The GNU/Linux Phenomenon ... Sociological Observations from an Indian Perspective

last updated 20100131

Dr Mukund Joglekar

member, PLUG (Pune Gnu/Linux Users' Group)

1.0   Introduction

2.0  A Brief History of Computing Upto the Appearance of the ibm-pc

3.0  The Freedom Movement

4.0  A Few Social Observations

5.0  Some Concerns for the Future of GNU/Linux

6.0  Conclusions

1.0   Introduction

This is an expanded transcription of talks given at several engineering colleges in Pune, during 2004-2005.  The talks were usually part of seminars given by the Pune GNU/Linux Users' Group (PLUG).  These talks were billed as speeches on GNU/Linux Philosophy.  I happen to know a little bit about GNU/Linux, and less about the formal subject of philosophy.  So, I have taken the liberty of changing the title to the modest one above.

The target audience ranged from persons who had barely heard about GNU/Linux, to persons who had had some exposure to it.  The goal of the talks was to examine the GNU/Linux phenomenon from an Indian point-of-view, with emphasis on its social significance.  Therefore, we touched upon technical matters only to the extent they pertain to such a context.

1.10  GNU/Linux, the phenomenon

GNU/Linux, often mistakenly called `Linux', is an Operating System(OS) for computers.  It was first developed for the ibm-compatible pc.  Much of the thrust of the Linux kernel developement has been towards use on the Intel-compatible cpu's used in the ibm-compatibles.  However, the Linux kernel has also been ported to many other cpu chips at this time.

GNU/Linux is a `free' OS, in contrast to many other OSs.  We will dwell on its `free'ness throughout this lecture.  At this time, however, it would be well for me to paraphrase a description of the `free'ness :

"Free as in Free Speech, not necessarily as in Free Beer ..."    -- Richard Stallman

The `free'ness refers to protecting the freedom of the user.  This requires preventing the `hiding' of the inner workings of the software.  Most `proprietary' software contains intentional tricks that effectively curtail the users' freedom.  On the other hand, proponents of free software, such as the Free Software Foundation (FSF), eliminate such curtailment by insisting on publishing the source-code for their software.  This is clearly guaranteed in the General Public Licence (GPL), the licence used by free software. 

(The sourcecode represents the programme in human-readable and human-understandable form.  Human programmers write the sourcecode to create the programme.  The programme `executables' which actually run on the computer are obtained from the sourcecode by a process called `compiling'.  The executables are not human-understandable.)

The `free'ness required by the GPL does not rule out money changing hands.  In fact Gnu/Linux today provides a vast scope for programmers, maintainers, system nanagers. etc (i.e. the individuals who actually do useful work!) to earn their living by working on Linux systems.

We can say, in the Indian vernacular, that `free' software is Muqt  software, not necessarily Muft  software.

All software programmes published by me are Muqt , since they are licensed under the GPL.  (They also happen to be Muft , because I don't charge any money for them.)

1.20  It's here now

For a number of years, there had been some skepticism about this OS's viability, useability etc for the layman, in comparison to the OS that was reigning the market.

That skepticism has pretty much vanished over the last 5 to 10 years.  GNU/Linux is the more robust, applications-rich, safer, inexpensive, and user-friendly choice now, even for the layman.  And what's more attractive for me, GNU/Linux is by far the most ethically untainted.

1.30  The question about GNU/Linux, if any, has changed

Years ago, the questions users probably asked themselves were "Can it be useful to me?", or "Will it be friendly enough to install and to use?", or "Does it have native applications for doing the sort of work I need to do?", etc.

Today, users are entitled to ask themselves: "Why not switch to free software?", or "What does that other OS have that free software doesn't? (ans: exhorbitant cost, restrictive licensing, lack of sourcecode, a welcome mat for malicious programmes ...)", or even "Where have I been all this time?" !

We ought to start with a brief, simplified history of computing ...

