Open Source and Higher Eduction

From Gerald R. Lucas
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Open Source and Higher Eduction

The epigram is a statement about open source software development. Not surprisingly, the statement was made by one of the organized leaders of the open source community, Bob Young, CEO of Red Hat Linux. Raymond's book looks at the historical development of the open source model and creates an eponymous and strained metaphor to illustrate the difference between open and closed source software. The former represents “a great babbling bazaar of differing agendas and approaches . . . out of which a coherent and stable system could seemingly emerge only by a succession of miracles,” while the latter, closed source software is “built like cathedrals, carefully crafted by individuals wizards or small bands of mages working in splendid isolation, with no beta to be released before its time” (Raymond 30, 29). Raymond uses the Unix-based Linux as an example of the bazaar, and Microsoft Windows as the cathedral.

Raymond’s isolated mages remind me of the stereotype of the literary scholar: the romantic figure in his ivory tower writing sage words that only other scholars will read. Gaining access to this tower, one needs economic security and the free time to devote to the sometimes arcane pursuit of Literature and Critical Theory. The man-of-knowledge, isolated from all distractions, produces rarified knowledge, itself based on other esoteric erudition, and ends up representing and supporting a privileged minority while it claims to address the whole. Is our discipline of literary studies so specialized and inbred that it will remain forever isolated in it ivory tower, slowly becoming irrelevant to the humanity it pretends to address?

While tempting to tease out the religious and mystical implications of Raymond's mixed metaphor, his treatment centers around economics. Indeed, the post-graduate study of literature, too, is ripe with economic entré. To become part of this club, you need the entrance fee, paid several times annually. This fee eventually buys you, if you can mouth the rites correctly, a position as an elder in the club and the right to speak with the other elders. Pursuit of a higher degree in the academy is still very much like a novice taking his ecclesiastical vows and paying his dues to an elite group that jealously protects it mysteries. So, too, is the corporate business model. Wrought with secret formulas and impenetrable codes, products that we increasingly rely on in our everyday lives are controlled by faceless economic empires, very similar to monolithic religious institutions.

Many academics have attempted to shatter this man's club in the academy: much feminist and poststructuralist thought centers around the material reality of its individuals and the decentering of authority and power. While I have discussed the ideological side of this refocusing in the first four chapters, this section addresses the material realities of technological access in the academy and how it is still centered in the great cathedrals, while we are moving into — or at least paying lip service to — the bazaar.

Why do various departments still rely on outside support for their computer resources? Please, we are literary scholars: we do not need to have a bunch of techno-knowledge and know-how in order to maintain departmental computers. Besides, most of our colleagues are still Luddites, only now getting used to the typewriter. So, English scholars concern themselves only with literary pursuits? Nothing else? Well, of course not, but literature should be our primary focus in a literature department. Indeed, but certainly there are other departmental jobs that literary scholars need to do? Sure, we have departmental administration: chair, assistant chair, various directors of programs, committee service, and other responsibilities. So these academics, then, must learn how to be administrators in order to fulfill these roles? Yes, but not everyone is interested in serving as Director of First-Year Composition. Granted, but the role must be filled, and the person to take on the responsibility needs to be trained, right? And this job, while germane in the professional sense of tenure and promotion, does not really have much to do with being a literary scholar? No. So, why in this age of increasing reliance on microprocessor technologies is there not a person internally that has the administrative job of being Director of Computer Resources? But, why?! We get support from Academic Computing. We don't need that position in the department. I was hoping you'd say that.

In a 1998 MacWorld article, David Pogue reports an attempt by Yale's director of information technologies to phase out any operating system that is no Windows. Without consulting any administration, students, or faculty about his decision, he sent a letter to entering first-year students; he writes:

According to Pogue, the culprit, Daniel Updegrove, issued this letter despite the 75 percent population of Mac users at Yale in 1995. Donna Ladd suggests that Updegrove's motivation to move to a Windows platform rests in a competitive grant from Intel, offering 25 universities $90 million worth of free equipment (52). Updegrove insists that the letter and the grant have nothing to do with each other, even though he himself wrote both documents at the same time (Ladd 52). Pogue offers another explanation: "Updegrove realized that in an all-Windows world he could be the most important man on campus" (185). Since Windows machines cost far more to support than Macs, Yale would have to increase its funding to Updegrove's department just to keep the troublesome Windows machines working, thus guaranteeing not only Updegrove's job, but his increasing importance and control of the campus. The incredulity of staff, faculty, and students took the form of letters to the Yale Daily News and official departmental positions that announced they were taking different positions. Many would not even consider Updegrove's directive that "all- and predominantly-Mac departments that lack a compelling reason to remain with Macintosh should develop a Windows migration plan before June 2000" (quoted in Ladd 53; Pogue 185). How could Yale’s computer support guarantee the availability of any software past 2000? Would the over 14,000 software titles for the Macintosh disappear overnight?

