The Magic Black Box Paradox of Freedom

The free software community understands that free software gives the user more freedom than proprietary software.  Proprietary software confines its users, prohibits them from making changes that would allow everyone to benefit, etc. Free software advocates (myself included) have a habit of claiming that using free (libre) software means the same thing as having freedom.  But does the fact that someone is using free software necessarily imply that the person has as much freedom as is possible?

Freedom is the ability to do what one wants.  Some restrictions to freedom are understandable and necessary.  No sane individual would argue for the freedom to kill, or the freedom to steal.  In modern society, restriction on an individual’s freedom are most acceptable if said restrictions protect the freedom of others.  The freedom to kill takes away the freedom to live from the killed.  The freedom to steal takes away the rights of property from the robbed.  However, an argument against hate speech, because it hurts others’ freedom to feel safe, is much more controversial.  A line must be drawn somewhere that establishes the maximum possible freedom for all individuals.

In the same way that freedom must be balanced to give the maximum amount of freedom to everybody, each of us must make decisions to balance our own freedom every day, whether or not we realize it.  When we purchase a candy bar, we give up our freedom to spend that money elsewhere.  We also, however, gain the freedom to use the purchased candy bar in any way that we choose.  In other words, we exchange one freedom for another.

In computer software, the application of this idea is less straightforward.  Each person must make a choice between free software and proprietary software.  Those who value freedom will always choose free software.  Those who have less respect for freedom, though, will likely choose the proprietary software.  To these people, the restrictions of the software are not worth the possible loss of “the freedom to understand how to use an interface at first glance” or “the freedom to use one’s computer the same way one has always been using it”.  They make the choice to give up “the freedom of not having someone else completely control one’s computing environment” in exchange for some other smaller freedoms.   However, those who recognize the importance of “the freedom to understand one’s computing environment” make a few sacrifices.  They give up a little bit of their “freedom to spend one’s time how one pleases” in order to learn some new ways of doing things.  They may give up some of their “freedom to spend one’s money how one pleases” in order to get some professional help.  But in the end, these fans of freedom are the ones who have more of it.  Those who do not care about their freedom give up a little of it every day when they submit to the developers of the software they use.  Those who care made a small sacrifice which allowed them to never have to worry about these restrictions again.

It is true that the majority of the world does not understand the fact that using proprietary software is a violation of freedom.  This is because, to the majority of the world, a computer is a magic black box.  Various peripherals, such as a keyboard, mouse, or camera, allow information to be entered.  Then, that information is magically spit back out in a different form, possibly to someone else in a different location.  I personally can’t even begin to understand the workings of a computer.  Really, how can a library full of books be stored on something the size of a hamburger?  More amazingly, how can any single word from any of those books be retrieved in the blink of an eye?  I am a programmer, but I still don’t understand how the software I write can be fed through this little chip in my computer and be displayed on the screen as something humans can comprehend and use to be productive.  The inside of my computer is a black box to me.  I lose a little bit of freedom every time I use a computer.

One can lose freedom without allowing someone else to gain power.  If you fall down the stairs and break your arm, you lose the freedom to use your arm, even though nobody else has gained any freedom from your loss.  When you use a computer to accomplish a task, you lose the freedom to completely control what happens with that task.  If you use free software, you are better off, as you can modify the software or hire someone to do so.  But free software does not in any way suggest that you have all of the freedoms you would have if you were to complete the task at hand without the use of a computer.  Think about Frank, the marketing agent who barely made it to his presentation on time, only to discover that his laptop battery had died.  He didn’t think to bring the power cord, because his battery life was very good.  By relying on the computer to keep one’s information, one loses the freedom of having said information in a human-readable form.  Frank doesn’t have the freedom to grab his Impress presentation out of his machine because he relied on the black box for that.