2.0  A Brief History of Computing Upto the Appearance of the ibm-pc

2.10  Hardware

The first complete digital computer was built in the UK.  France, the Nederlands, Poland, the US, and other countries may also have been significant participants in the effort.  But soon, like most other technical advances, the frontier seems to have moved to the govt and the `private' industry in US.  The usual mode of achieving this is :  Entice the promising people with money, comfortable working conditions, and the `good' life.

2.11  Mainframes

Pretty soon, IBM emerged as the leading manufacturer of these `mainframe' computers.  The other US companies were DEC, HP, Xerox, etc.  Contrary to the still prevalent myth about large `private' corporations creating key technologies independently, the US govt has always been an active participant in the developement of computing technologies.

By about 1960, these `mainframe's were quite well-established.

With IBM, the US ruled the commercial computer hardware field.  In those days, IBM didn't sell their machines; they were `leased'.

Other big companies that produced mainframe computers were Machine Bull in France, Fuji in Japan, etc.

The `mainframe's were huge affairs.  I remember single computers filling large rooms, with a massive air-conditioning plant for cooling the cpu.  Huge, refrigerator-sized tape drives would be spinning impressively.  The floor used to be a false floor.  Underneath the floor, there would be a vast spaghetti of power-cables, bundles of data cables etc, going from everywhere to everywhere.  You got the forbidding feeling that you get in some places of worship.  You tended to talk in hushed, reverential tones while there.  In 1973, to get into the computer room at HAL in Bengaluru, I remember having to take my shoes off.  (They didn't make us take a shower, however.)

To go with the solemnity of these temples-of-computing, there also developed a class of Pujaris ... the computer-operators and other `officials'.  We, the `users' -- ordinary mortals -- were in awe of their powers.  We would submit huge boxes containing the decks of our programme cards to the Pujaris, and wait patiently for the results  ...

The `mainframe's were very expensive also.  Only governments and huge corporations could afford them.

So, a nice, cosy hegemony of the rich, the powerful, and the privileged was established.

2.12  Apple

This hegemony was eventually challenged by small upstarts like Altair, Motorola, Mostek, Intel, etc.  One of their means was developing cheaper, smaller, slower, and initially less ambitious cpu chips.

Two students, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, built a tinkertoy in their garage.  It was a small computer, based on an 8-bit Motorola cpu chip.  The two Steves went to several large electronics companies and offered the design to them for manufacture.  There were no takers.

So, the two Steves formed their own little company to manufacture their computer.  They called it `Apple'.  The name itself has a significance to me.  West of Suez, the apple occupies about the same place as the mango does in Bharat.  It's the everyman's fruit.  Apple trees are found in profusion there...  As school-children, we used to go on mango-stealing expeditions to orchards in Pune.  Pune contained many orchards then.  I suspect the western children obtained apples in a similar manner.  (`Apple' later became `McIntosh', which is the name of a particular variety of apple.  Just as the mango fruit has many varieties here.  To the western mind, the name `McIntosh' also has some significance as `economy-minded'.)  The older ones among you will recall that The Beatles also adopted the name `Apple' for their recording label ...

Apple manufactured much of the hardware, developed their own software, and marketted these computers.  The Apple computer was a huge success, it really created the commercial pc world, and ruled it for a number of years.  'McIntosh' is still considered, by afficionados, to be the best-performing, elegant, desirable name-brand in the pc arena.

2.13  IBM - pc

Although IBM pretty much ruled the large computers field, they must have sensed a run-away challenge from Apple.  So, they developed the first IBM pc, around an 8-bit Intel cpu chip, in great secrecy, in just 6 months.

For their pc, IBM outsourced the OS from a small new venture, Microsoft.  Microsoft drew from existing OS's such as CP/M, re-packaged it, and called it DOS (PC-DOS, IBM-DOS, MS-DOS).  There now has been, for a number of years, a `free' variety of DOS.  It's called FreeDos.

In hindsight, we now realise that IBM did one extremely significant thing with their pc: they published the BIOS source-code and the protocols of communication within the computer system.  This led to a mushrooming of new vendors for both hardware and software, effectively stopping Apple's romp.  (Apple had been a `proprietary' system.)

2.20  Software

Concurrent with the above developements in hardware, advances were being made in software also.

