23. Wealth

Free For All. Go to the Table of Contents. Vist the Gifcom.

The writer, P. J. O'Rourke, once pointed out that wealth is a particularly confusing concept to understand. It had nothing to do with being born in the right place. Africa is filled with diamonds, gold, platinum, oil, and thousands of other valuable resources, while Japan has hardly anything underground except subway tunnels and anthrax from strange cults. Yet Japan is still far wealthier even after the long swoon of their postbubble economy.

O'Rourke also pointed out that wealth has nothing to do with raw brains. The Russians play chess as a national sport while Brentwood is filled with dim bulbs like the folks we saw during the O. J. Simpson murder trial. Yet poverty is endemic in Russia, while Brentwood flourishes. Sure, people wait in line for food in Brentwood like they did in Soviet Russia, but this is only to get a table at the hottest new restaurant.

Wealth is a strange commodity, and understanding it keeps economists busy. Governments need to justify their existence in some way, and lately people in the United States use their perception of the "economy" as a measure of how well the government is doing. But many of their attempts to use numbers to measure wealth and prosperity are doomed to failure. One year, the economists seem to be frantically battling deflation, then they turn around and rattle on and on about inflation. They gave up trying to measure the money supply to follow inflation and seem, at times, to be flying the economy by the seat of their pants. Of course, they're not really in charge. One minute you can't have growth without inflation. The next minute you can. It's all a bit like ancient days of tribal living when the high priest was responsible for dreaming up reasons why the volcano did or did not erupt. Some days the money supply smiles upon us, and on other days, she is very, very angry.

Wealth in the free software world is an even slippier concept. There's not even any currency to use to keep score. Let's say we wanted to know or at least guesstimate whether the free source world was wealthy. That's not too hard. Most of the guys hacking the code just want to drink caffeinated beverages, play cool games, and write more code. The endless stream of faster and faster computer boxes makes this as close to a perfect world as there could be. To make matters better, new T-shirts with clever slogans keep appearing. It's a nerd utopia. It's Shangri-La for folks who dig computers.

Of course, deciding whether or not someone is wealthy is not really an interesting question of economics. It's more about self-esteem and happiness. Someone who has simple needs can feel pretty wealthy in a shack. Spoiled kids will never be happy no matter how big their palace. There are plenty of content people in the free software world, but there are also a few who won't be happy until they have source code to a huge, wonderful, bug-free OS with the most features on the planet. They want total world domination.

A more intriguing question is whether the free source world is wealthier than the proprietary source world. This starts to get tricky because it puts Apples up against oranges and tries to make complicated comparisons. Bill Gates is incredibly wealthy in many senses of the word. He's got billions of dollars, a huge house, dozens of cars, servants, toys, and who knows what else. Even his employees have their own private jets. All of the trappings of wealth are there. Linus Torvalds, on the other hand, says he's pretty happy with about $100,000 a year, although several IPOs will probably leave him well off. Microsoft has thousands of programmers who are paid well to write millions of lines of code a year. Most open source programmers aren't paid much to create what they do. If money were a good measure, then the proprietary source world would win hands-down.

But money is the answer only if you want piles of paper with pictures of famous Americans on them. Several countries in Latin America generate huge piles of money from drugs, oil, and other natural resources, but the countries remain quite poor. The leaders who end up with most of the money might like the huge disparity, but it has very distinct limitations. When it comes time for college or medical care, the very rich start flying up to the United States. Johns Hopkins, a hospital in Baltimore near where I live, provides wonderful medical service to the poor who live in the surrounding neighborhood. It also has a special wing with plush suites for rich people who fly in for medical treatment. Many are potentates and high government officials from poor countries around the world.

People in the United States can enjoy the synergies of living near other well-educated, creative, empowered, and engaged citizens. People in poor societies can't assume that someone else will design great roads, build airlines, create cool coffee shops, invent new drugs, or do anything except get by on the few scraps that slip through the cracks to the great unwashed poor. The ultrarich in Latin America may think they're getting a great deal by grabbing all the pie, until they get sick. Then they turn around and fly to hospitals like Johns Hopkins, a place where the poor of Baltimore also enjoy quite similar treatment. Wealth is something very different from cash.

Most folks in the free source world may not have big bank accounts. Those are just numbers in a computer anyway, and everyone who can program knows how easy it is to fill a computer with numbers. But the free source world has good software and the source code that goes along with it. How many times a day must Bill Gates look at the blue screen of death that splashes across a Windows computer monitor when the Windows software crashes? How many times does Torvalds watch Linux crash? Who's better off? Who's wealthier?

The question might be asked, "Is your software better than it was four years ago?" That is, does your software do a better job of fetching the mail, moving the data, processing the words, or spreading the sheets? Is it more intuitive, more powerful, more stable, more featurerich, more interesting, more expressive, or just better?

The answers to these questions can't be measured like money. There's no numerical quotient that can settle any of these questions. There will always be some folks who are happy with their early-edition DOS word processor and don't see the need to reinvent the wheel. There are others who are still unhappy because their desktop machine can't read their mind.