Freedom is about so much more than knowing what is happening.  It is just as much about being able to do something about it.   Even a full understanding of what is going on means nothing if nothing can be done about it.  As our technology infrastructure gets more and more advanced, we must give up more and more freedom.  Let’s say, for instance, Frank was ready for technology problems and saved a backup of his presentation online.  When he did this, he gave up his freedom of privacy.  He gave up his freedom of controlling exactly what process the file went through.  But, the root of the problem is still there: he lost his freedom by putting it into yet another magic black box. Using more than one magic black box will never solve the problem; it will only alleviate certain symptoms.  Frank will never be able to give his presentation anyway if his co-worker spills his coffee on the overhead projector, something beyond his control. The fact that the information is “safe” does not mean that the information is free.

When it comes to software as a service, does the term “free” mean anything?  The GNU AGPL license is currently seen as the benchmark for a “free web service”.  Even though the software is provided by some 3rd party, it somehow gives the user the impression that they have complete freedom.  If that user wants to put the software on their own web site, they may do so.  But there are so many other things that are being exchanged for that, to a point that makes it unrealistic.  Any data will likely disappear.  Any connections to other users on the site will likely be lost.  The identification associated with the service (the URL) will no longer exist.  Most importantly, though, most people do not have the time or money to put into running such a service.  Running a reliable, dependable web server requires too many sacrifices of other freedoms, so much so that it is often not worth the use of the software in the first place.  I use Identica, MediaWiki, and Launchpad regularly.  This blog even runs WordPress.  All of these are “free software”, which means I have slightly more freedom than I would otherwise.  But I do not expect these pieces of software to give me anywhere near complete freedom.  They are not just on a magic black box; they are on somebody else’s magic black box.

But, then again, one also must look at the other side of the argument.  Services such give users other freedoms they would not otherwise have.  MediaWiki gives me the freedom to collaborate on documents with people around the world.  Identica gives me the freedom to write about random snippets of my life nobody really cares about.  WordPress gives me the freedom to share with you, the reader, this post.  But at what expense do these benefits come?  No reasonable amount of time or effort is ever going to allow anyone to increase their freedom significantly.  Distributed systems, such as Identica and the future GNU Social, would help a great deal, but in most instances such systems would destroy many of the freedoms granted by non-distributed platforms, namely reliability and time.

Am I suggesting that free software doesn’t matter when speaking of freedom?  Not at all.  What I am suggesting is that, on a case by case basis, we need to review how our freedom is affected by decisions related to technology.  The biggest loss of freedom comes from using a magic black box to solve all of our problems.  Using free software helps a great deal, but each instance of computer usage comes with a loss of freedom.  Most of the time it is worth it.  It is much more effective to type documents on a computer.  Corrections can easily be made, additional copies can quickly be produced, and spelling is ensured to be correct.  But the loss of freedom isn’t worth it for every task.  Maybe it would be more reliable to use a pencil and paper calendar instead of putting it into your magic black box.

Things get much more complicated, however, with the introduction of the internet.  Freedom stops becoming black and white, and new problems show up.  Obviously Identica gives users much more freedom than Twitter, but is it enough?  Is the stream of random life events provided by micro-blogging worth the freedom it forces us to give up in the first place?  (Or should we just forget about society’s conclusion that a web page can come even remotely close to representing someone’s life?)

The point I am trying to make is that there are advantages and disadvantages to each decision we make, and in those decision, we have to take freedom into account.  Maybe those funny pictures you posted to Facebook last night don’t bother you now, but who knows what implications they will have when you no longer have control over your information.  Every decision has benefits and disadvantages, and the decision to use technology to accomplish a task should not be made until all of the positives and negatives, especially those representing changes in freedom, have been carefully weighed.

Published in: on May 1, 2010 at 5:07 pm  Comments (14)  


  1. This has to be one of the better articles/views I’ve read about our freedoms and the freedoms in the way of our date.

    Excellent work!

  2. You successfully made software freedom easy to understand. You did a great job of summarizing the importance of the average person’s freedom decisions. I’ll be recommending your article to anyone who asks me about software freedom.

