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A Somewhat Far-Fetched Analogy

by Larry Ayers

Lately I've been musing about the effects Linux and free software in general have had upon my world-view. It occurred to me that analogies can be drawn between the realm of free software and another unrelated pursuit which intermittently occupies my attention. Growing plants may seem about as far from the realm of software and computers as it is possible to get, but I've noticed some parallels.

First, I'll ask why running Linux (and using free software in general) is satisfying for so many computer users. These factors come to mind:

Open pollinated seeds are seeds which can be planted and yield a plant very similar to its parents. Hybrid seeds are crosses between species or strains of plants. Planting a seed from a hybrid plant will give unpredictable and generally undesirable results. Large seed companies prefer marketing hybrids, as the customer will have to buy new seed year after year, rather than saving seeds from productive plants to plant in subsequent years. Beginning to see where this is headed?

In contrast, a grower who saves seed from open-pollinated plants can exert an influence on the variety by selecting seed from especially healthy and productive plants. This evolving strain will eventually become better adapted to the local soil and climate. Coincidentally enough, someone who keeps a plant variety alive through the years is referred to as the maintainer of the variety, and like a maintainer of a free software package, attempts to pass the responsibility on when he or she is unable to continue the effort.

All too often a favorite vegetable or flower variety is discontinued by a large seed company; if the plant was a hybrid it's probably gone forever, but even if the variety comes true from seed it won't survive unless someone happened to save seed. Ever seen a favorite piece of commercial software become abandoned by the company which supported it?

If the multinational seed houses have points in common with the large commercial software firms, there is also a parallel between vendors of Linux distributions and the growing number of small seed companies which sell open-pollinated and heirloom seeds. Both of these types of companies service a niche market, and their customers can duplicate and redistribute the products sold. The potential for great profit is less than when selling proprietary and unreproducible goods, but the customer-base in both instances is growing.

Both the free-software and non-hybrid seed communities exist rather quietly in society. There is little advertising, especially in the mass media, because large commercial interests who can afford such publicity aren't involved. The free software and Linux communities have benefited greatly from the ubiquity of internet access, while the heirloom plant growers network through such organizations as the Seed Savers Exchange.

What's really at stake here is the ability to control and mold one segment of a person's environment, whether that segment is composed of bits or genes. I think that as society becomes more complex, heavily-populated, and bureaucratic, the areas of individual autonomy dwindle. These two fringe realms discussed above, as well as others with similar characteristics, will surely increase in prominence as time passes.

Last modified: Mon 27 Jul 1998

Copyright © 1998, Larry Ayers
Published in Issue 31 of Linux Gazette, August 1998