Free Software and ‘Appropriate Technology’

Last week, as part of a panel session organized at Queens College of the City University of New York, I spoke briefly on ‘Free Software and Appropriate Technology.’ I began by introducing the term ‘appropriate technology’ by setting it in the context of India’s attempts to achieve self-reliance in energy production, an effort that in the 1970s involved a serious interest in nuclear power. This effort had become the subject of a fierce critique by Professor Dhirendra Sharma of the Jawaharlal Nehru University, who suggested in his book, India’s Nuclear Estate that nuclear power was an ‘inappropriate technology’ for India: it encouraged centralization of political power, made energy into a national security issue with its concomitant secrecy, encouraged dependence on erstwhile colonial powers and the signing of treaties that were detrimental to national sovereignty, and more to the point, was expensive, unproven, and unlikely to meet India’s growing energy needs. (Sharma’s efforts did not meet with favor in the councils of power; he was ‘transferred’ to the School of Languages from the School of Sciences as a reprimand, a bizarre move that did nothing to silence Sharma and merely directed more attention to his writings.) Over the course of a few conversations with Sharma I grew to develop an understanding of the notion of ‘appropriate technology’, which might not have been in complete accordance with those who first coined the term, but which did a great deal to provide me with an evaluative framework for thinking about technology and its connection with politics.

I then moved on to making the case for free software as an appropriate technology for India. As Scott Dexter and I noted in our book, Decoding Liberation: The Promise of Free and Open Source Software:

FOSS provides a social good that proprietary software cannot; for example, FOSS may be the only viable source of software in developing nations, where programming talent is abundant but prices for proprietary-software  licenses are prohibitive. Countries such as China and India have seen in FOSS an opportunity to draw on their wealth of programming talent to provide the  technological infrastructure for their rapidly expanding economies. Microsoft’s substantial investments in Indian education initiatives may be prompted by worries that free software might fill indigenous needs instead. FOSS has been cited by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez as a key element of achieving economic independence from the global North. At the 2005 World Social Forum in Porto Allegre, the Youth Camp focused largely on  FOSS issues. This enthusiasm for FOSS extends to the industrialized First World as well, as many members of the European Union adopt it for governmental administration. [citations removed]

To emphasize the point made in the first sentence above: FOSS prevents lock-in with a monopolistic vendor; it provides an educational laboratory for a country where education in advanced technology is necessary to sustain its economic growth; it encourages autonomous development of software applications and local skills; its price is right, especially if local talent can train themselves on it; it is the ideal software base for the educational system; and so on.

The case is compelling, I think.

2 comments on “Free Software and ‘Appropriate Technology’

  1. marcelo finger says:

    Hi Samir. It may interest you to know that I was the vice director, and I remain on the board, of the Center for Competence on Free Software (ccsl.ime.usp.br) at the University of São Paulo. I am all for promoting free software in Brazil and in the world.

    []s

    Marcelo

  2. Samir Chopra says:

    Marcelo,

    That is indeed fighting a good fight. By the way, I’m still trying to get a Portugese translation for my book – do you think you could help in any way?

    Samir

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