  3. “Those who value freedom will always choose free software. Those who have less respect for freedom, though, will likely choose the proprietary software.”

    Good thought, with the following caveat ….

    I am free to use proprietary software and free software.

    This is not an apple and orange issue but for the record I do eat both. Free is not “always better”. Take our freedom to engage in this exchange. This is “good” but what was the cost to get here. Freedom of Speech is free by no means. It is expensive. Many “bad” things have happened to guarantee our freedom of speech, including but not limited to, sacrifice of human lives. Keeping It Simple is “good” but life is not so “simplistic”.

    Thank you for your thoughts and posting them here, thereby giving away some of your “freedom”.

    Peace Always ….
    Just An Old Hippie with a computer ….

  4. very well done article. Thank you for giving up some of ur freedom so I might give up some of mine.

  5. People aren’t used to work with a computer.

    Think it about this way. If you have a fork and you want to study it, take it apart. What’s going to stop you to see the inside?
    Nothing, it will reveal itself.

    Software doesn’t have this convenience. The problem is many people don’t know. They think something will run and it’ll be good or won’t run and be not good. They don’t know that it’s tied to a particular platform (be it OS or runtime environment). They aren’t used to think: these stuff needs to be done in a complicated structure to translate in 1’s and 0’s. They don’t read the license arguing that they will be all right, even if you tell them restrictions that they themselves don’t like.

    It’s just because most people don’t know and care. They also can’t think of consequences because they tend to think physically: if someone has something I don’t want them to have. I can take it away. This isn’t true if the other individual’s source can be copied over and over again while it’s available on the Internet or LAN.
    This are the kind of pitfalls people face.

    They are prepared to pay for quality software because if somebody gets paid to do it. And probably will do it right. However, they don’t know that some screen shots of how it looks is completely decoupled from how good it works. And that nothing prevents it from being crap. Unfortunately many companies can recapitulate on that straight line of thinking in sometimes even unbelievable ways.
    People have great difficulty in realizing copy/paste is also somewhat available for programs. If they don’t know anything they think every copy of the software needs the same amount of work.

    I have told several people about the difference in word and openDocument files. They then realized that they are somewhat trapped. Young children even can’t make distinction between files and a program. They open it and assume what they see is not a file but their thing. Again the notion of a required platform is completely strange to them.

    The problem is that people think programs are as open as physical things that you can take apart.

    A giant step is being made if you reveal to those people that how they save their date will affect what it can open. While explaining the beneficences of free and open standards.

  6. People give up one thing to get another. People use proprietary software to get ease of use and the utility they want. It may be just a perception (or ignorance). People can disagree about that. That disagreement is the basis of markets. If bakers valued their bread the same as their customers do, there would be no sale.

  7. […] The Magic Black Box Paradox of Freedom Freedom is the ability to do what one wants. Some restrictions to freedom are understandable and necessary. No sane individual would argue for the freedom to kill, or the freedom to steal. In modern society, restriction on an individual’s freedom are most acceptable if said restrictions protect the freedom of others. The freedom to kill takes away the freedom to live from the killed. The freedom to steal takes away the rights of property from the robbed. However, an argument against hate speech, because it hurts others’ freedom to feel safe, is much more controversial. A line must be drawn somewhere that establishes the maximum possible freedom for all individuals. […]

  8. Excellent article.

    It reminds of the old Aesop’s fable about “the dog and the wolf”, so many times cited as an example of gains made through the loss of freedom.

    So, freedom is not simple, as you brightly put it and there’s more to it than just choosing the right license; OTOH, choose proprietary software and you will be doing the “dog choice”: to get things by having a master (who could even eat you — or sue you, in modern parlance).

    Regarding your many choices, let me make an analogy, which I deem illustrative:

    We don’t speak English over here. So, one has to learn it, because it’s a kind of international language these days. Very well, some people find very hard as a second language and avoid it as the plague. When we suggest they learn it, the inevitable response is: “Does knowing English will land me a job for sure?”

