Originally Published: Tuesday, 11 July 2000 Author: Matt Michie
Published to: featured_articles/Featured Articles Page: 1/1 - [Printable]

All about the Jive

Pundits in the computer industry have written that Linux is obsolete technology for so long that it has become a cliche. In this article, I will contrast open software development style with an American musical style known as Jazz.

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Pundits in the computer industry have written that Linux is obsolete technology for so long that it has become a cliche. In this article, I will contrast open software development style with an American musical style known as Jazz.

Jazz music is unique. You'd be hard pressed to find a good definition of exactly what it is. You might hear something like, "Jazz is any music that a Jazz musician plays," or "you just know it when you hear it."

However, there are some common threads which weave through most of the Jazz experience. Most times, there is a form of improvisation which is built over, through and around a common underlying structure.

Consider a classic song such as George Gershwin's Summertime from the musical Porgy and Bess. It was originally written in the mid 1930s, yet has lived on through a long string of musicians for nearly sixty years. Pick several arbitrary Jazz artists, put them into a jam session and they'd be able to throw down improvisation over Summertime. They use the common structure of such a well known and developed tune to communicate among themselves; they don't need a language other than the music to play.

So it is with Linux. Developers from around the world throw down improvisations on a classic tune originally composed by Dennis Ritchie and Ken Thompson around 1969. Anyone gazing into the way a Linux system is put together would recognize the underlying beats from the original.

Instead of communicating through music, open source lets developers communicate their expressions with source code. Obviously, for something this technical, it is useful for everyone to speak English as well, but there are many (including Linus) who speak it as a second language.

This goes even further, because there is improvisation occurring with users of Linux as well. As the user base of Linux moves from the core of C speaking, assembly spitting developers, to those using the computer as a fancy typewriter, the interfaces used to communicate with the computer evolve.

Jazz was important because it broke away from some of constrictive tenets of music. Open source also breaks away from the old rules of software development and distribution. Sure, there is a common beat shared among all Unix derivatives, but what is important is the innovative improvisations that are going on and the way it shall influence all software.

Jazz became the inspiration for many popular music styles that followed. It can trace its roots back through the American slave culture all the way to Africa. First the music of an oppressed people, later along with increased civil rights, Jazz became a symbol of more than musical freedom, but social freedom as well.

Free software was a response to what Richard Stallman viewed as software hoarding, a culture that discouraged the freedom to share and modify computer source code. These seemingly small freedoms given by free software gave rise to even bigger freedoms. It's not a surprise to find out that most free software advocates are also very passionate about free speech, censorship, privacy, and other human rights issues. Eric S. Raymond's libertarian views are almost as well-known within the community as his views on open source.

It would be a mistake to overlook the small things such as the freedom to improvise a tune, or the freedom to modify and share some source code, for they both can have tremendous unforeseen impacts beyond their original intent.

In order to appreciate Jazz or Linux, it is important to look deeper and wider than what a glossy marketing brochure can tell you. One must understand that even though the ideas on which both are built aren't new, there is a greater truth underlying each. Sometimes Linux's stability, flexibility and speed make it easy to misunderstand what the software is really about. Freedom.

Matt Michie lives in New Mexico. He maintains a Web site at http://daimyo.org.





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