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This is a continuation of my musing on a free-software-type ideology for fiction.
Read Part I

The primary argument against the ideology of free software seeping into fiction may be that they too-different spheres whose ideas are simply non-transferrable.

I disagree.  Of course.

But it’s a valid point.  Fiction is not software.  Books are not computers.

Fiction is art and art can be proprietary without crippling a society which relies on it.  Not to suggest that technologists don’t work out of a creative spirit, or that our every day lives would collapse without Angry Birds, but software is by it’s nature, utilitarian.  It does things.  It does a lot of things.  Many of which affect how we socialize, how we work, how we learn, how we communicate, how we move from one place to another…

And when something goes wrong it can go really wrong.  When a malicious piece of software gets out, it hurts people.  Free software can act as a protection against that.  People don’t need to be passive users of their computers, trusting big companies to create things only in their customers’ best interests.  They can use software that allows them to know exactly what is happening on their hard drives.

The opposite is true as well: when something goes right, it can go really right.  A helpful program can uplift people’s lives and improve society.  And if some force for good can be spread and improved upon and spread some more, then it’s more harmful not to do so.

Fiction has the luxury of not carrying the burden of modern society on its shoulders.

Fiction has the privilege of being proprietary without causing undue harm.  Artists can put artistic purity over utility and artistic freedom over customers’ freedom.  Making art, after all, is an inherently selfish act.  And because it doesn’t feed anyone but the artist, so it can be selfish. 

Fiction doesn’t need to sacrifice ownership, so why should it?

Because it can be more.

Permit me to speak highly, for a moment, of my own career choice: fiction can be important, and if something can be allowed to maximize it’s impact and usefulness then that should be allowed.  I’m not suggesting that Harry Potter is on the same level as, say, the ability to communicate instantly to anyone almost anywhere on the planet.  But art is an integral part of the human existence.  Storytelling goes way further back than writing and, being important, they persist.  Stories can move people, they can inspire people, they can get a person through a tough time, they can open windows onto different cultures, and share experiences across the globe.  Stories may not provide the network on which we communicate, but they provide much of the material that makes communication worth it.

So even if we can sit in our ivory towers, working on our art and keeping our creations pure from the touch of the masses, should we?

I think not.

I think we can be more.

The mechanisms of free software may not translate to fiction but isn’t the goal worth adapting?

4 Responses to “Free As in Freedom: Books Are Not Software (Part 2a)”

  1. dantewilde


    I loved your post, you raise some wonderful points (and you articulate them greatly). As a writer I definitely agree with you and I surely don’t want my stories ending up obsolete or worse in a glass case being looked at. Writing being purely selfish is interesting. It isn’t something I have deeply considered, while you’re right in what you say (I even agree more and more when I think about it) do you think we can also create art for the purpose of society? Or do you think the way our art effects society is simply a by-product of our innate selfishness (I don’t mean this as a bad thing:))?



    • aeliusblythe

      I do think that art can be created for society and can have a demonstrable effect on it. For one of the more concrete examples, look at how a novel like The Jungle got people riled up about the meat industry. But even something that isn’t based in fact or that doesn’t have high-aiming goals to changing society can profoundly affect a person.

      I also didn’t necessarily mean selfishness in a bad way. I mean, I put enough value in writing to pursue it! I actually think the fact that it’s not, strictly speaking, an essential part of society makes it more interesting. The fact that it is, technically, superfluous but can have a subtle or profound influence makes it special. And that’s why I’m so interested in exploring how we deal with fiction, how we use it, and how we can maximize it’s affect.

      • dantewilde

        I agree. I also don’t think that the selfishness of art is a bad thing. Unless it becomes self destructive in the total sense, then I put forward that the ability for art (in our case writing) to be superfluous and while having the potential to impact a society or person makes it very exquisite. The perfect pleasure to both create and read.

        It’s interesting that a selfish notion can create external change or impact, my first thought is Animal Farm and the stories that swirl around it’s inception.

  2. stevenh512

    Software is also written for selfish reasons. A lot of the software we use every day only exists because at some point, somebody thought “I want to automate this task to make my job easier” and wrote the code to do it. Often it’s only after writing and testing the code that you realize how many other people might also find it useful. Unless I’m being paid quite well to do it, I don’t write a line of code that isn’t useful to me personally.. if someone else fnds it useful, even better.

    As a programmer I also see code as an art form, as you seem to suggest in the paragraph after “Fiction is not software.” It’s a creative expression of an idea or thought, usually an idea or thought that can be expressed any number of possible ways. Is it the same as fiction? Of course not, it’s also not the same as a painting or a song.. but they’re all valid art forms.

    Just wanted to add a techie perspective on things. I’m a programmer, my brother is a writer (mostly comics and short stories), when we get together and talk I’m always amazed at how similar our “worlds” really are. :)



  1.  Free As In Freedom: Books are not Software (Part 2b) « Cheapass Fiction

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