The final talk on Saturday at aKademy 2007 was from Patrick Harvie, a Member of the Scottish Parliament for the Green Party. While not a technical wizard like most of the other talks of the day, Patrick was able to describe to us the attitudes to free software from the Government he is elected to keep an eye on, and how the work of KDE developers applies to more than just software. Read on for a summary of his talk.
Patrick Harvie talking at aKademy
Like most people he used to think computers equals windows, since that is what you see every day when you switch your computer on. In schools we are teaching our young people that this is what computers are. He gradually led through using free software until he realised he no longer needed Windows at all. When a company tells you you're not allowed to share and cooperate, that's important to reject. He now considers the operating system he uses at home to be better than the proprietary one he uses at work in parliament. However it takes a lot of work to persuade people who are not technically minded that there might be something better, both functionally and politically. Free software sits better with how the public service should be run for the common good. As an aside he considers that creative commons is reinventing ideas that were fundamental to the Scottish Enlightenment.
Last year he put in written questions to the government asked how much money they spend on Microsoft licences. Before getting an answer from the executive he got an e-mail from Microsoft inviting him out to dinner. He was briefly tempted by the dinner but decided to invite the representative to have coffee at his office instead, wondering why the man from Microsoft wanted to talk to him. It became clear that they have a vast amount of money to persuade people like him that Microsoft is open and not so bad but they are, of course, a waste of money.
He went to see Eben Moglen (lawyer behind the GPL 3) talk last week in Edinburgh. One other MSP, from the right wing Conservative party, went expecting to be get some nice drinks with some lawyers but from the talk even he started to realise the benefits of free software. Eben made the case that applying that same open process to the legislative process is something governments can learn from. Huge numbers of people are bored and cynical of politicians in jobs like his and feel that parties have it all stitched up and the public can not cooperate with the process. The Scottish Parliament has tried to improve the process, for example the petitions committee lets anyone ask questions or propose ideas. Other areas include press review where the current system is closed but an open system would let people review complaints made to the press. He is convinced the work KDE is doing has more to say than just how we make software but also how we run society too.
In answering a question about how we can use the political process more he describes how Microsoft had a government conference in the Scottish Parliament on the day of Windows Vista's launch. There Bill Gates could tell governments that Windows is the norm. He tried to organise a counter conference on the same day but there was no room. However such an event could be organised in parliament and he says MSPs and civil servants would turn up.
Asked about use in education he said it was utterly wrong to teach children there is only one product in the market. However schools are very reluctant to even give use of a different browser. In education he thinks school children should have at least one experience of collaborating on free software.
If we can get people to think about what they can use free software for, and not just the cost, that will win them over. Free (no cost) things are thought of as being low quality. He agrees with the quote that proprietary software is as absurd as proprietary geometry.
You can watch the full video of the talk at the aKademy 2007 video page talk number 1-11.