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Information Ethics & Origami

March 10, 2019

Some of my family were over for a funeral late last month, and I kept my baby cousin off his dad's back for the duration of their visit (he had work, paperwork to settle, etc). Third graders have an obscene amount of energy, but it was a relief to get away from the job search and just spend all day running around with nerf guns.

The little guy got the idea to put together some origami as a birthday gift to my mom. Apparently origami's primary dependency is square paper. Perfectly square. I cut some out of my notebook's grid paper with the best scissormanship I could summon. For this piece my cousin needed thirteen squares, each of which I made out to be 65mm * 65mm. Under his direction, I helped out folding the 13 modular pieces, making inadvertent errors on every single one (which he patiently corrected), and the artist himself put together this... I don't have the immediate vocabulary for it.

He didn't even need a book or a YouTube tutorial! How is this?? My cousin set out to work with remarkable efficiency, visualizing the interlinking of these papers as if it were completely trivial, without any pause for doubt. No references, no nothing; it was as if he'd been making these since he discovered his opposable thumbs.

Information Ethics & Origami

Bringing this back round to professional design work and information ethics, there's apparent controversy pertaining to intellectual property and origami. As the art is easily reducible to diagrammed instructions, it's difficult to determine who has the 'right' to a work. Was it the originator of the instructions or the folder? How can we reconcile copyright with the fact that the originators of aged, well-known designs are unknown and un-attributable?

And apparently, there can be piracy of origami instructions!

Are you seeing the parallel here? Origami's a lot like software. Easier to reduce to and backwards engineer into instructions than, say, a painting, even in binary form. You could say the same for cooking: Origami has instructions, and cooking has recipes. Richard Stallman uses the same metaphor to evangelize free, open-source software. Here's a passage from Free as in Freedom1 where Stallman describes the fundamentals of free software philosophy using the metaphor of cooking during a lecture at NYU's computer science department in 2001:

Stallman and what I think is a Lemote Yeeloong.

For the uninitiated, Stallman dives into a quick free software warm-up analogy. He likens a software program to a cooking recipe. Both provide useful step-by-step instructions on how to complete a desired task and can be easily modified if a user has special desires or circumstances. "You don't have to follow a recipe exactly," Stallman notes. "You can leave out some ingredients. Add some mushrooms, 'cause you like mushrooms. Put in less salt because your doctor said you should cut down on salt—whatever."

Most importantly, Stallman says, software programs and recipes are both easy to share. In giving a recipe to a dinner guest, a cook loses little more than time and the cost of the paper the recipe was written on. Software programs require even less, usually a few mouse-clicks and a modicum of electricity. In both instances, however, the person giving the information gains two things: increased friendship and the ability to borrow interesting recipes in return.

"Imagine what it would be like if recipes were packaged inside black boxes," Stallman says, shifting gears. "You couldn't see what ingredients they're using, let alone change them, and imagine if you made a copy for a friend. They would call you a pirate and try to put you in prison for years. That world would create tremendous outrage from all the people who are used to sharing recipes. But that is exactly what the world of proprietary software is like. A world in which common decency towards other people is prohibited or prevented."

"Software Should Be Free" vs. "Software Cannot Be Free"

In 2017 I wrote a 'rebuttal' of Stallman's essay, "Why Software Should Be Free,"1 titled "Why Software Cannot Be Free." In retrospect, it was less of a rebuttal and more of a response. Stallman claimed three 'material harms' of non-free, proprietary software:

According to Stallman, these material harms doubly manifest themselves as psychosocial harms, deteriorating the individual's compassion towards society and damaging social cohesion by divisively discouraging the sharing of software—software that is proprietary and forbidden from unlicensed sharing, but should be free.

Photo by the US Army. The ENIAC calculated artillery firing tables and the viability of nukes.

My primary argument was that the current conflicts of power and profit make a utopian, free-software world such imagined by Stallman and the Free Software Foundation unfeasible:

In essence, while Stallman and the Free Software Foundation promote the prosocial virtues of free software, it may be more effective for their causes to simply promote the virtue of being prosocial in the first place. The issue of completely proliferating free, open-source software is as deep as creating a friendlier, sharing-oriented society.

Here's the essay in full:

Returning to Origami

The difference between cooking, origami, and software is that cooking and origami have a less to do with power and profit. The sharing of recipes and origami can't impede the defense of a nation or the checking account of a person or corporation as deeply as the sharing of software.

1 Williams, Sam. "Chapter 2 - 2001: A Hacker's Odyssey." Free as in Freedom: Richard Stallman's Crusade for Free Software. O'Reilly Media, 2002. https://www.oreilly.com/openbook/freedom/ch02.html.

2 Stallman, Richard. "Why Software Should Be Free." Free Software, Free Society: Selected Essays of Richard M. Stallman, 3rd Edition. Free Software Foundation, 2010. https://www.gnu.org/philosophy/shouldbefree.html.