For the devoted disciples of the open software mantra, the software in the free source world is infinitely better. Richard Stallman feels that the GNU code is better than the Microsoft code just because he has the source code and the freedom to do what he wants with it. The freedom is more important to him than whatever super-duper feature comes out of the Microsoft teams. After all, he can add any feature he wants if he has access to the basic source code. Living without the source code means waiting like a good peon for the nice masters from the big corporation to bless us with a bug fix.

There's no question that people like Stallman love life with source code. A deeper question is whether the free source realm offers a wealthier lifestyle for the average computer user. Most people aren't programmers, and most programmers aren't even the hard-core hackers who love to fiddle with the UNIX kernel. I've rarely used the source code to Linux, Emacs, or any of the neat tools on the Net, and many times I've simply recompiled the source code without looking at it. Is this community still a better deal?
There are many ways of looking at the question. The simplest is to compare features. It's hard to deny that the free software world has made great strides in producing something that is easy to use and quite adaptable. The most current distributions at the time I'm writing this come with a variety of packages that provide all of the functionality of Microsoft Windows and more. The editors are good, the browser is excellent, and the availability of software is wonderful. The basic Red Hat or Caldera distribution provides a very rich user interface that is better in many ways than Windows or the Mac. Some of the slightly specialized products like video software editors and music programs aren't as rich-looking, but this is bound to change with time. It is really a very usable world.

Some grouse that comparing features like this isn't fair to the Mac or Windows world. The GNOME toolkit, they point out, didn't come out of years of research and development. The start button and the toolbar look the same because the GNOME developers were merely copying. The GNU/Linux world didn't create their own OS, they merely cloned all of the hard commercial research that produced UNIX. It's always easier to catch up, but pulling ahead is hard. The folks who want to stay on the cutting edge need to be in the commercial world. It's easy to come up with a list of commercial products and tools that haven't been cloned by an open source dude at the time of this writing: streaming video, vector animation, the full Java API, speech recognition, three dimensional CAD programs, speech synthesis, and so forth. The list goes on and on. The hottest innovations will always come from well capitalized start-ups driven by the carrot of wealth.

Others point out that the free software world has generated more than its share of innovation. Most of the Internet was built upon non-proprietary standards developed by companies with Department of Defense contracts. Stallman's Emacs continues to be one of the great programs in the world. Many of the projects like Apache are the first place where new ideas are demonstrated. People who want to mock up a project find it easier to extend free source software. These ideas are often reborn as commercial products. While free source users may not have access to the latest commercial innovations, they have plenty of their own emerging from the open software world. GNOME isn't just a Windows clone--it comes with thousands of neat extensions and improvements that can't be found in Redmond.

Stallman himself says the GNU project improved many pieces of software when they rewrote them. He says, "We built on their work, to the extent that we could legally do so (since we could not use any of their code), but that is the way progress is made. Almost every GNU program that replaces a piece of Unix includes improvements."

Another way to approach the question is to look at people's behavior. Some argue that companies like Red Hat or organizations like Debian prove that people need and want some of the commercial world's handholding. They can't afford to simply download the code and fiddle with it. Most people aren't high school students doing time for being young. They've got jobs, families, and hobbies. They pay because paying brings continuity, form, structure, and order to the free source world. Ultimately, these Red Hat users aren't Stallman disciples, they're commercial sheep who are just as dependent on Red Hat as the Windows customers are on Microsoft.

The counter-argument is that this insight overlooks a crucial philosophical difference. The Red Hat customers may be slaves like the Microsoft customers, but they still have important freedoms. Sure, many Americans are wage slaves to an employer who pays them as little as possible, but they do have the freedom to go be wage slaves of another employer if they choose. Old-fashioned slaves faced the whip and death if they tried to take that route.

Most Linux users don't need to rewrite the source, but they can still benefit from the freedom. If everyone has the freedom, then someone will come along with the ability to do it and if the problem is big enough, someone probably will. In other words, only one person has to fly the X-wing fighter down the trench and blow up the Death Star.

Some point out that the free source world is fine-if you've got the time and the attention to play with it. The source code only helps those who want to spend the time to engage it. You've got to read it, study it, and practice it to get any value from it at all. Most of us, however, just want the software to work. It's like the distinction between people who relax by watching a baseball game on television and those who join a league to play. The spectators are largely passive, waiting for the action to be served up to them. The league players, on the other hand, don't get anything unless they practice, stretch, push, and hustle. They need to be fully engaged with the game. All of us like an occasional competition, but we often need a soft couch, a six-pack, and the remote control. Free software is a nice opportunity to step up to the plate, but it's not true refreshment for the masses.

Which is a better world? A polished Disneyland where every action is scripted, or a pile of Lego blocks waiting for us to give them form? Do we want to be entertained or do we want to interact? Many free software folks would point out that free software doesn't preclude you from settling into the bosom of some corporation for a long winter's nap. Companies like Caldera and Linuxcare are quite willing to hold your hand and give you the source code. Many other corporations are coming around to the same notion. Netscape led the way, and many companies like Apple and Sun will follow along. Microsoft may even do the same thing by the time you read this.

Money isn't the same as wealth, and the nature of software emphasizes some of the ways in which this is true. Once someone puts the hours into creating software, it costs almost nothing to distribute it to the world. The only real cost is time because raw computer power and caffeinated beverages are very inexpensive.