Chris Gulker: I'm Open Source, so feel free to make me a better human being

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The Independent Online

Attention: I hereby declare myself an Open Source Person.

Attention: I hereby declare myself an Open Source Person.

I offer myself under the GNU/GPL license - that's GNU for "Gulker's Not Useless", and GPL for "Gulker Public Licence" - which differs a bit from the other GNU/GPL licence which you Open Source fans are no doubt familiar with.

Basically, it means I will place my personal "source code" - my life - on a server (www.gulker.com) and any and all are free to take it, modify it, improve it or sell it commercially - but you have to give your changes back to me.

That way, I can take your improving suggestions and be a better human for it. What's more, I think this is the way of the world: all successful people in the future will be Open Source Persons. If you want to keep your improvements to yourself, you can just send me a cheque. I'd like that. Send lots of cheques. Of course, my wife would probably point out she's been offering me improving suggestions for years, and to no avail.

What brought me to this place was an experience I had last week, involving some stuff that was most decidedly not Open Source. I was back at my old school, Western Reserve Academy in Hudson, Ohio, to deliver something called the "Morgan Lecture". Burton Morgan was an entrepreneur, so I was trying for an entrepreneurial spin.

My topic, "A Brief, Outrageous, History of the Future", aimed to get the attention of the 15- to 18-year-olds in the room. And since teenagers might find mere oratory a little dull, I used Microsoft PowerPoint to present my case complete with photos, text, sound and video clips - kids today better get used to PowerPoint, especially if they're going to be entrepreneurs.

One of the points I made is that it's fun and easy to be visionary and predict stuff, but it's hard actually to make the future. That takes hard work, scientific method and other rigorous disciplines, so I stick to the easy path. If my predictions come true, people think I'm smart. If they don't, which is usually the case, people forget.

So I was using film and video clips to make a point about how people have seen the future in the past. I showed the films Metropolis, Fritz Lang's silent 1926 classic, and The Matrix, the 1999 film by the Wachowski Brothers. I wanted to show the scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey where an astronaut and an artificially intelligent computer talk about feelings. My point was going to be that we don't often get predictions right: here we are in 2001, and I have yet to have a discussion with my Macintosh about anything, much less feelings.

But I couldn't easily do it. My laptop's DVD player wouldn't let me show the movie simultaneously on its screen and the overhead projector. I think the DVD player, a product of Apple, is trying to protect against any hanky-panky like making a copy of the movie. There was a workaround, but it was onerous and would have meant keeping my young crowd waiting while we switched wires and settings.

Now I had a number of textual quotes in the presentation, which I cut and pasted from various authors and publications, with attribution. Ditto for photos and other content - all of which I felt were fair use. But I had to do without my essential video clip. Even though it was sitting there, in digital format on my machine, there were controls blocking what should have been a drag-and-drop operation.

I've paid the authors: I've bought the videotape and the DVD of that film, as well as Arthur C Clarke's books. I think it's likely that showing the scene to 400 teenagers who were unfamiliar with 2001: A Space Odyssey might have led to some of them buying or renting the movie, thus adding to the creator's fortunes. But no dice.

The irony is that crooks, who really do want to rip off the authors, will happily figure out how to make copies. But I, an actual paying customer, can't use the content in a fair and reasonable way. What's up with that?

Information really does want to be free: and when it is free, the world almost certainly becomes a better place for it. When the early postal service and the invention of printing allowed the likes of Galileo, Locke and Descartes to correspond and publish their ideas, the pace of advancement in the sciences picked up considerably, compared with times when great thinkers laboured in isolation.

Today's pace of change is dizzying. It's so fast that understanding the consequences of our technologies and policies and actions is important work, in my opinion. And that work proceeds less well when there are artificial - and stupid - roadblocks. The best thinking, the greatest visions, need to be spread more, not less, widely.

In short, I'm all for Open Source everything: including content like films and music. Napster showed us that music companies were willing to sue, rather than listen to, their customers, and movie companies are even worse, with their regional controls and encrypted products. Never mind that wider acclaim would probably mean greater sales.

It's unlikely that music or record companies will take the long view. Like me, they'd prefer the cheque (or cash or credit card). But, at least I'm Open Source.

cg@gulker.com

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