Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

Free as in Puppies, and Other Metaphors #OpenLearning17

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Reading Time: 3 minutes

I was reading and annotation (via Hypothes.is) the first reading Fifty Shades of Open and I was struck by something I’d never heard of before… the notion of “free as in puppies” (to be distinct from free as in gratis/beer and free as in libre/speech). Now finding an image for this took longer than I expected because… you know… cute puppies!!! But in the end I settled on the one below…

DSCF0983 flickr photo by Cherie Priest shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license

The notion of “free as in puppies” is meant to focus on the fact that someone can give you a puppy for free, but keeping the puppy alive and happy is not at all free – it costs money and time. But also when I saw the image above, I realized that free puppies aren’t really free… not in the way a street dog is free (with whatever disadvantages that may bring) or in the sense that wolves (themselves the non-domesticated version of a dog, ancestor?) are free.

But anyway 🙂 Back to the original meaning… I like that someone had developed a simple way of expressing this notion. In the way that, e.g. Moodle as an LMS is free to use but costly to maintain (in terms of manpower for support at least).

I wonder if there is a way to express “free but” options… that are NOT equivalent at all to “open” – and what would a good metaphor for them be… “free as in ride”? I’m saying “free ride” because a ride ends and then you probably have to pay for the next one. So I’m thinking of spaces like WordPress.com where you can use the free version up to a point (and not a bad point) but at some point you might want to use something that’s not available in the free version and you’ll need to buy. And it’s also not open in the sense of its source code, but you can create plugins, so it’s an interesting in-betweener in a way… Still a commercial entity, but you can self-host it for free (well you’re paying for hosting and DNS but not paying WordPress to install it). This may seem really silly or naive to people who are really into this sort of thing, but I do think these things need to have a name for what they are…

There’s of course another one that needs a name. The “free” stuff that forces you to be under the mercy of the commercial owners – like Facebook, Twitter, Google. It’s free to the user in terms of money, but… users are being used for data and for marketing and more (I don’t actually know what more, but I sense some sinister things every now and then, like surveillance anyone?) – what do we call this? “Free as in not really” or “Free as in sell me your soul”?

And  yet this free but not open stuff is really important and to people in a certain space, really empowering. I can’t say that WordPress and Twitter don’t support my empowerment. I can’t say that Google (especially via Hangouts, because of VirtuallyConnecting.org specifically) doesn’t support my empowerment. If these weren’t free, where would we be?

Anyway, thought I’d just open this conversation… of the free that isn’t open. And what metaphor to use for them, because it ain’t beer (eww why did they have to choose beer? something I wouldn’t take even if it were free?) or speech or puppies…

I’m only halfway through the article… maybe the answer is in there somewhere, but I’m actually more interested in what YOU have to say 🙂

3 Comments

  1. Economists believe that everything has a cost–what we call opportunity cost. If you’re not paying for it, someone else is. I can think of a few exceptions to this but not many.

    • Opportunity cost is one of my favorite concepts in economics. I only did introductory economics in school and college and i think it sticks with me and is more useful to the lay person than any other economic concept 🙂
      Elasticity is also useful

  2. Catching up on reading while I my wife and I pass some information back and forth to our employers, and I’m just reading this.

    I’ve adored Moodle for a very long time despite the care and feeding it requires to maintain a Moodle domain – or, in many ways, because of it. The investment I make to maintain a page, to maintain users on a server, to maintain the assignment base for a class (especially if that class is a physics or an introductory chemistry class that’s heavy on the mathematical problem solving)…on the right day, that’s not work, that’s not even close to it. That’s escapism. I don’t have to deal with people, places, or things. I just have to deal with the interface, with the code, with the mathematics itself. And Moodle maintenance is much friendlier to me than most other LMS maintenance.

    So this reminder that the maintenance of a piece of software like Moodle is work to most of the human population is VERY important. And that should impact my perspective on what is “free” about such a thing to others.

    On the other hand, I’m pretty well equipped to do things that make implementing a course on Moodle (and, more to the point, implementing the kinds of mathematical and problem-solving practice that will build a student’s skills, perhaps even implementing those in an open fashion) easier on others. Does that inform where I should be focusing my own work and my own contributions to community?

    To extend your analogy, if taking care of the puppies is so easy for me, should I offer you all the benefits of the puppies and help eliminate your costs?

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