Free Source as Free Thought: Architecting Free Standards
First Monday

Free Source as Free Thought: Architecting Free Standards

As we build cyberspace, it is up to us, as individuals, not to promote illiteracy and proprietary standards that shut out those who fail to purchase computer programs from a specific vendor. It has become fashionable to blame others, such as Microsoft, for creating what is known as the "dark ages of computing". However, I suggest that we can and should look to ourselves as the source of the problem. In this article, I propose the "public park" analogy as a first point of departure from current critical thinking, and as a framework with which to better understand possible conflict of interest in government and education. Moreover, in the age of Personal Cybernetics (personal electronics, wearable computing,, etc.), this issue will become all the more important. When "technology as extensions of mind and body" is no longer a metaphor, will we have already sold our heart and soul for software of a particular corporation, or will our thoughts be free?


Public Schools
The Right Way to Pay Taxes
Applying for a Grant Proposal
Conclusion: Selling our Souls for Software


Amid the recent U.S. Department of Justice versus Microsoft battle, now is as good a time as any to reflect on the issue of public space [1].

Rather than point an accusing finger at Microsoft, perhaps we should look to ourselves as the source of blame.

By adopting "standards" that require the purchase of a particular brand of software, we have ourselves created a monopoly situation.

Imagine, if you will, a specially constructed public park, specially designed and fenced in, so that its gates would only open to those wearing Levi's brand blue jeans. Those wearing clothes manufactured by other vendors would not be allowed into the park. And those who made their own clothes, whether by their own loom, or from cloth they purchased themselves, would also be denied access to this public park. Handicapped individuals who needed to modify their clothing, e.g. someone with a broken leg in a cast who cut a slit into one pant leg, would also be denied access to the park. Now these people who are denied access to this park have still paid taxes. They've funded the construction of the park, and they pay for its maintenance, but they cannot use the park because they have not purchased Levi's brand blue jeans. Or in the case of the handicapped individuals, access is denied because they've reverse-engineered or modified their Levi's jeans, making them incompatible with the software running on the park's gates.

Such a situation sounds ludicrous, or disturbing at best, but that's essentially the current state of many "public" U.S. government-run Web sites. For example, I recently visited a Web site to obtain forms for starting a business, and these forms appear to require that I purchase special software. Even the government-operated Web site from which I obtained forms for application to a government sponsored research program provides the forms only in a proprietary format for which special software needs to be purchased to fill out the forms.

Applying for a U.S. Patent? Well then you'll need to purchase a copy of acroexch (Adobe Acrobat Exchange) to fill out the forms, since they're in the proprietary Adobe Acrobat format.

If you're visually challenged, you can forget about entering this so-called public space, even though you may have paid taxes to built it.

Many visually challenged computer users build their own special computers and write their own software, often coming up with innovative ways to "surf the Web", like running the output of lynx through a text to speech converter, or designing a custom Web browser that eliminates headache-inducing frames and reorganizes pages, filtering content and outputting with large font sizes.

Instead of attacking software vendors, we need to look to ourselves as the source of blame. We need to require our governments to make our public spaces accessible to all of us. Specifically any government Web page should be required to provide all electronic forms and documents in file formats accessible to all, using standards that are fully disclosed.

We should simply begin by requiring ourselves, and by extension, those we have elected to govern us, to use only formats for which there exist a scientific basis of total disclosure, and which can be read, written, and worked on with freely obtainable and fully disclosed (in source form) software.

By extension, our publicly funded institutes, such as universities, as well as organizations doing publicly funded work, could be required to use file formats and other standards that are in the public domain.

It would only be fair that our tax dollars go toward building public spaces that all of us can access, and public fora in which all of us can participate.

Such accessibility, in and of itself, would go a long way toward making the corporate world more open. By adopting open standards in our public spaces, the corporate world would likely follow. This may well go much further toward solving the monopoly of some software in the marketplace.


In response to my early drafts of this article, the following analogy was proposed:

  The government requires you to fill out a form. they send you a piece of
  paper to fill in (document file)... You try writing on it with pens and
  pencils but nothing works. you are required to buy a special pen 
  (software)... After paying for the pen and trying it out you discover that
  it won't work unless you buy a special desk to write on (computer)...
   ---Josh Mayo. Ballina NSW, Australia.

Now, as a matter of reversalism, perhaps we should fill out forms in such a way that the government can't read them unless the government purchases a special software package from each of us. We could do this very easily by encrypting our forms, and then selling the government the keys to decrypt each form we send. Perhaps we could submit our tax forms this way.

Public Schools

It takes some effort to learn how to read and write, to learn basic mathematics, and to master various trades that might, for example, involve learning how to use specialized machinery.

Why should a computer be any different? It seems that there are various companies trying to sell a "user friendly" vision of computers - to create a computing environment where the user doesn't need to think.

We could say the same thing about learning how to read and write. Instead of literacy, we could simply have talking signs everywhere, and multimedia televised bookware. The Internet could replace television, and books as well. If everyone wore a "user friendly" computer, the computer could even read signs to us, so we'd never have to learn how to read. Just point and click! Unless you're a software "developer".

