Bradley M. Kuhn

Kuhn's Paradox

Bradley M. Kuhn at


I've been making the following social observation frequently in my talks and presentations for the last two years. While I suppose it's rather forward of me to do so, I've decide to name this principle:

Kuhn's Paradox

For some time now, this paradoxical principle appears to hold: each day, more lines of freely licensed code exist than ever before in human history; yet, it also becomes increasingly more difficult each day for users to successfully avoid proprietary software while completing their necessary work on a computer.

Motivations & Causes of Kuhn's Paradox

I believe this paradox is primarily driven by the cooption of software freedom by companies that ostensibly support Open Source, but have the (now extremely popular) open source almost everything philosophy.

For certain areas of software endeavor, companies dedicate enormous resources toward the authorship of new Free Software for particular narrow tasks. Often, these core systems provide underpinnings and fuel the growth of proprietary systems built on top of them. An obvious example here is OpenStack: a fully Free Software platform, but most deployments of OpenStack add proprietary features not available from a pure upstream OpenStack installation.

Meanwhile, in other areas, projects struggle for meager resources to compete with the largest proprietary behemoths. Large user-facing, server-based applications of the Service as a Software Substitute variety, along with massive social media sites like Twitter and Facebook that actively work against federated social network systems, are the two classes of most difficult culprits on this point. Even worse, most traditional web sites have now become a mix of mundane content (i.e., HTML) and proprietary Javascript programs, which are installed on-demand into the users' browser all day long, even while most of those servers run a primarily Free Software operating system.

Finally, much (possibly a majority of) computer use in industrialized society is via hand-held mobile devices (usually inaccurately described as “mobile phones”). While some of these devices have Free Software operating systems (i.e., Android/Linux), nearly all the applications for all of these devices are proprietary software.

The explosion of for-profit interest in “Open Source” over the last decade has led us to this paradoxical problem, which increases daily — because the gap between “software under a license respects my rights to copy, share, and modify” and “software that's essential for my daily activities” grows linearly wider with each sunset.

I propose herein no panacea; I wish I had one to offer. However, I believe the problem is exacerbated by our community's tendency to ignore this paradox, and its pace even accelerates due to many developers' belief that having a job writing any old Free Software replaces the need for volunteer labor to author more strategic code that advances software freedom.

Iñaki Arenaza, Aaron Wolf, jrobb, Luca Vinci and 6 others likes this.

Iñaki Arenaza, Milan Zamazal, mnd, mnd and 7 others shared this.

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I completely agree with @mlinksva but feel we should be absolutely clear how super important it is that @bkuhn and others continue working to turn more "Open Source" developers into software freedom activists.

I once spent 45 minutes talking to a developer at New Relic before she finally understood the actual issue of why software freedom isn't about developer concerns and is different from just the concepts of "Open Source" she already knew. She wasn't someone who had a stance in these politics, she literally was writing some FLO software and using mostly FLO software while working for a proprietary software company and yet had to patiently talk with me for a long while before it finally clicked that the issues of software freedom even *exist*. That is the state of things today. That is *part* of why the paradox happens. The cause of this ignorance is complex, and is, of course, connected to the control of the messaging from proprietary interests.

Aaron Wolf at 2016-02-22T17:46:39Z

Brief addendum: That experience sticks in my head because of how starkly the developer remarked like "OH! I get it. Huh. I've heard these terms and arguments before. And like I was listening for 45 minutes to you, but like suddenly it finally makes sense. Crazy that it took so long to explain. I was just sorting hearing words but it didn't click. But I get now, thanks. Interesting to think about…" I didn't get to find out if it ever went beyond that moment and she thought about it any further afterwards though.

Aaron Wolf at 2016-02-22T17:51:45Z

@Aaron Wolf Your comment reminds me of this article I recently read about the ways in which some innovative ideas are spread. The tl;dr is that sometimes it takes a widespread, systematic, repeated person-to-person effort, but it pays off with success in time.

Charles Stanhope at 2016-02-22T21:10:49Z

The problem is when we want to be like them. "Give me the free-as-beer Windows" attitude towards Linux (intentionally not using GNU/Linux, but that's another discussion) is repeated here with "Give me the Facebook/Twitter which doesn't bother me with spam". There is no such thing. Yes, certainly there is that we have to accept the limitations of our platform (no latest kewl games on Linux, no participants on social/diaspora), but there is a way deeper issue.

The only defense against "Give me the free-as-beer Windows" (or the first question being "How to run Wine on this?") is IMHO in not caring about what peoples do. I didn't care then and I don't care still whether Linux takes over the world, or whether I am able to get laid because of using Linux. I do care, whether I can do things which I want to do with computer, while using Linux, and whether there is sufficient community which allows me to maintain the platform in future.

Some platforms which I hoped for and invested in, did not manage to get over the first step, but it seems that CyanogenMod with F-Droid (and without Google Play store) seems to work pretty well (with one or two sideloaded APKs). And yes, another concession is that the only Chat where are actually people I want to talk with is Facebook Chat. Fortunately, here at least I can be (on my side) FLOSS-pure ... pidgin talking over XMPP with spectrum makes miracles.

mcepl at 2016-03-05T08:42:25Z