Does Free Software destroy the IT Profession?

Do people voluntarily creating something for free, harm the software ecosystem and business prospects of individuals?

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A new commenter has opened a new vector of attack against Free Software in the comments of my article about manager’s dislike for IT Pros. There he tries to argue that the proliferation os Free Software and the GPL is harming the IT profession as a whole because now that anyone can write software and the combined efforts of thousands can create as much of a quality software as any capitalist company, the demand for expensive proprietary software is decreasing and thus less programming jobs can exist as there’s less opportunity to use state granted monopolies (i.e. copyrights) to make money.

The argument relies on what makes one a “Professional” and in the words of the commenter:

As for “giving many more people the opportunity to take part in the IT profession” — that’s just an outright lie. If you ain’t gettin’ paid, you ain’t a professional — and that’s by definition; go look up the word “profession” in a dictionary if you don’t believe it. All those coders putting stuff out for free? They aren’t professionals. Even if they lived up to what are laughingly known as professional standards (which they certainly do not), they wouldn’t be professionals.

This arguments sounds very much like the classic anti-piracy rhetoric from the Recording Mafias about how file-sharing is killing the music industry. But instead of file-sharing, the author here replaces it with Free Software. But the principle remains the same. When people can get something for free (whether that is free software or free music), they will not pay for it, therefore companies will not make enough profits, therefore there will not be enough jobs for people being paid explicitly to write proprietary code for sale.

But much like the music industry argument, the software industry argument is also flawed: Just because people cannot make money via the previous business models does not mean that nobody will ever make money. The Free Software business models are some of the newest experiments in money making, much like giving your music away for free is also a new experiment in making money. Both of them are not mature yet and there’s a lot of testing and trying to make them work, but there’s certainly a lot of people who do make money out of them and even better, there’s a lot more stuff being made.

And that’s the clincher really. When people complain that an industry is “dying”, they don’t really mean that less stuff related to that industry is being made but rather that those who were already using a particular business model cannot continue doing so. The original commenter’s problem is that those who were earning a lot of money by selling software cannot continue making as much or more. Why? Because free software outperforms them for a lower cost. In short the argument is that some people cannot continue selling less value for a higher price.

Of course they set it up so that it seems that it’s the poor wage-slave coder who is taking the hit by not being able to find a job or having their wages reduced. They completely forget to mention that it’s the consumers that benefit by being able to use a better quality product for a fraction of the price. In fact, the wage-slaves of the IT world have far more to fear from the Indian outsourcing companies than from Free Software which at least, when given enough critical mass, will allow far more people to work independently rather than in a wage-slave position.

Becuase this is the main way people can make money out of coding via free software. They do not have to sell their code, they only have to sell their services as a coder. They don’t build a program and then sell it, they are contracted to build and improve an already existing product which then everyone can enjoy. Taking a holistic view, this is overwhelmingly a positive result since rather than having people rediscover the wheel every time they want to sell something (and thus end up with many different programs offering basically the same functionality), you get people improving on what came before them; standing on the shoulders of giants and improving things for everyone that comes after them.

Another common argument to this point point that is brought is how people currently work: They build a program and try to sell it. by then pointing out that free software is gratis they assume that people will simply not build programs anymore. This is usually used in conjunction with games and to show why people don’t write free software games. This argument is simply taking the current system and asserting that this is the only way it can be. They ignore that the way people work is because of the way the rules of the game have been set which make one particular path,  “build and then sell”, as the most optimal to make money. But the rules of the game have not been set in stone and we can and should challenge them directly when they stop making sense.

If copyrights weren’t enforced on us from the dawn of IT, the current business models would not have built themselves around them. There would certainly be a demand for software and games and that would certainly have been fulfilled, only it would have been done in a different way. To take the way the software system has evolved because copyrights existed and assert that this is the only way it can ever work and the end of the world is nigh if we challenge this is simply absurd. Free Software proves this wrong.

Sure, the biggest software companies who are sucking at the tit of the state would suffer from it and possibly some programmers earning currently absurd salaries would have to scale down their demands to be in line with everyone else in the world, but everyone else would benefit. Better software for a fraction of the cost and a far wider tail for people to make a living on. The IT Profession would go nowhere as long as a demand for it exists.

In closing, one has to ponder how completely misaligned the ethical compass of scomeone can be, when they consider the voluntary act that thousands do for free – and for the benefit of everyone else – as something wrong, because it harms the greedy and for-profit acts of a few which are based on state violence and privilege and lead to a result where most can’t even possess the results. It shows how the way the system works can become so ingrained in the mentality of someone where they cannot even look externally at it and notice that if because of the way Capitalisms works a good act can be considered “bad” while a bad one becomes “good”, perhaps there is something inherently broken in the system itself.

UPDATE: Redditors have been providing some excellent arguments to support my point as well. Take a look.

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IT: A modern window into the historical dislike of bosses against expertise.

