“Open Source” as a Faithful Choice

In the past couple of editions of the United Church Rural Ministry ENews, we have included articles from the Rev. Martin Dawson describing how you don’t need to break church budgets by buying the latest and greatest computer hardware, nor do you have to lay down large amounts of money to license the software you install on that same hardware. He has wisely and skillfully outlined the advantages for rural Communities of Faith of looking into the purchase of refurbished computers– slightly older computers with lower price tags, and the wide and highly functional array of open source software – which is both free to use, and usually free of charge. Not only that, open source software most often comes with a license that not only makes it free to use, but with a requirement that any modifications to the software also have to be open source.

The financial benefits of this approach seem to be readily apparent, but I believe there are benefits that go beyond this. There are ethical and moral implications to the use of Open Source software within the faith community.

Martin has outlined how the use of refurbished hardware can contribute to the reduction of used computers in landfills or electronic recycling centres, and thus help to lower in some small way the carbon footprint for a Community of Faith.

I would like to help you consider that the use of Open Source software is a small step into an anti-capitalist challenge of empire.

I will begin with a brief little story about my relationship with open source software.

It all started because I was a cheapskate. I did not want to spend lots of money on software, and so I scoured software sources for applications that were either very inexpensive, or offered in a “try before you buy” format, or as shareware.

I soon discovered that there was a whole alternate economy in the software world. Many programmers, software engineers and developers were happy to produce very functional software, often because of their frustration with the inability to change and/or upgrade the software offerings from the software giants. They did it because they wanted the software to work the way they wanted it to work. They were often very insightful about how to make applications that worked better. They often did the work for the merit of doing it, rather than for financial success.

If software is created in such a way that others can see for themselves, rather than hidden behind proprietary non-disclosure agreements and inaccessible repositories of computer code, it evolves much more quickly. More eyeballs on the computer code make for better software. Bugs are eliminated more quickly and functionality is improved on a much faster scale.

Pretty soon, I began to realize that I was drawn to this ethic and economy, not just for the price and the freedom (as in free speech) but also because it suited my world view. However, you could also not argue with the price!

I began calling it “community developed” software. It is a bit of a misnomer, because most software applications still rely on an initial developer and maintainer, but still the possibility of peer review, and more than one set of eyeballs on any piece of code, quickly improves the quality and functionality of any piece of software. Not only that, but it can help prevent security risks and backdoor access to software running on our computers.

A few years ago the Mission theme of The United Church of Canada was “Living Faithfully in the Midst of Empire”. It was a theme I wholeheartedly agreed with, and I was inspired and motivated to see the many ways in which our faith calls us to challenge the powers and principalities that confront us.

You can imagine my surprise and feelings of hypocrisy when I went to the website of The United Church of Canada and looked at the pages which recommended software for individual church congregations. There you could find recommendations for software from such companies as Microsoft, and at the time WordPerfect. In my mind, these companies represented the worst of “empire” in the western economy. They didn’t even sell their products. They licensed the products, and they were very secretive with the code. If the application didn’t work the way you wanted, you were often out of luck until the next expensive “upgrade”. This is when I started to consider the use of “open source” not only as an economic decision, but also an ethical choice. I would much rather use software that has been written and offered to the user for nothing more than the credit of having written it. Of course I worried about how developers got paid, but I was assured by the fact that many, if not most, were doing it for the joy of creating. One might liken it to the concept of “call”. They wrote software for the love of writing software, not because they wanted to get rich. Developers of open source software were happy to see their product get used, rather than derive financial wealth from it.

My biggest commitment to “open source” came when in 2008 I decided to dump Microsoft Windows from my office computer and install a version of Linux called Ubuntu. I had poked around with Linux prior to this, but it was in 2008 that I installed it on my office computer just to see how it worked.

I’ve been a total convert ever since. I’ve written articles for the wider church about how to find open source software that is often an equal or better alternative to expensive commercial software products. I did a four month sabbatical in 2012 exploring the spirituality of open source software. I interviewed developers to find out if there was a spiritual element to the process of developing software. Did they see their talent as a God given talent? What economy motivated them to donate what they wrote to what is effectively the public domain? How did they make money if they wrote software for nothing? My findings from that short time of learning and thinking are too numerous and too complicated to outline here, but it was a time that did nothing to dissuade me from the ethical aspects of open source and my sense that this is something that the church should be a part of.

I haven’t been a very good evangelist for this point of view. Perhaps it is because I felt that it would take changing the mind of some decision makers in the church and that the learning curve was too steep. I also had a sense that many church folks see a wide gap between matters of technology and those of theology. The church often adopts technology that is popular and easy to use. We glom on to the tech of the day without a lot of analysis of the economics or the ethics of the choices we make.

Some detractors would bring up the concern that using “free” software is a walk down the road of “getting what you pay for”, or the concern that we would be isolating ourselves from a common and popular standard. I would counter by saying that “open source” is one of the few areas in life where you get far more than you pay for. I cannot begin to tell you of the functionality and beauty of the software I have adopted into my workflow that would be either very expensive or unavailable from proprietary sources.

Finally, the concerns about having the expertise to adopt “open source” is one that crops up. How would we fix software that isn’t working or doing what we want it to do if there is no corporate giant help desk to contact?

My take on this is that if you were willing to pay large amounts of money to license software from a corporate software giant, then surely you could take the same amount of money and pay a local tech support person to help you out. If you are using “open source” technology, the tech support person has everything they need to make it work for you, and you are also contributing to the local economy and the livelihood of a local expert rather than bolstering the profits of a proprietary software giant.

In the church we often speak of ourselves as a community which is both a part of the dominant society and a vocal critic of what is wrong with the dominant society. We in The United Church of Canada are justifiably proud of the stance we take on many matters of justice and we are very good at calling out the ways in which God’s economy is different from a world economy and we are good at standing against the status quo when it leaves people and communities behind. I believe that we need to take this spiritual gift that our denomination has recognized and apply it in areas that often operate in our blind spots – when we too easily succumb to the temptation to choose something because it works and because everyone else is using it, despite how much it costs, or because it appears to be “free” (not “free” like “open source” but “so called free” like Facebook and Twitter and TikTok) even though we are selling our souls in the form of data gathering to the corporate giants and social media giants of the present day world.

Try “open source” as a way of life. You will probably save money and you’ll feel better for it, I believe.

Peter Chynoweth (OM, retired)