There's something seriously wrong with this vision. It's a bit like having only a few elite individuals with the ability to read and write, and keeping everyone else illiterate. Why not plant the seeds for everyone to contribute to humankind's knowledge? It is this distinction between "developer" and end user - this notion of a "software development kit", that needs to be put to rest.

When our public schools adopt proprietary "user friendly" computers, which are tied to a particular commercial vendor, we're tying our children's education to proprietary standards.

Imagine that instead of teaching children how to read and write, we teach them only how to understand the world through some specific brand of language interpreter, in which the language would change over time, so that those taught this system would become dependent on commercially sold updates. In some ways this is like a drug dependency, e.g. something needed in order to function.

In the coming era of personal cybernetics, we will need to learn a new set of basic skills. If all we learn is how to put on our "user friendly" eyeglasses, pre-loaded with advertisements, and multimedia spectacles, we may simply become addicted to a mind-numbing thought-free existence.

The Right Way to Pay Taxes

Richard Stallman, wrote in the February 1997 issue of the Communications of the ACM (volume 40, number 2) on "The Right to Read", about the right to access of knowledge.

Is there a right to pay taxes?

I did a Web search on electronic tax filing, and found a government site,, that explains how to file tax electronically. There are ten links from this page, and nine of them are to corporate Web sites with .com domains. Nine out of ten links to corporate Web sites, such as the Quicken TaxCenter. Even links like TaxWeb, and "State Tax Links" are corporate sites. One of the sites, entitled "Electronic Filing FAQ", which I must assume is the government's definitive electronic filing reference since that appears to be their only link on the subject, states:

   ...prepare a tax return using a
   personal computer and transmit the electronic image of the tax return
   to an IRS approved transmitter.

   Tax returns can be transmitted to the IRS only by approved
   If you are transmitting from your PC to an IRS
   approved transmitter, you are paying for the software that permitted
   you to perform this function.  The IRS itself does not charge a fee to
   receive a tax return electronically.
   Aproved IRS transmitters can purchase software from a variety of
   vendors to transmit tax returns directly to IRS computers.
   You are permitted to purchase commercial software that forwards your
   tax return, and the returns of immediate household members, to an IRS
   approved transmitter.

You can purchase software to file your tax return. In order to run the software you purchase, you also need to purchase the operating system that the tax software was written to run on.

If you're a self-made individual (e.g. running a computer you designed and built yourself with an operating system you wrote yourself), you're denied access to this public space on the Internet - the public space of paying taxes.

Why can't the government provide the forms in formats that are freely obtainable by everyone, such as GNUX (GNU + Linux)-compatible formats like LaTeX, TeX, HTML, or the like? Or alternatively just make ascii text submission acceptable, since there's no real compelling need for individuals to include plots, graphs, and integral or summation signs, or any complicated mathematical symbols in their tax returns. A straightforward ascii text e-mail submission with a PGP signature might be quite sufficient.

Applying for a Grant Proposal

Let's take a look at another example of Internet public space. Since we can't give the government money without buying special software, perhaps we can ask the U.S. government for funds. So let's take a look at the National Science Foundation (NSF), as a typical example of public space.

On the NSF Web site, forms are available in two formats:

  Available Formats

          NSF forms are available in the following electronic formats:

         1. Microsoft Word 6.0 for Windows
         2. PostScript
  Which Format Should You Use?

          If you have Microsoft Word version 6.0, then you should use the
          Word formats. They are designed so that you can easily "fill in
          the blanks."

          If you cannot use these word processing formats, you _may_ find
          the PostScript formats useful, although, in general, they
          demand more computer expertise on your part. You can print
          blank forms by sending the PostScript files to a PostScript
          printer, but if you want to "fill in" the form, you'll need an
          ASCII editor to make changes to the PostScript files.
          Instructions for making these changes are included as comments
          in the files.

So the quick answer is use Microsoft Word 6.0 for Windows, or edit the PostScript file by hand. Now editing the PostScript file by hand wouldn't be so bad, if it had been written by hand. Editing PostScript files by hand is a bit like editing a program written in assembly language. PostScript is the language of the printer, in much the same way that assembly language is the language of the assembler - only one step removed from the machine instructions ("machine language") of the computer.

But when I take a look at the PostScript file, I can see that it's not likely written by hand. It looks more like the output of Microsoft Word, poorly written and somewhat obfuscated PostScript. Editing this PostScript file is a bit like editing an executable task image output from a very bad compiler, and not at all like editing a program written carefully in assembly language.

For example, in the form there is space to enter "Gender". Yet a simple UNIX/GNUX command like "grep -i gender" returns nothing. Many of the words are all broken up letter by letter, making the form difficult to read.

The PostScript follows below, in Appendix A. I welcome any NSF representative to step forward and explain how to follow the instructions regarding the use of "an ASCII editor to make changes to the PostScript files". It would also be useful to point out the location of the "Instructions for making these changes are included as comments in the files", within the more than thirty thousand lines of PostScript code that are provided on the first page, and within more than ten thousand lines of PostScript code provided on at least the two subsequent pages, for those who do not use Microsoft Word 6.0 for Windows.

