Two conventions

by Andy Oram

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I adroitly sidestepped Logan Airport, where thousands of Democratic
conventioneers were disembarking, and drove for an hour and a half to
Manchester, New Hampshire to fly away from the political circus and
reach the easy-going, no-standing-on-ceremony city of Portland,
Oregon. Here I will spend a week with the
O'Reilly Open Source convention,
a community and a pursuit very different from the Democratic National

The explicit thrust of both the Open Source convention and the DNC are
technical. OSCon pursues the technical goals of creating and deploying
software. The DNC tries to put in place the technical measures to
defeat an incumbent president. But behind the technical foci of both
OSCon and the DNC lie some essential principles

Behind the Open Source convention

What does it mean for a group of intrepid computer hackers, rampant
individuals who celebrate feats of extraordinary programmatic
cleverness, to endorse the existence of the Commons and give away
everything they do?

Even more amazingly, what does it mean for IBM, Novell, Sun, and so
many other major companies to contribute to these public efforts, to
gladly draw software from these efforts to bolster their products, and
to offer the fruits of the efforts to other major corporations?

None of these individuals or companies believe in subordinating
themselves humbly to the community at large. They have learned that
pulling their oars together takes them farther than rowing along one
by one. But there's a deeper principal at work too.

They all want individuals to strive and succeed as individuals, but
they recognize that good infrastructure fosters individual
. They each plan on erecting their own proud edifices,
but free software is the firm platform on which they build.

I think we all instinctively understand that we need infrastructure in
order to achieve personal success. The infrastructure includes, for
starters, a government that recognizes danger in time and protects us
from criminal acts. It may include an educational system affordable by
all talented individuals. Someday we may decide it includes the
information access
discussed in my most recent blog.

Behind the Democratic National Convention

It is harder to find a principle behind the Democrats. Yesterday's New
York Times Magazine (July 25, 2004) documented how liberals are giving
up hope of finding a worldview and set of policy proposals they can
live with in the Democratic Party and are concentrating more and more
on independent organizations for these things. The much-publicized 527
mechanism of the McCain-Feingold election law (a clause that
encourages parallel organizations to intervene in election campaigns
without coordinating with political parties), which was generally
thought to help the Democratic party, may actually weaken it in the
long run while strengthening the progressive movement as a whole.

As with the free software movement, the Democrats glorify the rights
of the individual. They uphold most of the recent tax gifts to the
wealthy, let companies treat both their accounting books and their
workers pretty much they way they want, and allow educational and
career rewards to stay funneled to the usual winners. There will not
be much change for a long time in who runs the global economy or how
it is run, regardless of whether the Democrats or the Republicans
dominate the U.S. government.

But along with this endorsement of laissez-faire, the
Democrats offer a sense that something must be done to handle the
negative consequences of this choice. Somehow or other, laid-off
workers need opportunities to jump back into the work force, poor
people need to get their blood pressure treated, the gutting of the
environment must be repaired.

One can see why the liberal movers and shakers profiled in the New
York Times Magazine find little excitement and inspiration in this
program. It cannot even talk about, much less solve, the looming
problems of resource depletion, racism and xenophobia, national
financial insolvency, and outrageous injustice. It is on the one hand
wonderfully thoughtful, concerned, and subtle, but at the same time
infuriatingly patrician, detached, and leery of commitment. No one
should be surprised to find that the party has chosen a chief
spokesman with all those qualities.

But once again, there is a respect for infrastructure in this
program. There is a sense that present is the basis for the future,
and that the future must be respected.

I barely regret giving up the press pass I was offered so I could join
the Democrats inside their convention center. I regret slightly more
giving up my chance to be searched by police (not the same police that
nearly disrupted the festivities) for the privilege of riding the
subway, or my chance of joining protesters in the plastic-wrapped
metal cage aptly called a "free speech zone." I would rather check on
the progress of the revolution in social infrastructure called the
open source movement. But there is something similar in the air at
both conventions.

Where will free software take us?