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"Evil" and Technology: Not a Black and White Issue

Date/Time Permalink: 11/09/08 04:19:18 pm
Category: General

So, the other day, I'm in a lengthy discussion with an acquaintance, and as usual the conversation gravitates towards technology. I made my usual elevator spiel about Linux and BSD and FOSS, why I use it, blah blah. No, I say, it's not because "Microsoft is evil" that I use Open Source, but because Open Source is good.

Then the conversation veers - "Let me ask you a question about evil.", he says. Sigh, I go, here it comes. So he left-fields me with a question along the lines of "Do you think the government should be restricting access to encryption technology for the masses?" Theoretical question. His point is that it shouldn't.

I always get these. Questions phrased as if they had a yes-or-no answer. No, I said, that isn't the point, it's a question of logistics. Because of open source, I can make up any encryption scheme I want to and give it away and there isn't a damn thing anybody can logically do about it, because code is protected by free speech, so the whole point is 'mu'.

That's your word for the day. Mu. You're welcome to go browse the Wiki for the pedantically correct definition, but it in a nutshell it means that you have just asked a black-and-white question with no black-and-white answer. It means you're barking up the wrong tree, looking in the wrong place, and the point just sent you a telegram from the other side of the planet.

People tend to lose patience when they look for a black-and-white answer where there isn't one. Our brains crave binary, XOR decisions.

Let's take a common technology debate: Out of Yahoo, Google, and Microsoft, who is evil and who is good? The answer as I see it lies on a sliding scale. Now, this article, while basically being a little plea for how Microsoft should be seen as a good company now because it makes Silverlight. Case study.

Point one: Silverlight is intended as a Flash/AIR-killer, which is anti-competitive, so bad.

Point two: Silverlight drove Adobe to suddenly be happy, happy friends with Linux. They released Flash 10 concurrently for Linux and other platforms. Suddenly, all those impossible barriers to porting Flash to Linux melted away as soon as some competition happens. It helped break an Adobe/Microsoft Flash monopoly, so good.

Point three: Silverlight, as noted in its Wikipedia page, is also intended as an SVG-killer. This isn't just bad news; it's a tragedy. All modern web browsers except Microsoft Internet Explorer support and render SVG markup directly. If SVG was supported cross-platform, you'd see a new, beautiful web begin to form, where AJAX combines with SVG to create a Flash replacement. You'd see as much of a leap in web design with SVG as we saw with AJAX. Score: 2 bad, 1 good.

Point four: As the Adobe dictatorship benevolently tolerates FOSS development tools like SWFTools, Microsoft is temporarily tolerating the development of Moonlight, the FOSS equivalent of Silverlight. Tied score.

Point five: Of course, they're doing this because they possessed the soul of SUSE Linux, so they're still reselling Novell SUSE Linux licenses and whaddaya know, Novell sponsors Mono from which Moonlight is derived. This shows a huge breech of the Open Source fortress by Microsoft. One more step upstream, and they'll hop from SUSE to my own Slackware and I'll have the Microsoft Sound playing when my Slackware starts up and every man page will point me to a weblink to a useless MSN.net documentation page that's been moved five times since the distribution released. Then they'll just sneak into my house at night and graffiti a Windows logo on my wall or something. I dunno. Point 3-2 evil/good.

Everything is black and white when you zoom it in far enough. Nothing is when you pull back and look at the big picture.

Google is a "good company", but they patent graphics methods and don't release everything as OS and don't port everything to Linux and go along with Chinese censorship. Yahoo is a "good company", but charge to be included in their directory and some of their works reek of adware and they go along with Chinese censorship, too, and I've personally had Yahoo pages that refused to load until I told Firefox to change its user-agent string to mimic Internet Explorer. Microsoft is a "bad company", but they have not, to my knowledge, actually stormed down the street murdering random people, yet, which is the best damn thing I can think of to say about them at this point.

But all three are businesses with the purpose of making money. Hey, when you get down to it, as a freelancer, I'm a business with the purpose of making money.

Is making money, itself, evil? Even a little, tiny bit? If giving food away to anyone who's hungry is better than charging people money for food and turning them away when they're broke, then every grocery store in existence is just that tiny, little, itty bit of evil. Why do we have to be this way? Why can't we all work together for the common good?

Humans haven't evolved that far yet, and maybe never will. Whether we can even get our civilization to go that far is an unanswered question because humans haven't evolved to be that smart, yet.

Well, discuss it amongst yourselves. I am a bear of very little brain today, and big questions bother me.

If Linux were an Atari game, the cartridge would look like this.

Update: Or as Google exec Marissa Mayer puts it, "It’s possible to become too dry, too corporate, too much about making money. I think what’s delightful about ‘I’m Feeling Lucky’ is that it reminds you there are real people here."

See, there it is. Lots of us want to be rich, but if you lose your humanity in the process, you aren't really rich, then, are you?

Re-Update I swear this is the truth: today (11/18/08) I just discovered that Linus Torvalds blogged similar thoughts to this post of mine and mentioned the same hopeful expectation for Obama that I had in my last post. He even used the phrase "black and white" in the title.

Freaky... was there a subconscious ohrwurm drifting through the net last week and we all caught a touch of it?

Anyway, yes, he wrote his on 11/2 and I wrote mine on 11/8. No, I didn't read his first, even though I link to him in my sidebar blogroll. It's shocking how seldom I get the luxury to read some of my own favorites out there!

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