Gran Canaria Desktop Summit: a Study in Contrasts


KDE kindly invited me to give a talk at Akademy 2009, part of the Gran Canaria Desktop Summit running this week.

Although I was only there for a couple of days, I had the opportunity to hear three other keynote talks, which presented an interesting contrast in styles and ideas.

The summit opened with a witty and flamboyant talk by Robert Lefkowitz, aka r0ml. His talk was entitled “Liberal Software”, and it was an entertaining look at free software/open source (for which suggested the new, neutral term “liberal software”) from the point of view of the classical tradition.

In particular, he suggested that rhetoric was an important aspect of the free software world, since much of the time leaders there need to motivate people to work on their projects for no payment.

The other idea that really chimed with me was that software was a liberal art, not merely a useful one. One insight from viewing things in this way was that copyright, not patents, is the appropriate way to protect code creation – as used by the GNU GPL - just as no artist would think of seeking patents on a sonnet or symphony (actually, given today's crazy world of intellectual monopolies, where people *do* try to get patents on film scripts, maybe that's not such a good comparison.).

I particularly like this line of thinking since it was very similar to one that I'd put forward myself in in Rebel Code, whose middle chapter is entitled “The Art of Code”, and looks at how the artistic impulse has always been an important factor in the history of free software. r0ml's parting shot was that liberal software should be defined as software that a gentleman would use, which seemed fair enough.

The next talk was given by Walter Bender, who took a rather different approach. He's head of Sugar Labs, the software team that broke away from the One Laptop Per Child project when the latter decided to put Microsoft software on its machines, thus ensuring that young minds were enslaved by Windows even earlier.

Indeed, it was evident from Bender's presentation, albeit quite low-key, that he believes passionately that children have a right to free software, for the simple reason that they cannot truly learn with any other kind.

As the Sugar Labs site puts it: “emphasis on learning through doing and debugging: more engaged learners are able to tackle authentic problems.” That is, free software gives the unique possibility of allowing students to explore and modify their tools, whereas Windows- based solutions are simply used as given, with little flexibility.

I think this is a crucial point that not enough people in the world of education grasp. For them, software is simply a dumb tool, like a pencil: you just use it. For Bender, it's something much more exciting: it is part of the educational experience. If a learner can't hack it, it's not fit for the purpose.

He also emphasised how important the Sugar on Stick offering was. This is simply the Sugar software environment provided on a USB drive that can be plugged into any PC, and run without affecting the latter:

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