Computer OS's can be crudely thought of as a combination of two software components: The `kernel', and `software utilities'.

2.21  AT&T

Engineers at AT&T and Bell Labs developed the Operating System Unix and the programming language C, initially for in-house use.

2.22  Microsoft Windows

For ibm pc's, Microsoft began to sell their Windows OS, in which they bundled their own kernel with their own applications software.

There is general agreement that Unix was vastly superior to DOS, and to Windows with which Microsoft ruled the pc-world with tacit support from the US government.

Windows was all `proprietary' software.  It still is.  What is `proprietary' software?  ...

3.0  The Freedom Movement

3.10  Software used to be Free

In the beginning, software used to be mostly free, in the GPL sense, till about 1965.  Most importantly, the sourcecode was generally available to everyone.  Then, somewhere along the way, `business acumen' got the better of ethics, and software became `proprietary'.

3.20  What is `proprietary'?  = Not `free'

Proprietary software is sold mainly in the form of executable files only.  The sourcecode is a closely guarded secret.  Thus, the `customer' is effectively prevented from knowing what's inside the Microsoft-written stuff.  The customer is also not allowed to copy his software, nor to share it with others.  Since no sourcecode is available, it is impossible for the customer to improve on the software he has bought.

With `new' versions, the most prevalent software vendor also regularly `updates' the file formats  of the `documents'  created by their software.  These formats are also often secret, forcing Windows-users to buy (or pirate) every new version of Windows, and the separately sold application software for it.

Free software licensed under the GPL takes the diametrically opposite approach by making the sourcecode as well as the file formats freely available to everyone.

3.30  Proprietary Licences

The 'licences' of proprietary software make an interesting read.  Most of them are quite restricitve, and often make you wonder what happened to the old motto 'Customer is King'.  Many of the licences blatantly announce that you, the customer, do not own the software you just bought, you are merely being granted the permission to install and use it on one computer.  Increasingly, these licences have also taken to forcing you to `register' the software with the vendor's site, before you can fully use it on your machine.

Most of these `proprietary' licences are quite resplendant with legalese; I am yet to find a customer who actually reads the whole licence.  Just clicking `I accept' is much less painful.

For contrast, in a few minutes, we will be reading a small portion from the GPL .

3.40  Richard Stallman

Around 1980, Richard Stallman was working in the Artificial Intelligence Lab at MIT. (That's the other MIT, the one in Boston, Massachusetts.)  He happened to realise that proprietary software was becoming non-free.  This fact seems to have come forcefully to his notice when a certain printer-driver software was updated at their computing centre.  You can read about the episode, in Stallman's words, here.

As the outcome of his investigations, Stallman decided to leave MIT.  He promptly established a new organisation, GNU.  GNU had the express goal of writing (from scratch) a kernel, a set of OS utilities, and also applications software.   It was to be compatible with Unix, a proprietary OS.  `GNU' is a recursive acronym, standing for `GNU is Not Unix'.  I suspect GNU also gets the credit for inventing recursive acronyms!

One of their root principles was: You must provide each user of the software with the sourcecode.   They also established FSF, the Free Software Foundation, whose purpose was to distribute the GNU software.

The `GNU/FSF software licence' is a document that should delight any freedom-loving soul.  They also call it copyleft!  To get an idea of the strong  ethical  bent it possesses, let's now read a few lines from the Preamble to the GPL ...

... excerpt from the Preamble  to the  GPL ...

The licences for most software are designed to take away your freedom to share and change it. By contrast, the GNU General Public Licence is intended to guarantee your freedom to share and change free  software--to make sure the software is free for all its users. This General Public Licence applies to most of the Free Software Foundation's software and to any other programme whose authors commit to using it. (Some other Free Software Foundation software is covered by the GNU Library General Public Licence instead.) You can apply it to your programmes, too.

When we speak of free software, we are referring to freedom, not price. Our General Public Licences are designed to make sure that you have the freedom to distribute copies of free software (and charge for this service if you wish), that you receive source code or can get it if you want it, that you can change the software or use pieces of it in new free programmes; and that you know you can do these things.