    Certainly not, I usually answer, but not knowing it will prevent you from getting a job — and that’s for sure.

    Likewise, while choosing free software does not guarantee perfect happiness, using proprietary makes sure you will bump against some walls.

  9. […] You can read the whole article here: The Magic Black Box Paradox of Freedom […]

  10. You have to respect the hard work that is put into creating a software, i am using open source software aswell, but i wouldnt mind to pay fore high quality.

  11. I agree that it is easier to hit brick walls with proprietary software, as there are many more (onerous) use

    conditions than on FOSS. However, FOSS itself isn’t the Freedom Valhalla it is purported to be in several FOSS


    It is true that FOSS generally doesn’t seek intentional lock in. It is true that FOSS licensing mostly puts

    conditions on attribution and distribution and mere use is permitted unfettered in most cases. Choice is much

    greater with FOSS as the licensing makes for a level playing field and fosters fierce competition.

    However, there are a few myths that FOSS perpetuates which are only theoretically feasible. In theory everbody is

    free to change the software. In theory everybody is able to hire someone to change the software. In theory FOSS can

    be made to fit.

    Reality, unfortunately, is different. All the purported freedoms of modification are either only available to

    programmers or to the affluent. Lets be honest. The tired meme of everybody can learn how to program is a cop out.

    It is the same theoretical possibility as “everybody can become a brain surgeon”. Yes, in theory it is possible,

    but brain surgeon is a higly specialized profession, so 99.9% of the population will not become brain surgeons.

    Programming is a skill that theoretically everybody can learn, but how many people have the wit, the time and the

    inclination of pursuing programming? Reality dictates that there are much more non-programmers than programmers and

    by the looks of it, it will be that way for a long time to come. So modification is a theoretical benefit to

    non-programmers, in practise it means nothing.

    It’s the same with having someone else modify the software. It is even possible in practise, but the cost of doing

    so is unrealistically steep. Most likely if you have to get a third party to modify a piece of FOSS, it means that

    upstream is not interested in the kind of modification you want, or they would have put it in themselves. As an

    individual, if you commission a modification that upstream rejects, you’ve just created your own private fork. That

    is a fork a non-programmer can’t maintain, so you have to keep a programmer at hand to maintain that fork.

    Platforms change and individual (modified) programs need to be adapted to that. Your fork of a program needs to be

    maintained as long as you need the modification. For the average man one fork might be feasible financially, never

    mind the hassle of organising the maintenance of it. Now see how many packages an average distro like Fedora or

    Ubuntu carries and try to picture an individual who wants to maintain 30 private modified packages. That individual

    needs to hire programmers to maintain a private repository of these 30 packages and have them modified again and

    again to let them run on newer versions of the distro. If you’re not affluent or a corporation, this simply isn’t

    economically feasible.

    Non programmers are beholden to programmers, be it FOSS or Proprietary software. Foss is more diverse and doesn’t

    strive for lock in, but for non-programmers the ultimate option is to use their feet. Just look at the Canonical’s

    left button placement debacle. End users were simply told to shut up and get with the program. What option did

    those have who opposed the change? Go elsewhere.** The upshot for end users was that GNU/Linux isn’t single source,

    so walking is relatively easy. Nonetheless, that is the only choice you have as a non-programmer, if you don’t like

    where a project is going.

    **No, the overstated “but you can easily change it” doesn’t cut it. That right corner is vacant NOW, but Ubuntu

    10.10 will put “windicators” there (planned as the sole replacement of the indicator panel). So how “easily” can you “change it” then? Without breaking the desktop…

  12. That is very important indeed. It is the people who do not take advantage of that who are the ones who normally do not succeed. If you stick with it and learn the ways, this industry can earn you a lot of money!! Good article, nice work .


  13. Sooo thats how it is. I’ll be sure to remember. 🙂
    Nice setup on your site, too. I like it.


  14. I don’t have a problem paying fore Software, because I understand that the producer hase put in hardwork and time into creating it.


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