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Daniel Einspanjer's journal

Data warehousing, ETL, BI, and general hackery

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Willingness to be a little evil
I have been a supporter of Firefox and Mozilla for several years now, and while I don't write patches and fix bugs, a major part of that support is educating people about Mozilla, open source, and user empowerment whenever a conversation about technology allows for it.

I've found that people who use proprietary software and operating systems often fall into two broad categories for rationalizing that choice:
1. They are told to do so by some authority (usually their employeer, sometimes their social tech support person, and in some cases, just because they were told it was the right thing to do by an ad or magazine article).
2. They started using it for some reason (typically reason #1 above) a long time ago and are now just accustomed to it.

I'm sure all this is going to be old news to most people reading this, but I bring it up because of an interesting article I read today.

In the 1960's and early 70's, psychologist Stanley Milgram performed a series of famous experiments that tested the willingness of people to do something they would normally object to on moral grounds when they are in a strictly controlled environment and instructed to do so by an authority figure.

More recently, psychologist Jerry Burger had the opportunity to perform a series of similar experiments.  This alternet article describes the story and discusses the findings.  As I read the results and Dr. Burger's statements regarding the findings, I started thinking about how easy it is for the people to choose to give up their freedom to a piece of proprietary software for reasons similar to the ones described in these experiments.

In a green field, these people would normally opt for software that provided them with more freedom and in many cases, subjectively better security, but because they are instructed by an authority figure, or because they got started with it a long time ago and just slid deeper and deeper in, those preferences are not enough by themselves to prompt the person to change their behavior.

Now even this thought in and of itself would not be enough to prompt me to blog about this topic.  We're still well in the territory where the people who haven't gotten lost in a Wikipedia article about toothbrush hygiene they found when they clicked my first link are saying, "um, DUH!"  So here is my point:

At the end of the article, Dr. Burger focuses on an interesting finding of both experiments.  When a person is instructed to do something "wrong", they are significantly less likely to do so if they are surrounded by peers who object first.

So when you talk to someone who is sighing about how much they hate product X but they don't have a choice, don't hate on them and don't deride them for not having a backbone, but just tell them and show them how you chose to stand up for your freedom and your security.  An example can go a long way toward giving them the courage to listen to that little voice inside saying, "I want something better!"

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On the other hand...

It's also possible they're using proprietary software because it's better. Almost every piece of software I use is open source, not because it's free of charge, or free as in speech, but because it's better overall.

But there are exceptions; media players and games are two very prominent ones.

Re: On the other hand...

Certainly very true. There are many times when people have already looked at their options and decided objectively what the right choice for them is.

I guess I was filtering those people out in a way. Trying to focus in on the many people I've met who use a certain piece of software because they don't feel they have an option or that it would be uncomfortable to use something else that might be better overall.


Interesting idea, but you're starting with the assumption that software freedom is a moral issue, comparable to knowingly performing criminal activity. And while there are certainly others who share that opinion, it's by no means universally accepted.

Myself, I understand the position, but don't hold to it myself - as a developer, I think having source code and the right to modify it is a big technical benefit, that will influence which projects I choose to use, and I do often contribute back to those projects. But at the same time, I see no moral question in writing proprietary software for a living.

Your position makes plenty of sense and I do a similar benefits analysis to the software choices I make every day.

I agree that it is only a moral issue for a small number of people. But I feel that for many people who aren't developers, it is something that they fight with. They complain that their computer has yet another virus (i.e. it isn't working the way they expect) or that a program is just terrible because it doesn't do what they want or it crashes frequently. When I have talked to these people, some of them say that they can't or won't change because they are told by their boss that they must use it or they have gotten used to putting up with the problems and that they'd rather do that than go through the effort of trying to use something different that may not be as mainstream.

Many times, it would be wrong for an employee to "go rogue" and decide to use an un-authorized piece of software. There might be compatibility problems with the other systems that the company has decided upon, or the IT department might not have the time or ability to support a one-off software package.

But when this, "I have no choice" mentality creeps into all of their interactions with and decisions regarding software, that is when I think that it is at least worth showing people what else is out there. The more people who are comfortable using software that empowers them in their personal lives, the more that influence will start to creep into their professional lives.

Re: Stretching

Ok, but that's not really a case for free versus proprietary. It's a case for having one option, or several. Plenty of disenchanted Windows users have become Mac users instead, exchanging one set of proprietary software for another. And if that works for them, fine.

And I do agree that giving people those options is a good thing - software improves by having competition to inspire and motivate. But I just don't see a moral factor anywhere in that.

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