form more and more complex, more and more sophisticated, forms of life? Is there something inherent in the nature of knowledge that wants to expand, that wants to be free? Apparently, the answer to this question must be yes.

Whether this force is a manifestation of God’s will, or of randomly driven nature, is not really the question here. If God created this world, then certainly one of Her primary engines of evolution was the force that demands that knowledge be spread, be disseminated, that it continue to grow. The desire of knowledge itself, of life itself, to evolve and grow is simply one of the laws of life as we know it.

The written history of the human race is in effect the unbinding of recorded knowledge from our genetic structure, and the encoding of that knowledge in books, media and computers. As people learned to encode knowledge first in written text, then in printed text, and finally in computers, they in effect harnessed the power of knowledge itself. Modern life evolves so quickly because we can encode knowledge in books and computers, much as knowledge about the structure of a living being can be encoded in a gene.

You might think that I am trying to set up an analogy here between knowledge as we know it in books, film and computers, and knowledge that is encoded in the humane genome. But I do not view this as an analogy. I think information is information no matter how it is stored. This information drives physical (but not spiritual) evolution here on earth, and it wants to be free to do its work. Now we have entered an age when genes emerge not through random events in nature, but through direct manipulation by people. In other words, knowledge has found a new way to force its evolution.

The point to grasp here is that human knowledge is not just an abstraction, it is a force of nature, it is one of the basic principles with which God imbued creation. The idea of trying to wrap up knowledge inside copyright or patent law suddenly becomes absurd when seen from this perspective. You can’t control so powerful a force with such crude tools. (This is not a diatribe against copyright law. Notice, for instance, that I have a copyright notice at the top of this article. Copyrights and patents are useful tools, but they are not as primary, not as powerful, as the urge to obtain and disseminate knowledge.)

People write free software because software is knowledge, it is the very force of nature itself, and you can’t suppress knowledge. Life itself, first in the form of genes, but then later in the form of written words and finally as binary data, is all about the dissemination and evolution of knowledge.

You can’t suppress this force by insisting that only corporations can control knowledge. It is not just that some people find the idea of giving such knowledge to corporations repugnant, but that life itself won’t put up with restrictions of that type. Knowledge wants to be free, it wants to spread itself across not only this planet, but the entire universe.

When powerful forces try to bind knowledge and make it the plaything of an economic elite, they are fighting a battle that hopefully can never be won. They think that they can own knowledge, and that they can force us to only borrow it for short periods of time. They have the source, we get only binary data, they have the rights, we have to agree to EULA’s that take away any meaningful sense of ownership that we can have of that software. In the long run, however, knowledge will escape from their clutches. If it does not, then life as we know it will stop evolving, and we will be frozen in place. That is, we will die.

So that is why people write free software. Software is a form of knowledge. Knowledge is part of the fabric of life. Knowledge wants to be free so that life can evolve. People write software for the same reason they build houses, or fall in love. We were born to create and share knowledge. It is one of our deepest and most profound instincts.

Corporations try to control this knowledge by hiding the source code for their software. The US government tries to hide this knowledge by enshrining it in a corporate monopoly they believed useful to their conception of the state. But what happens? The strangest of all things. Something that from a particular perspective makes no sense at all! People start building software for free on their own, in their spare time! What sense does that make? What can possibly be motivating these people? How can we make sense of what they are doing? What possible explanation is there for this huge, wildly successful, seemingly irrational, international movement to create free software? What is it that wants to be free? From what does it want to escape? Why does it want to escape? What is its purpose?

The people who want to bind knowledge with laws, who want to own it, who want to possess it for their own benefit, will tell you that knowledge is property. That they own it. They will even try to “own” the knowledge encoded in genes. They will literally try to copyright the genes that form the very substance of life itself. (And yes Virginia, this is already happening.) But knowledge doesn’t want to be owned. And certainly it doesn’t want to be owned by something as lowly on the cosmic scale of things as a human being sitting in an office in Washington DC or in Silicon Valley. The force driving the spread of knowledge is much more powerful than a group of middle aged men and women sitting in government or corporate buildings.

Does this mean that corporations and private enterprise have no part to play in the development of software? Of course not. Knowledge will use any tool available to help it grow and spread. Sometimes market forces are a great means of enhancing the spread of knowledge. In those cases, corporations and human knowledge work together to achieve the same ends. But it is not the corporation that is in charge, it is nature itself. Knowledge wants to spread, and it will use individuals, governments, corporations, educational institutions, monasteries, whatever tools are available, to help it achieve that end. But it will not make itself subservient to any particular corporation or denomination. Knowledge, and God’s will, are greater than any individual, any corporation, any religion, or any educational institution.

Why do people write software for free? It probably makes more sense to ask why software wants to be written. But when you put the question that way, then the whole idea of people trying to bind knowledge by legal means, or by obfuscating the source, becomes a bit laughable. It’s just not going to work, and everyone in the software development community knows that it is not working. If you have doubts, go spend a half an hour on SourceForge, on the Apache site, and you will know that it is not working! But there are some people who don’t want you to look at it that way. They have a vested interest in being sure that you don’t look at it that way.

So tell me: Why do people write free software? It seems a bit enigmatic at times, this urge to write software for free. If we decide that life is all about making money, then it makes no sense at all. But maybe life is about more than just money. Maybe the really powerful forces in life aren’t economic. But if it’s not money that motivates these people, then what is it? Is life really about economics, or are there other forces in play here? If so, what are those forces? Whatever they are, they must be very deep, and very powerful. What theory is there that is large enough to account for such an extraordinary phenomenon?

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