To protect your rights, we need to make restrictions that forbid anyone to deny you these rights or to ask you to surrender the rights. These restrictions translate to certain responsibilities for you if you distribute copies of the software, or if you modify it.

For example, if you distribute copies of such a programme, whether gratis or for a fee, you must give the recipients all the rights that you have. You must make sure that they, too, receive or can get the source code. And you must show them these terms so they know their rights.

... end of excerpt from the Preamble  to the  GPL ...

The GPL guarantees four freedoms to all recipients of free software;  freedoms to use, to understand, to improve, and to give.  And in a brilliant stroke of foresight, it guarantees this to all future `generations '  of recipients also.

3.50  Linus Torvalds
Meanwhile, in Finland, a computer science student named Linus Torvalds wrote a kernel of his own, to make his 386 machine faster, safer, and more efficient than the DOS and Windows OS's in vogue.

The `kernel' can be thought of as that part of the OS, which provides a standard means of accessing the various hardware components.  It allows the applications programmers to concetrate on the developement of their programmes, because the kernel, to a good extent, has freed them from having to worry about specific hardware peripherals.

Around 1991, Torvalds put his kernel, named Linux, on the Internet.  He soon licensed it under the GPL.  The Internet had just been released by the US Defence Dept for use by the GP (General Public).  Before long, people the world over started to test Linux, study the sourcecode, discuss it, and  contribute improvements to it.  The kernel sourcecode improved very fast.  All free, no money changed hands!

3.60  GNU/Linux OS = Linux kernel + GPL'd utilities and applications

Within two or three years, the Linux kernel got melded with the GNU/FSF utilities (and also many FSF application-programmes), and  GNU/Linux,  the Free OS, was born.

3.70  Where GNU/Linux is today

Because of its unix-compatible architecture, GNU/Linux has already been preferred for Internet and Web applications for many years. Other reasons for this preference are: ruggedness, security, cost, lack of backdoors, no hidden tricks.

GNU/Linux is rich in applications.  Many of these applications are developed by GNU/FSF.  Many are also developed by individual programmers around the world.  It is difficult to find an application for the other OS, which doesn't have an alternative in GNU/Linux.  And the alternative is at least as good, and always cheaper and ethical.  Thus, in the pc OS arena, GNU/Linux has demolished the near-monopoly of the proprietary software.  Computer users in the home, and in the office now have a choice in OS's.  In fact, it is hard to find logical reasons even for a home PC, or a small-office PC, not to be a GNU/Linux machine.

4.0  A Few Social Observations

4.10  Revolution by the people

GNU/Linux, like many revolutions in history, started as a true movement by the people, with far-sighted, uncompromising, and selfless visionaries at the core.  Remarkably, it has continued to remain so.  After more than 20 years, the GNU/Linux movement has produced no new tyrants, no new hierarchies, no new concentration of riches or of power.  Instead, it remains healthy and productive, with the appearance of a near-`anarchy'.  Perhaps because of this, it works smoother, faster, and generally better than the other `developement models'.  `Business experts' hold elaborate discussions about those `models'.  However, the ethical high-ground possessed by GNU/Linux is plain for everyone to see.  The GPL has, so far, exhibited a refusal to dilute its ethical position for tactical benefits.  The licence has remained unchanged, and popular among developers, for more than 20 years.

4.20   What made this possible? 

Ans : People with certain qualities.  Some of these qualities are:

4.21   Love of freedom

If individuals have experienced real social freedom of behaviour and thought, most of them will come to cherish the freedom, and many will defy attempts to curtail it.

In our Indian context, it is necessary to define social freedom.  It does not include the `freedom' of driving-on-the-right.  On our streets, even on divided streets, I usually see about 10% of the vehicles driving the wrong way.  On undivided, two-way streets, the figure is above 30%.  Rather than `freedom', I call such behaviour `smalltime, selfish, stupidity'.

Soon after 1947, my father had told me the story of a village patil on a visit to the city, who said "The colonial rule is over.  We have our freedom, it's our raj  now.  Aataa Kuthhabi  Thukaa.  (You can spit anywhere now.)"

