People said I should accept the world. Bulls**t!! I don’t accept the world — Richard Stallman, Founder of The Free Software Movement
On the tenth anniversary of the iPhone and the launch of iPhone X today, Apple’s market capitalization briefly surpassed $900 Billion. Approaching $1 trillion, Apple is on the verge of becoming five times larger than the GDP of Greece. It’s stock ended the day at $172.5 with another record breaking quarter. By any standards, Apple is the ultimate icon of the closed system movement which is despised by the free software or open source software movement founded by Richard Stallman. In countless households today, the debate between Apple and Android rages on. The closest parallel is the comparison of Bitcoin (open source and decentralized) vs Fiat currency (closed and centrally controlled). If art imitates life, software mirrors our society. While some countries such may be considered relatively closed, others such as the US and India are more open. This article explores the concept of liberty, equality and fraternity through their manifestations in the software and crypto currency world to answer an age old question : what does freedom truly mean?
It Was Never About The iPhone
Let me begin by saying that Apple’s success was never about one product. Instead, it goes deeper. A beautifully designed phone is just one of the manifestations of a superior client experience. Apple was always about making people feel special and touching their hearts while Android was always about better functionality i.e. stimulating minds through greater utility.
From the beautifully designed retail experience minus the pushy salesmen, the Genius Bar and now Today At Apple spearheaded by the former CEO of Burberry and now head of retail design Angela Ahrendts, Apple aims to create delight at every touch point. Angela hopes Apple’s retail store resemble a town square where artists and people gather to create magic. Somewhat similar to Starbucks coffee. Now ask yourself: is Starbucks really only about coffee?
Android loyalists on the other hand give greater importance to cross hardware file sharing, OLED displays and above all, hardware independence. In addition, Android’s open source nature fosters greater collaboration.
Mirror, Mirror, Who’s The Fairest One of Them All?
The open source software movement is almost as old as the closed software movement. At the beginning, Microsoft Windows was the closed system and Linus Torvald’s creation LINUX was the symbol of the open source movement. Today, the battlefield has shifted to mobile and its Apple (closed system) and Android (open system). If we superimpose timelines, the battle of the ages becomes clearer:
Closed System Timeline
Open System Timeline
The trade offs are very simple. In a closed system, users don’t bother what is under the hood and lose hardware independence but enjoy a great client experience. In an open system, there is complete hardware independence and ability to see what’s under the hood but lack of seamless integration and inconsistent user experience. Ultimately, it’s up to the user to decide. Which one is superior? Well, both have to coexist for the users to learn about different possible realities.
In the words of Fritjof Capra:
“Quantum theory thus reveals a basic oneness of the universe. It shows that we cannot decompose the world into independently existing smallest units. As we penetrate into matter, nature does not show us any isolated “building blocks,” but rather appears as a complicated web of relations between the various parts of the whole. These relations always include the observer in an essential way. The human observer constitute the final link in the chain of observational processes, and the properties of any atomic object can be understood only in terms of the object’s interaction with the observer.”
The Economic Parallels
Although not exactly analogous, a relatively controlled (state owned) communist economy and a relatively open (free market) capitalist economy are close proxies of closed and open systems. Capitalism emerged in the Renaissance as agrarian capitalism and was followed by mercantilism and industrial capitalism. The battle, then was about commodities (most recently oil). Today, the battle is around data and the internet of everything is the new theater of war.
According to Harvard academic Shoshana Zuboff a new genus of capitalism, surveillance capitalism monetizes data acquired through surveillance.She states it was first discovered and consolidated at Google, emerged due to the “coupling of the vast powers of the digital with the radical indifference and intrinsic narcissism of the financial capitalism and its neoliberal vision that have dominated commerce for at least three decades, especially in the Anglo economies.
A Tale of Two Coasts
Many would say the west coast in the US mirrors the open source movement in its free spirit while Wall Street is a closed club of elite members much like closed systems.
Though Silicon Valley is outwardly open, it’s relatively closed to outsiders. Try being a new entrepreneur and setting up a meeting with established Venture Capitalists (VC’s) in Silicon Valley. On the other hand, while financial services community on the East Coast is outwardly closed, it is also responsible for innovations such as the ATM.
Ultimately, it’s a matter of perspective but what is true is that one cannot evolve without the other.
Use Blockchains To Break Free
Today, many seem to think Blockchains are the panacea to all problems. Today, Blockchains suffer from a lot of drawbacks (inefficiency and anonymity for bad actors). One thing is certain that distributed ledger technology has put the debate about the creation of a new world order in public consciousness. Couple that with the advent of Artificial Intelligence and you have the makings of global disruption.
Turn, Turn, Turn
In 1950, Peter Seeger wrote a beautiful song “Turn, Turn, Turn” which became an international classic in 1965 when the American band “The Byrds” adapted it to reach a global audience. The song goes
To everything — turn, turn, turn. There is a season — turn, turn, turn. And a time to every purpose under heaven..
That song always plays in my head as I read modern China becoming more of a free market economy and the financial crisis making the West more socialistic.
The moral of the story is that both systems have their own flaws. Maybe, one more so than the other. But, when times change, it is hard to distinguish which system is dominant in a mixed reality.
Janus is the Roman god of duality and new beginnings. His spirit, I feel, is very much alive in our world today.
Great societies are always forged in a fire. Billy Joel once crooned “we didn’t start the fire, it was always burning…” .
It took icons like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Richard Stallman to educate me. I still don’t know which ideology is superior as I subscribe to all three and admire all three men. Also, I am not in no position to judge them either. As Maximilien Robespierre once said:
“The secret of freedom lies in educating people, whereas the secret of tyranny is in keeping them ignorant”
What I learnt though is that it took all three of them to complete my education.
Freedom, then boils down to three C’s: coexistence, consciousness of choices and equal choice. Coexistence of opposing forces to drive greater good. Just as darkness is the absence of light and evil is the absence of good, oppression explains freedom in the same way as night explains the importance of sunshine. There is a reason duality exists and that is to continue to negate homogeneity and keep the wheels of evolution in perpetual motion.
Karl Marx explained the classic tension between the bourgeoisie (owners of means of production) and the proletariat (working class) to explain socialism in 1848. Today, a new breed of thinkers, worried about the deleterious effects of capitalism on human existence, are trying to create a third system that aims at equality of choice.As long as a certain section of the world population is denied happy coexistence and access to same choices, the human race is far from free and the fires of revolution will be burning bright. Technologies such as Cryptocurrencies, Blockchains and Social Media are the new instruments of change replacing sticks, stones and spears. Satoshi Nakamoto is the new Richard Stallman.
All the teenage angst and rebellion during Stallman’s time have now become a rage against the economic machine. Just like the French and the Russian revolutions, there is a invisible, worldwide revolt unfolding as I write this article. Welcome to the biggest global experiment in democracy as it truly involves giving power back to the masses. During Richard Stallman’s era, software began to be democratized. Today, software IS the Revolution. Again, I am not saying the revolution is right or wrong. I am saying that it will be the Zeitgeist of the human condition for a long time to come. At the end, I leave you this quote and question by Daniel Schmactenbeger:
Economics is just made up Monopoly; our governments are made up systems. But ecology isn’t. And biology isn’t. And psychology — there are intrinsics to it, even though there’s plenty of made up stuff in there. So how do we understand those better so that we can work with them in ways that support real thriving of the things that are fundamentally meaningful?