This phenomenon seems de rigueur in many American universities, though according to Dennis Sellers, Macs are waning, but not endangered. Pogue mentions that Mac phase-outs are also underway at Stanford and Brown. According to Jeffrey Young of The Chronicle of Higher Education, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill announced a plan that would require incoming students to purchase a Windows PC beginning the fall of 2000. This decision, states Marion Moore, the chief information officer at Chapel Hill, is aimed at cutting down on support costs for the university. In response to much opposition, Moore blithely states that "the diversity issue is a total red herring, . . . I believe that what I am hearing is misinformed people who don't understand technology. True diversity is not the device. True diversity is the software that you run on it." Yet, despite Moore's obviously informed decision about technology, compelling students to purchase one type of platform and run one type of operating system severely limits the freedoms of those users — in all cases the “device” dictates the software. If diversity is in the software, as Moore suggests, officials at Chapel Hill are limiting that software choice by requiring students to purchase only one type of computer platform that supports only one type of software.

In a response posted by MacNN, Bob May, the Dean of the College and Graduate School of Business at the University of Texas, tries to justify his college's policy to require incoming students to purchase Windows PCs. Again, May cites the issue of support as a key point in choosing Dell laptops running Windows NT. He states that Dell offered the best support for their institutional requirements and they concluded that they “needed that support.” Part of both Moore’s and May’s concern about support might stem from the unreliability and unintuitiveness of the Windows platform. According to Pogue who cites a study by the Gartner Group, support departments would have to double funding and staffing to maintain increasingly more Windows machines (Pogue 185). In comparison, Michael J. Johnson shows that the Macintosh operating system costs up to 25% less to support than Windows (Johnson 2). Johnson, the Deputy Superintendent for Instruction and Technology for the Conroe Independent School District in Texas, offers the lack of technical support as the number one problem facing educational computing (Johnson 2). While Johnson’s school district includes in-school support specialists, many of those cannot handle problems when they creep up in Windows computers, so the school must rely on outside support which is costly and inconvenient. The computer users, in this case administrators, teachers, and students, become disadvantaged when using computers that are less-reliable, more difficult to implement and maintain, and more expensive to support.

Even at my own institution tenured professors were denied their choice of computer platform if they decided they wanted something different than a Windows machine. Why, in an institution of higher learning, are computer support departments becoming Technology Fascists? Creative individuals are losing an important tool that they have chosen — whether the MacOS, Linux, BeOS, or others — and are being compelled to use a sub-standard operating system that costs more to purchase and maintain. Just recently, I called our computer support telephone line just to get the dial-in number for connection. Having received the number, I asked if any other modem settings were necessary. He mentioned something about a start menu, and I said I was a Mac user. He said: “good luck: we don’t support Macs.” I’m glad I didn’t mention that fact before I asked for the dial-in number.

Outside support of computing resources also offers another danger, but one that similar to the internal computing tyrant. LinuxUser recently reported on the United Kingdom's new government Gateway project, a web gateway that offers a complete range of governmental services over the World Wide Web. While one of the goals of this project was to bring a new access to the government for the citizens of the UK, proprietary software in the design and implementation of the project restricts access to the Gateway to anyone not using both Windows and Internet Explorer. Trying to connect using anything other than the combination of Windows and IE brings up an unsupported browser page that lists several options, but only one gives complete access to the site: Win and IE. Dissenters ask if the British government, an institution that prides itself on it democratic ideals, can truly force the use of a certain type of computing platform in order to access the government. LinuxUser quotes Bob Young, the CEO of Red Hat Linux:

Another example of Microsoft’s attempts to pigeonhole users into their software comes in a new feature of WindowsXP. Walter S. Mossberg of The Wall Street Journal reports on a new feature of Internet Explorer called “Smart Tags,” an appropriate moniker if you're using Microsoft's definition of "smart." These tags can turn any word on any web site into a link to any sites that Microsoft favors. Mossberg interprets this feature as an intrusive electronic editor that favors Microsoft sites: it can “re-edit anybody’s site, without the owner's knowledge or permission, in a way that tempts users to leave and go to a Microsoft-chosen site — whether or not that site offers better information.” According to Mossberg, Microsoft will give other companies the ability to insert smart tags into web sites, and he envisions a spam war fought on the pages of unsuspecting web designers: "Once the hate groups, the spammers, and the junk marketers on the Web get their hands on these Smart Tags, they'll be plastering their links on everything." Smart Tags represent the explicit intrusion of Microsoft on how we think, write, and read, yet their business practices from the start show how they seek to control every aspect of the personal computer on everyone's desk. John Heilemann’s fifty-page report on the antitrust trial illustrates Microsoft's illegal business practices and their attempts to brazenly manipulate the public and the government into thinking that Microsoft really does know best. As an educator, I feel an ethical obligation not to condone the findings of the United States government: Microsoft is a monopoly, though it is becoming less-likely that the US government will do anything at all about this fact. Yet, state institutions turn a blind eye to this fact and continue supporting a business that has proven untrustworthy in their business practices. With practices of fear and intimidation, Microsoft has kept technology companies either marginalized, like Netscape and Sun, or completely run them out of business through strategies of corporate raiding.

This site is not about upholding the Macintosh operating system over Windows, but it is about access and choice. In order to maintain control of departmental computing resources, I suggest that the support remain within the department and not depend on outside technical assistance from people like Daniel Updegrove. This proposition will not require any less of a commitment from an academic department than would hiring another administrator, yet this administrator should be one who is not apprehensive about working with computers and collaboration. Here, I give my own contribution to the open source community in the form of access to the code. We do not need to rely on outside support — software providers or technicians — to have a computer classroom that is reliable, usable, and free.