Leapdragon 2016 - Aron Hsiao Was Here

Not Open  §

In the last six months I’ve transitioned, wholesale, away from open source. It’s been a sea change in my personal and professional life a long time in coming, and marks a break with over two decades of open source, free software, and open technologies advocacy on my part. (It is advocacy that’s also ending because I try not to be a hypocrite—if I won’t use it myself, I hesitate to advocate strongly for it with others, unless in particular narrow contexts and situations.)

Late last summer I began to experiment with Mac OS X. With the impending birth of my daughter and the intensifying work on my teaching and Ph.D. degree, life was getting very complicated, and I began to feel annoyed by all of the babysitting that open source software seemed to require. Every release of every software package seemed to have some nagging but that one just had to accept. Every update fixed some bugs but introduced others, and tended to require intervention in the meantime—reconfigurations, restores from backups, data arbitration of various kinds, and so on. No hardware worked. Sure, there were drivers, but instead of “drop sheet into scanner, forget about it,” the workflow on open source platforms was “start scanner application, manually begin scan, save preliminary data dump file, convert file to OCR-friendly format, run through OCR, import into database, remove temporary files” and so on.

More to the point, I was tired of the incredible web of dependencies that I had to maintain. The scanning-and-OCR example above gives a bit of a hint about this. Rather than simply being conceptually aware of a device (“scanner”), one had to be aware of and maintain all of the hardware and software items in various toolchains (“scanner,” “gui frontend,” “scanning backend,” “ocr software,” “database,”) and maintain them all. Multiply this by many different forms of daily activity (academics, web development, photography, personal data keeping, etc.) and the list of tools, interconnections, and their updates and current needs and bugs became overwhelming.

I was, quite simply, tired of spending so much time focusing on my computing environment and its maintenance and progress, to the extent that there was often very little time left over for the work that the computing environment was meant to enable.

The straw that broke the camel’s back was the slow disappearance of the usable Linux desktop, from KDE 3.x and GNOME 2.x toward the KDE 4.x releases (which first emerged in 2009 and never really became usable) and the GNOME 3.x release (which promised to revolutionize the desktop, requiring massive reconfigurations in workflow, applications, and so on yet again).

With those things on the horizon, it suddenly became very seductive to think about an environment in which things might really, actually, simply be “plug and play.”

I was still, however, incredibly distrustful of closed technologies and vertical platforms (more than two decades in the open source community will do that to a person) and thus wanted to start slowly and with a minimal investment. I thus “hackintoshed” a partition on my Thinkpad T60. That impressed me enough after several months to attempt to make the switch entirely. I bought OSX and installed it on a default boot partition on the T60, intending to make a go of things.

In short order, I ended up assembling a “hackintosh” desktop machine out of commodity parts (still married to that ethos of openness) and then to a MacBook Pro, where I sit typing now. Each step along the way pointed clearly toward the next; rather than remaining cautious or being discouraged at any point, I quickly became more and more enthusiastic as I found my workflow improving apace.

Now it’s the end of February, and in the last six months I’ve bouth OS X Snow Leopard, iLife, iWork, Microsoft Office for Mac, Aperture, Adobe Creative Suite for Mac, DevonThink Pro Office, DevonAgent, Scrivener, Postbox, TaskPaper, ChronoSync, a Fujitsu ScanSnap scanner, an iPad, and enough hardware to end up with a Snow Leopard desktop and a Snow Leopard MacBook Pro.

And each week seems to bring still additional increases in productivity and, more importantly, increasing transparency in my life. Yes, it’s true, I tend to notice my tools less and less and to use them more and more. In fact, I don’t quite know how I would have survived the first few months of fatherhood and still managed to work and pay the bills if I hadn’t had the foresight to make the switch when I did.

— § —

The point of all of this is to point out that there appears to be some sort of a problem with openness. I don’t quite know what it is in a rapid-fire summary, but in my 20-plus years using open source software and “open” computing platforms (by this I mean commodity market and industry standard components and so on) I went through vast array of operating systems, applications, and hardware configurations.

I didn’t realize until I made the switch away that for over 20 years I’d been on a kind of “make it work treadmill,” always fighting tools that were meant to be cooperating with me. And now that I’m using a supposedly “closed” platform, I find myself more able to interface with the social world than ever before.

This brings me to a couple of hypotheses or analytical insights.

  1. Openness does not describe a social context, contrary to what many imagine. Rather, it describes a contractual specificity that is the property of a particular object. The social context inheres in actual use by people in society.
  2. There needs to be a set of metrics and a new set of neologisms to address the property of something’s being socially “open.” By this, I mean the property of being able to easily and quickly exchange data with others and interface with their hardware. Closed systems offer this better than open systems do in the marketplace, paradoxically.
  3. Many of the benefits long ascribed to open systems are actually those of closed systems instead. In a thousand years, it is infinitely likely that one will be able to open a Microsoft Word file stored on an NTFS-formatted piece of media than an OpenOffice document on an ext4-formatted piece of media, and the latter will be far more expensive in every way than the former.
  4. Open source critics are absolutely correct in their assertion that the cost-benefit analyses of open source platforms and deployments may tend to underaccount for losses due to decreases in productivity across the enterprise or user chain.

More interestingly, I feel as though there’s some deeper critique of “openness” that needs to be made on theoretical grounds, perhaps even Habermasian or Bourdieuian grounds, but I’m just not quite getting to it yet. There is a problem with openness, a particular inefficiency or limitation that is social, rather than technical or political in nature, that needs to be theorized and that I don’t feel is addressed by any of the critiques I’ve read so far.

But I can’t seem to get at what it is yet. Hopefully it will become clear in the weeks and months to come.

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