That's not the kind of freedom I mean here.  I mean `responsible' freedom.  Responsible freedom includes at least as much respect for the freedom of the weakest individuals as for your own.  It gives rise to certain qualities in the people, and these qualities eventually filter down into the `leaders' ...
4.22   Self-respect

Individuals develope the desire to do the `right' thing as they see it, rather than simply attaching themselves to the goingest tyrant for perceived personal benefits, and living happily ever after.  Instead, they develope the willingness to accept personal risks while pursuing what they see as `right'.

4.23   Irreverence

A healthy irreverence towards all established `big boys', power-wielders, and heirarchies.  Baapaalaa Baap Na Mhanane.  People, especially the young at heart, acquire the audacity to stand up, and say `The king has no clothes!'.  They don't constantly say `The govt should do such-and-such.'  They just go and do it themselves.  It's remarkable that the drivers of the GNU/Linux revolution had achieved it while still in their twenties.  They worked for it `right now', without promising themselves to work at a later date, when they might be more secure, more comfortable, or more `settled', or when conditions might be more suitable ...  Traditionally, the youth is expected to possess the restlessness and `brashness' required.

4.24   Selflessness, especially among the `leaders'

Willingness to subordinate selfish motives.  Especially `leaders' interested in GIVING TO SOCIETY also, rather than in just TAKING FROM SOCIETY to further fatten themselves.

4.25   A desire to do the impossible

This is probably inevitable if you have freedom and individual self-respect, and are not constantly told what you can and cannot do.

4.30   Three individuals; three paths

Interestingly, Torvalds, Stallman, and Gates are all products of the same society, around the same time.

Two went the socially conscious way, and are successfully trying to free the people.  Both have brilliant, path-breaking software achievements to their credit.  Both have also shown exceptional abilities to lead a large, non-zero-sum endeavour.  One of them, Stallman, was driven to do the impossible by dissatisfaction at being suppressed.  The other, Torvalds, was driven by limitations on resources.

And then there's the third, who went on to become the richest man in the world.

So, even in this limited field of pc software, we have at least three choices for a `hero'.  As Richard Stallman has said: "Your future depends upon what you value."

5.0  Some Concerns for the Future of GNU/Linux

5.10  Excessive slickness

Under the guise of user-friendliness, there may develope excessive expediency, leading to a possible stunting of user-intelligence.   Linux could then turn into nothing but another Windows, with only a GUI, and computing-challenged users.

5.20  Too many distros

Although there is nothing objectionable about anybody creating their own unique distro, too many of these in circulation could occupy an inordinate time of the rest of us while we simply try these distros out one after another.  I already see a trend among some `Linux-experts' in Pune to turn into mere consumers and discussors of new distros.  Could this divert some of the `creative' among us from their creative pursuits?

5.30  External threats

The current tyrants may attempt to thwart the movement through corrupt governments and beurocracies, flippant legal proceedings,  mis-information campaigns, FUD, and `software patents'.

6.0  Conclusions

6.1  The GNU/Linux phenomenon is perhaps the only large-scale human achievement of a constructive nature, with significant social consequence, that has not made me sad for humanity, since Gandhiji's work in the first half of the 20th century.

6.2   I see no such leaders or such people here at this time.  Could it be that they are there, but are effectively hidden from us by the media?

6.3   It's no surprise that the GNU/Linux revolution happened where it did, and not here in India.  Do we have responsible freedom?  Individual self-respect leading to acceptance of risks if necessary?  A desire to do the impossible, something that nobody has done before?  A constructive irreverence towards the powerful establishment?  Selfless leaders?  Do we have young who are also young at heart?

6.4  We can benefit from this brief discussion of recent history.  But, we must first be willing to LEARN from history, rather than using history as a tool in the hands of demagogues for creating, nurturing, and milking hatreds.

The GNU/Linux story is not over; it's still history-in-the-making.  You can participate by joining a local Linux Users' Group (LUG).  Here in Pune, the local LUG is the  Pune Gnu/Linux Users' Group (PLUG).

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