As long as previously-open technology has had the master switch pulled on it by forces of monetisation and private capital, there have been people on the underside of it all, exploiting proprietary protections and forcing technology back open, much to the chagrin of the captains of industry. Thus has been the way with the exploitation for reclamation of digital technology, a direct antecedent of ‘phone phreaking‘, sharing cable television, and other subversive practices. Hacking has its roots in such practices, reverse-engineering computer systems and providing open access to closed information in the same spirit of openness that has driven two other major subcultures of cyberculture: open-source software and piracy.
Arising from the development of commercially developed but disbarred systems like UNIX, itself closed off after the bar on selling it was lifted, open-source projects like GNU focused on developing freely-available analogues and the software to operate on them as an alternative to privately-owned software, crystalising in the rise of Linux, a small OS presented by Linus Torvalds (pictured). The emergence of a functioning UNIX kernel emerging almost entirely from copylefting was the spark of legitimacy the movement had so desperately needed. Perhaps the lasting legacy of the movement, however, was not only the provision of software for its own, speciality operating systems, but in porting its freely-available software, alternatives to popular but costly productivity suites among them, to proprietary operating systems, offering further options to those unversed in open-source systems or bound to one operating system (as seen with recent laptops).
During the course of our lecture on this topic, we discussed the possible motivations for this behaviour, and for putting in place an infrastructure parallel to those controlling the various media they worked in. One major factor settled on was that those dedicated enough to work to reverse-engineer technology or provide an alternative from the ground up was simply passionate about doing so. Such has been the popularity of open-source software, however, that major companies employ operatives to stay involved in Linux, via ports for distributions with app stores and other programming/management roles, to gain experience and maintain goodwill with the community. In recent times, the rises of consumer-friendly distributions of Linux, such as Ubuntu and Debian have in turn engendered OS-based app stores of their own, hosting paid conversions of proprietary software, in a concession to their place as a distant third in the market to monoliths like Microsoft and Apple.
While hair-splitting can be had over who uses what, the fact of the matter is open-source computing has made technology better for all, providing advancements at a free-to-low-cost point and providing infrastructure in a number of different industries, as well as providing essential technology for free, light on system requirements and suitable for use on older/refurbished PCs. Furthermore, open-source has provided access to computing and coding for generations of budding programmers now, with protection over the archetypal markup languages. Closing an ethical gap in an influential technology, open-source continues to disrupt the marketplace and provide a level playing field.
Bloomberg.com. 1991. `Electronic Bullets’ That Blow Away Illegal Cable Boxes – Bloomberg. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/1991-06-30/electronic-bullets-that-blow-away-illegal-cable-boxes. [Accessed 17 May 2017].
The Guardian. 2011. The Master Switch by Tim Wu – review | Books | The Guardian. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/apr/02/master-switch-tim-wu-review. [Accessed 17 May 2017].
The History of Phone Phreaking — FAQ. 2017. The History of Phone Phreaking — FAQ. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.historyofphonephreaking.org/faq.php. [Accessed 17 May 2017].
OMG! Ubuntu!. 2016. You Can’t Install Linux on a Microsoft Signature Edition Laptop (Updated) – OMG! Ubuntu!. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.omgubuntu.co.uk/2016/09/cant-install-linux-microsoft-signature-edition-laptop. [Accessed 17 May 2017].
Why Linus Torvalds doesn’t use Ubuntu or Debian. 2017. Why Linus Torvalds doesn’t use Ubuntu or Debian. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.minds.com/blog/view/354092101044015104. [Accessed 17 May 2017].