Farewell Gods of Tech

Dennis Ritchie 1941 - 2011

Steve Jobs 1955 - 2011

Last month we said farewell to tech pioneers Dennis Ritchie and Steve Jobs. Ritchie, who suffered from prostate cancer and heart disease, died on October 12; Jobs died a week earlier, after an eight-year battle with pancreatic cancer. Ritchie's passing, like the powerful Unix operating system he co-invented that fires but is shadowed by Apple's shiny though less prodigious reproductions, was buried by panoramic media deification unconvincingly hailing Jobs as our generations' Thomas Edison.

The title "Farewell Gods of Tech" is a reference to the July 2000 edition of Vanity Fair in which Alan Deutschman's group portrait "Gods of Tech" pays tribute to 15 tech pioneers from Jack Kilby to Tim Berners-Lee for forging "the computer age, the information revolution, and the internet". Again, Jobs was featured but not Ritchie, whose Unix legacy is the underpinning for Apple's OS-X and I-OS that make the iMac, iPod, iPhone, and iPad functioning devices - and which drives the internet. Every time we type "Steve Jobs" into a search engine Ritchie's voice echoes in bytes of the C language he invented (to rebuild Unix) the ubiquitous language that also spawned object-oriented languages such as C++ and Java.

Notably absent from Deutschman's Mount Olympus was Richard Stallman (RMS), father of the Free Software Movement and principal author of the GNU operating system (although Linus Torvalds, pioneer of its fractional kernel "Linux" was included). In honest contrast to the panegyrical media continuum decorating Jobs as tech hero, RMS' October 6 statement on Jobs passing (posted in the archives of his laconic "Political Notes") detonated a web storm that brought clarity to Jobs' influence on the technology market, neutralising the media avalanche that almost seemed to operate as part of Jobs' own PR machinery.

Ironically a tribute to Jobs' minimalism, RMS worded his statement as tersely as he writes his code, efficiently loading a message into the memories of both his adherents and detractors:

1) Jobs was a jailer who made users' loss of freedom seem cool;

2) Though he was glad that Jobs had gone,

3) he was not glad that he died as no one deserves to have to die;

4) He hoped that the harms inflicted by Jobs would be less effectively

executed by his successors.

While the Free Software and Open Source communities can rely on RMS to say what has to be said, when it has to be said, the same frankness, advocacy of core values surrounding freedom, and refusal to play to the audience (that perhaps denied him recognition on Mount Olympus) provide a platform for those jockeying for the spotlight. In his blog "Armed and Dangerous", Open Source envangelist Eric Raymond (ESR) describing RMS' statement as "rude, intemperate, and ill-timed", arrogating duties as FLOSS peacemaker whenever RMS, supposedly, "has made the open-source community look bad".

ESR posits that RMS is much like Jobs "mythologizing himself for marketing reasons". But perhaps ESR is, himself, perpetuating a myth about himself. Instead of being open (pun intended) himself from the outset about the harm that Jobs inflicted on users' freedoms, ESR waited for RMS to speak first so that he could perform his follow-up act mythologizing about the necessity of having an ESR to clean up after RMS on behalf of FLOSS. ESR might be armed and dangerous, but it's RMS who has got the balls.

ESR's guns, however, barked a defence of the substance of RMS' statement against the farcical "Jobs as deity" illusion that claimed more proselytes than mere misinformed media sycophants. This was one time that President Obama would have been forgiven for reserving his vote. His encomium lauding Jobs as "among the greatest of American innovators" served to glorify the slavery-like exploitation of Chinese cheap labour (often involving child labour) by companies like Apple and Microsoft, and reminded us of his award of the Presidential Medal of Freedom to President Herbert Bush, who renewed China's "Most Favoured Nation" status in the wake of the 1989 massacre of Tiananmen Square. Nothing found on the web suggests that President Obama recognised the passing of Dennis Ritchie, without whose Unix model the Free Software Movement that has forever transformed the world of computing would not have gained a foothold.

Inventor, Jobs was not; nor was he just a tweaker. His was the gift of design. Suggestive of a kind of savantism, Jobs' deficiencies in the social sensitivity needed to build healthy interpersonal relationships with his staff, were mirrored by a gift of sight that allowed him to imbue combinations of other people's ideas (scaled and shifted) with the sort of magic that induced psychological attachments to Apple's derivatives.

After exploiting the liberal BSD license to provide an operating system for its proprietary products, Apple pursued a series of unconscionable attacks against FLOSS projects of which the plan to destroy Google's Android is now apparent. The proprietary and free/open software paradigms are by definition antithetical. Apple's marriage of proprietary and FLOSS software is one born of lust, not love. When lust is one-sided the other party is likely to be abused. Others, too, must be skeptical of Apple's declared commitment to "make Open Source development a key part of its ongoing strategy". Does this strategy involve a continued migration of ideas and code from the FLOSS community to Apple's proprietary products? If ESR and others are right, it would seem that much of Jobs' innovation is the fruit of plagiarism.

ESR's "clean-up" act only heightened the visibility of the schism in the free and open-source community. With the ESR-promoted focus on "open" rather than "free" we should not be surprised that Apple, like the Pied Piper of Hamlin, is able to lure confused FLOSS developers to support a proprietary predator intent on curbing the proliferation of software under the GPL v3 some of which, like BSD, might well end up as part of their proprietary patent-bullying arsenal designed to squash competition, and suppress innovation.

Yet, while the FLOSS community learns from Steve Jobs that software can benefit from a market appeal contingent on the ability to hide our geekiness behind cool, enticing, intuitive user interfaces, we should also learn that what appears to be open might not be free, that Apple's open mirage is annexed by a jail made cool, and that the real meaning of freedom can be found by gravitating to GNU.

Adrienne Gaye Thompson

11 November 2011