The following was
written in 1999, in virtual complete ignorance of earlier similar ideas
at the open source organization,
although I had obviously heard of the name and the concept.
Added in 2012: See also the Free Software Foundation. (*)
Also, there are
some differences with what is on that site, to which there is a link
above, and that is well worth checking out, in that I am more concerned
with mathematics and science, and less with hacking.
For a little more
notes on Squeak.
(*) I improved the formatting of this file in June 2012, and used the
opportunity to add the link, that should have been there long ago.
Capitalism, Communism and
I was raised in a genuine
communist family, in a real capitalist country - the 50-ies of Holland.
My parents were far from average people, heroes of the anti-fascist
Dutch resistance of WW II, and true believers in communism. They were
also kind-hearted, very moral, intelligent, honest and fair persons,
the more so when one compares them with the sort of people who in
Holland, unlike my parents, did make careers, largely because these
successful careerists lacked the intellectual talents of my parents or
lacked their moral restraint.
After I had been almost kicked
out of the German Democratic Republic in 1964, having publicly declared
- at age 14! - that to me the socialism of German Democratic Republic
was "fascist bullshit" ("fascistische Schweinerei!", for those who read
and appreciate German), socialism didn't appear to me any more as it
did to my parents, and not much later I gave up Marxism and started my
own philosophical search for truth and moral norms.
Even if communism and
socialism as political ideals have been perverted (by and large because
the average human heart is not by far as noble and kind as it likes to
believe, just as the average human understanding is not by far as smart
or informed as it likes to think), they do contain interesting
principles - which happen to be practiced world-wide within normal
These interesting principles
come down to fair sharing of available resources, and to cooperation
for mutual benefit.
These principles are practiced
to a considerable extent even in the families of capitalist tycoons -
who amassed millions by deceit, intrigue and competition, and by
insistence on individual property-rights, but who lived and acted
within their families on quite other principles than they practiced to
rise in society.
Now it seems to me that - as
human beings are, on average - any sensible society should provide
outlets for both competition and cooperation.
And indeed, the reason
capitalism outlived socialism is that it is better suited to the
average talents and inclinations of people, who like to share and
cooperate with their families and friends and who like to struggle and
compete with outsiders, and generally don't mind telling comparative
strangers lies in order to sell all manner of stuff they would be
ashamed to tell or sell their family.
What does all this have to do
with computing? The following seven facts, that seems highly
interesting to me:
1. The enormous explosion in
the information technology by computing of the last 20 years or so is
firmly based on a kind of communism of information - people share
programs, give away software, publish the source code on which they
have been sweating themselves for months, and generally are willing to
do a lot of unpaid work simply for the fun of it, or because they
believe it to be important for others.
This is simply a matter of
fact anybody who has been working with computers since the 1980ies
knows for a fact. (How many of the programs you used did you pay? Be
It is in large part due to the
fact that any software can be copied in principle, but there are also a
considerable altruistic and egoistic components involved: Why buy what
you can get for free, and why sell what you can give away for nothing -
especially if you know that what you buy or give away will be outdated
in a few years at most, and in fact will be really used and appreciated
Finally, there is a
considerable amount of common sense involved: Only real millionaires
could conceivably pay the requested prices of much of the software they
used, at least in the 1980ies.
2. Next, the related fact is
that very much of what happens in computing was and is based on
cooperation and sharing of private individuals, from the Unix, Ascii,
the internet and html to shareware and freeware of all kinds - and
would simply not have been possible to develop if a majority of the
people developing had insisted on "fair capitalist payment for services
This also simply is a matter
of fact: From a conventional business's point of view nearly everything
that was happening in the 1980ies in computing was mostly madness:
Clever individuals hacking away like mad for months on end without any
reasonable expectation of payment - and working on products that could
be copied easily by any fairly smart competitor.
Still, nearly everything
related to computing was done in capitalist countries, and indeed the
whole explosion in private computing was based on solid capitalist
principle - as concerned the hardware, which cannot be copied as mere
bits and bytes can be copied.
3. Here the third fact
enters: Developing as it did under capitalism, computing and computers
were taken up and developed by capitalist firms as soon as it was
tolerably obvious computing and computers could be marketed and sold
Capitalism thrives on
competition, and the prices of hardware have been as steeply declining
as the powers of the hardware have been increasing. By and large the
competition about hardware was in everybody's interests, especially
because it achieved what probably could not have been achieved
otherwise: a very rapid development.
4. But matters are different
when we turn from hardware to software, and there are three fundamental
differences, of which the third and most important is related to a
(1) Hardware is not mere
stored information, and so cannot be copied like software, and
(2) hardware is considerably simpler, being mostly the solid and
developed parts of earlier software that is hardwired, and finally and
(3) software is in fact mere information, of a specific kind: applied
Commercially and legally
speaking, the first of these points is most important: Capitalism
historically requires transferable individual commodities that cannot
be identically copied for a fraction of its production cost - and
hardware is such a transferable individual commodity.