Experise is toxic towards business as it disrupts the effects of “scientific management”. We have now the rare opportunity to witness such a stuggle first hand.

Frame-breakers, or Luddites, smashing a loom. ...
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I was sent via email an interesting article by computerworld looking into the gap between management’s impression of IT professionals and what is actually happening. What struck me as I was reading it, was how very much the same arguments could be used against any possible professional who likes what they are doing and take pride in their work. This is pretty much the impression any manager or boss will have:

[Geeks] are smart and creative, but they are also egocentric, antisocial, managerially and business-challenged, victim-prone, bullheaded and credit-whoring. To overcome these intractable behavioral deficits you must do X, Y and Z.

One can easily replace “Geeks” with “Engineers”, “Mechanics”, “Artisans” or whatever else an profession might be that retains any amount of skill. As much as I’d like to toot my own horn as a geek, I can’t in good conscience accept it as a fact that there’s simply something special about geeks that causes this. Or rather, there is something special related to geeks, but it’s in fact something external. It’s the environment they work in.

You see, what makes geeks maintain such a behaviour is the fact that their profession has not yet been deskilled. The job of an IT Geek thus still retains a very large amount of necessary creativity in order to get done. One needs to know their craft in order to get the respect of one’s peers, very much like the article explains. And this expertise, this witholding of respect for those who are not skilled is part of management’s dislike for them. The other part is the fact that the skilled worker maintains power over the executive.

And they hate that.

How does the IT Geek maintain power? By being the only one who can get the job done. No matter how much management is pissed by their attitude, if that person or group are the only ones keeping the machines running, there’s not a lot they can do. There’s even less they can do if they ever decide to band together to resist (which fortunately for the bosses, the Geeks are not prone in doing…yet). This feeling of not having absolute power over your employees, over your subordinates is not something easily tolerated, therefore the whining you see above.

You see, there is nothing special about geekdom. We’re nothing special as far as humans go, no matter how much your parents praise your intelligence and your high income make you believe your superior skills are being accurately rewarded by the free market. Any human, working on any skill can achieve a similar level of expertise. Any human allowed similar amount of freedom can be as creative in their chosen area. And anyone who’s job involved similar amounts of talent evolves a similar take on respect. That is respect for thos who know what they are doing.

Take an experienced car mechanic and see how he treats fellow car mechanics as opposed to people who think they know about cars or a corporate boss. You’re likely to find the same kind of attitude as IT geeks express. Take a fisherman, a lumberjack ((OK, note that I’m not absolutely certain all the jobs here are as skillful but I’m speaking mostly from common knowledge and common sense. Perhaps I am missing some better examples or used some bad ones)) or as the Computerworld article mentioned – doctors. Any job that still requires skill will create the same kind of mentality of mutual respect for the worker, and resentment from the management.

Thus the drive to deskill.

Why? Because a skillful worker means a worker with more power, and therefore a worker that can demand higher wages for the increased production and quality they can deliver. However the capitalist mode of production has always been firstly about domination and then about profits. If your workers cannot be dominated, then profits will be sacrificed to find methods that they will. Thus the introduction of machinery which replace skilled labour with unskilled labour. The primary role being to replace skilled employees with power with unskilled ones who can be easily threatened with layoffs (as they are easy to replace) and thus can have their wages managed to the benefits of the capitalist.

And this is not a random thought but actual historical reality. From the early times of the capitalist production, bosses have been always looking for ways to deskill labour. And this unfortunately has become a reality in all areas of human labour, from textile workers, to car makers, to fishermen. And slowly but surely it’s happening in IT.

You can already see it in many sectors of the profession already. Programming has become a codified structured task which can be followed methodically, and thus outsourced to cheap but uncreative workers in third world nations such as India. Telephone support has followed the same path, with formulated responses and scripts replacing actual troubleshooting and thus making call-centers a horrible workplace of call-quotas and Orwellian monitoring. Hardware setup and replacement has become so simple, one can now do it with an IKEA manual. And System Administration and Networking, the final bastions of IT skill are slowly being eroded by the mediocrity of Microsoft products whose purpose is not so much to improve productivity (they’re notoriously bad at that) but rather to make the task so easy that one can easily do it with the minimum of effort. It’s no wonder that for one to become a Microsoft “Engineer” it takes at most a few months of study, while actual engineering requires years.

All of these have the same cumulative effect for IT that automated looms and huge fishing barges had for textile workers and fishermen respectively. The average skill a workers requires drops and the power moves further and further from the worker to the owner of the capital.

So what we see still in management whining about the “bullheadedness” and “business-challenged” attitude of IT Geeks now, are the obvious symptoms of the hated equality in power between skilled workers and managing bosses. Such a situation cannot of course last but since the IT sector is still young, we have the rare opportunity to witness the actual effects skilled requirements have on wages and worker-boss relations, as well as the undeniable progress towards deskilling.

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