Upon further investigation, I discovered that in previous years, NSF PostScript was somewhat well written, and not too difficult to edit by hand (roughly only ten thousand lines of PostScript instructions total). More recently, it has gotten much worse. In addition to being much longer, text strings are broken up substantially, and there doesn't appear to be any useful comments to assist the applicant.

An important difference:


(the above is for the original), and

%%Title: Microsoft Word - 99form1207.doc

(the above is for the more recent).

By the way, I tried to get more information from, but:

bash$ finger
[]connect: Connection timed out
bash$ ping nsf.govemail 
no answer from

Excerpt from NSF grant application form created in 1991:

%%CreationDate:  1991
%%For: NSF
%%Title: NSF Forms
%%BoundingBox: 0 0 612 792
%%DocumentNeededResources: font Helvetica
%%+ font Helvetica-Bold
%%+ font Times-Bold
%%DocumentSuppliedResources: procset eps 1.00 0
%%Pages: 1
%%PageOrder: Ascend
%%Orientation: Portrait

%               HOW TO USE THIS FILE
% This is an "NSF-style Smart Form" file.  It contains printer
% instructions (in the PostScript language) to place data (that you enter
% below) in the correct areas on the printed form, that is, it will "fill
% in" the form with the data you enter.  
% Draw the lines.  First the horizontal line then the vertical lines.
% Start from the top and work down.
0.8 setlinewidth

0.0 cm 21.2 cm width hLine
0.0 cm 10.2 cm width hLine
0.0 cm  6.4 cm width hLine
0.0 cm 5.35 cm width hLine

/FontHeight 12.5 def HB setfont
Indent width add 2 div height 0.3 cm add

/FontHeight 9.3 def H setfont
/startx Indent def      /starty height 0 cm sub def 
/LS startx def     /RS  width 0.30 cm sub  def 
startx starty moveto
(Submit only ONE copy of this form with your proposal. Attach it on top of the cover page of the copy of your proposal) nextLineJustify

/RS  10.70 cm  def 
(that bears the original signatures.  Leave the back of the page blank.) nextLineJustify
/FontHeight 9.3 def HO setfont
/LS 10.70 cm  def     /RS  width 0.30 cm sub  def 
(  Do not include this form with any of the other) justifyText
/starty starty 0.20 cm add
(copies of your proposal, as this may compromise the) nextLine
( confidentiality of the information.) show
/FontHeight 9.3 def H setfont

/starty 23.35 cm def
/LS startx def     /RS  width 0.30 cm sub  def 
(Please check the appropriate answers to each question for all principal investigator(s)/project director(s) listed on the) nextLineJustify
(cover page, using the same order in which they were listed there:)

The following is an excerpt from a NSF grant application form created in 1998. I wonder if there is a staff member of NSF who can follow their own advice and meaningfully edit this file using an ASCII text editor):

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Conclusion: Selling our Souls for Software

The "public park analogy" has been presented as a metaphor for understanding the virus of purchased language.

In many ways we've been "speaking" languages to which we've purchased rights to "speak". What makes this situation particularly viral is the manner in which it requires those who want to converse with us to also purchase rights to the proprietary languages we've chosen. In this way, the "spoken" Word is a virus, infecting everyone we interact with, and infecting the archives of our own "thoughts". Although we make these choices as individuals, there is a further conflict of interest when we collectively make these choices, by way of government Internet presence or through our educational systems. Rather than blaming the corporations, we should be blaming ourselves. Collectively (e.g. as a government) we could go a lot further simply by not infecting the materials we disseminate with any virus, and by refusing to accept any material infected with a virus, than we might go by trying to cast the blame upon others through lengthy and expensive antitrust lawsuits, or the like.

About the Author

Steve G. Mann, considered to be the inventor of the so-called "wearable computer" (WearComp) and EyeTap video camera and reality mediator (WearCam), is currently a faculty member at University of Toronto, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. Dr. Mann has been working on his WearComp invention for more than 20 years, dating back to his high school days in the 1970s. He brought his inventions and ideas to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1991, starting, what was to later become the MIT Wearable Computing Project. He received his PhD degree from MIT in 1997. He is also the inventor of the chirplet transform, a new mathematical framework for signal processing. Mann was both the initiator and Publications Chair of the first IEEE International Symposium on Wearable Computing (ISWC97). He also chaired the first Special Issue on Wearable Computing in Personal Technologies Journal, and has given numerous Keynote Addresses on the subject, including the Keynote at the first International Conference on Wearable Computing, the Keynote at the Virtual Reality conference, and the Keynote at the McLuhan Conference on Culture and Technology.


1. This paper is based, in part, on portions of the author's after dinner banquet address, "EYE AM A CAMERA", presented at the FOCUS99 Symposium, May 24-25, 1999.

Editorial history

Paper received 17 December 1999; accepted for publication 27 December 1999; revision received 8 January 2000; revision received 9 January 2000

Contents Index

Copyright ©2000, First Monday

Free Source as Free Thought: Architecting Free Standards by Steve Mann
First Monday, volume 5, number 1 (January 2000),

A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.

© First Monday, 1995-2017. ISSN 1396-0466.