Morally and intellectually,
the third of these points is by far the most important, and has to do
with the development of science, to which I turn now.
5. As a matter of simple
historical fact, nearly all of science was originally thought of and
developed by clever oddballs, who did not take much interest in
business, capitalism, profits, or renown amongst CEOs of companies or
business-tycoons of any kind (who they generally considered not
unfairly as grossly materialistic dummies with little or no real
Also, again as a simple
historical fact, nearly all of science was developed - researched,
written down, published, discussed - in very small groups of bright
individuals, who generally only profited from their work through
achieving status as "an academic", but who did almost never market
their research or ideas. Indeed, the difference between technology and
science is largely that technology is applied science that provably
works, while science itself is speculation and empirical research that
tries to find new knowledge.
Now it seems a fact that you cannot do science - applied or pure
mathematics, physics, chemistry or what have you - on a solid
This has little to do with
idealism or morals, and a lot with the reality of markets, which are
profit-oriented and rapidly changing: You simply cannot start thinking
about the General Theory of Relativity or the possible
string-theoretical foundations of Quantum Mechanics - for example - if
it is absolutely essential that your balance-sheet in three months
shows a profit (or the bank will withhold its loans, and you'll be
6. A related fact has
cropped up in computing: Whereas Bill Gates and other tycoons much like
to pretend that private firms should have the copyright on software and
do all its development, marketing and selling, all in the best
traditions of venture capitalism, it turned out that in actual fact
locking up a handful of programmers to write a commercial program for a
commercial firm may be very good for the owners of the firm but is
certainly very bad for everybody else.
It would be like carving up
pure mathematics into commercially exploitable fields - say:
cryptology, algorithms, biophysical maths etc. etc.; then sell these
fields to the highest commercial bidder; and finally prohibit all
creative mathematics in these fields unless one is a paid employee of
the the highest commercial bidder.
Again: Bill Gates and his
likes would probably love such a notion, since in fact they got very
rich cashing in on the intellectual work of many thousands of
scientists far more clever than they are, without ever paying them one
This is why Bill Gates and his
likes like to pretend that a handful of programmers tied hand and feet
to MicroSoft can do much better than a world full of programmers mostly
interested in bringing forward the field of computing by freely
distributing software and source code: It pays them a lot, at the cost
of everybody else, and being human this is what they like.
7. Enter the "Open Source"
model: The most useful and sensible way is probably some sort of
compromise between capitalism and communism in the interest of
computing and civilization:
On the one hand, everybody
living under capitalism has a vested interest in private companies
competing for profits and thereby keeping prices low for everyone while
developing ever better products; on the other hand everybody living
under capitalism has a vested interest in maintaining the growth of
science, especially such an important science as software engineering
turned out to be, OUT of the hands of venture capitalists, who would
just love to smother any science for private profit, just as they would
sell their grandmother to a whorehouse for profit.
Consequently, I am much
interested in the Open Source movement, and believe that this is the
only sensible way forward.
But to go forward a number of
issues have to be faced in computing, and these are mostly legal and
moral issues related to capitalism and communism that may be reduced to
Should applied mathematics
become a privately owned source of profit with little development, but
of great profit to a few individuals like Bill Gates - or should
applied mathematics remain a science developed by all the best and
brightest in the whole world who like to contribute, but with little of
a main chance for venture capitalists to become stinking rich?
It seems to me that we should
keep science and scientific development in the hands of the public -
and therefore it seems to me that source code should be either free or
cost very little, and be available within 5 years of its writing,
simply to help everybody else to develop it, and perhaps make a profit
in the coming 5 years with his or her original ideas.
Likewise, it seems to me that
algorithms should be as little copyrighted as is pure mathematics: They
are truths of mathematics found by some bright human mind, and should
be as little anybody's private property as are the calculus or algebra.
Finally, to sum up:
Some 10 years ago I reasoned
that it would be the best if large software houses would put their
programs of a few years past on the market for free, simply to further
the progress of computing and to give anybody a fair chance of
At present, this practice is
widely happening, and especially Borland/Inprise has made (nearly)
freely available copies of most or all of its excellent compilers of a
few years ago. I am much in favor of it, just as I am much in favor of
public libraries for books - to which the same principle applies (and
which the Bill Gates's of book publishing would love to see forbidden).
It seems to me the very same
thing should happen with source code: By and large - for there are
exceptions - everybody but Bill Gates and his likes is most helped by
freely distributing the source code of any program after say five
years, simply to improve it on a worldwide scale, by anybody concerned
and interested, and for everyone's interests.
This is happening to a
considerable extent with Linux, Free Pascal, and a considerable amount
of freeware and shareware. It should be happening with almost all
programming code, at least after a short while of say 5 years at most:
This is mathematics and this
is science, and no mathematics and no science can be developed
decently, fairly, reasonably or rationally within the context of
speculative private capitalist ownership.