Three Years Late: A Lengthy Review of Mark Helprin's Digital Barbarism, Part 4

This is part 4 of multi-part series; things will make more sense if you start at the first post.

Open Source and Creative Commons

As part of the broad brush, Helprin attacks the Creative Commons and open source code.  It's unsurprising, given that I spent a year of my life developing open source software, that this was the point at which his arguments soured for me.  This was point at which I decided that I needed to write this absurdly detailed review.  (You can stop now, nobody's forcing you to read it.)

Helprin's perspective is that open source, the Creative Commons, and anything free inherently attacks non-free things because it implies that people who want to be paid are greedy.  This is is just blatantly untrue.  While some people may hold this perspective, I believe that the majority do not.

An example will serve us well here.  Take Photoshop: it's a fabulous tool and a lot of engineering effort has gone into it; it deserves to be sold rather than given away.  However, its price is steep and most people can't afford it if they just want to learn a little more about it.  GIMP is an open-source alternative.  People like myself who do not need the full power of Photoshop for professional use can use GIMP to manipulate images in a similar way.  GIMP doesn't take away from Photoshop's revenues because professionals will still buy the cutting edge tool, but people who can't afford or don't professionally need Photoshop still have access to a similar tool.  Nobody loses.

Further, open-source projects are a great venue for teaching; many people become better programmers by contributing to open source code.  Think of open-source and Creative Commons not a substitutes to paid services, but supplements.  They are tools and resources that everyone can use, eliminating some of the barrier to entry into the digital world.  One could even argue that they increase revenue.

It is obvious to me that Helprin has no programming experience.  If he had, he would not be so condemning of open source.  High-end proprietary products use open source code like OpenGL, programming languages themselves are often open source (like Python and PHP), and Helprin's own website uses the open-source Javascript library jQuery.

The idea of technology being free is not now--Steve Wozniak wanted to give away the plans for the original Apple in the 1970s.  Some knowledge should be in the public domain; each car company did not literally reinvent the wheel, nor should they have needed to do so. Open source code allows for developers to spend their time on new ideas.

Supporting the existence of free resources does not imply the condemnation of proprietary products.  In some ways, Helprin needs to take his own advice and slow down before jumping to conclusions.  Admittedly, I have the advantage of having seen the years of progress since this book was written; perhaps I am too harsh on the author, whose perspective is cast from another point in time.

to be continued...

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