The Debian Project: how freedom works
Yesterday, the Debian Project turned 19 years old. Positive Internet raises a glass to this miracle of human cooperation. More than an unassuming technical project, it has profound implications on what humans can achieve with unencumbered networks.
Operating systems don't lead to much heated enthusiasm in the saloons and hostelries of the nation; less so the different ways of distributing and putting together those operating systems. Talking about operating-system distributions seem a very definition of arcane. But bear with me: by examining one operating system's distribution in particular, we can find fascinating sociological, economical and philosophical insights.
The distribution I'm talking about is 'Debian'. But let's first backtrack a bit: what is a 'distribution'? When you buy Windows, or MacOS, in its shiny box or from a glinting app-store, you understand that you're getting something that makes your computer run, provides the windows and menus, and includes some basic software, like notepads and wordprocessors. In a sense, then, you could call those proprietary operating systems "distributions", I suppose. But because what gets put on the DVD or in the download is strictly regulated by the company who produces the operating system, there is usually just one distribution of such operating systems. Well, to be precise, there are some small variations: Microsoft, for example, allows you to purchase cheaper, more restricted versions of Windows for low-powered netbooks, and throws in an extra bucket or two of bells and whistles for their enterprise versions. But, because of their tight, proscriptive control of what goes into these sub-versions, it seems more appropriate to call them "editions" than completely different distributions.
Operating systems based on the Linux kernel tend to have less onerous licencing restrictions; however, the organisations that put together the distributions of the free software packages that run on top of the Linux kernel - the web servers, the databases, the desktop clients and so on - are often competent but otherwise uninspiring. RedHat, for example, for all the good work it does, is "just another" company, that employs technicians to put together and test these packages under its corporate roof, and sells support and management services. Certainly, it receives help from its community via the Fedora project, but it still acts as the central, commercial clearinghouse that is well understood and oft-immitated.
Debian is different: it has no centre, no hub, no commercial core, no large team of employees. Debian is an agreement, a coherent social structure, an arrangement between free agents - but it is not a corporation in the traditional understanding of that term. It is a group of individuals and organisations who, for manifold reasons, tend their own particular corner of a garden that matters to them. The interesting bit happens through an alchemy of the network effect, free software and combined, intermeshing self-interest. So long as the individual maintainer follows certain rules and conventions, their specific package, documentation or meta-infrastructure is included into the project as a whole. The benefit to the maintainer is that their work is given a supported place within a larger, useful infrastructure. And the benefit to the project is that it gains an additional useful component. The networked world, and the universe of Free and Open Source software, allows startlingly novel structures of production that nevertheless somehow speak right to the interest-matrices of our hunter-gatherer roots. Debian is the prime, working example of such novelty based on ancient cooperative instincts. No centre, no core, and yet somehow out of the chaos emerges a stable distribution of thousands of individual software packages produced by hundreds of different individuals in dozens of countries. And it all works meticulously. In a sense, Debian has had a universal, networked, liberated "app store" for more than a decade before the proprietary people caught on.
More recently, producers of proprietary operating systems have include "app stores", where people can distribute their software, and the operating-system owner, as gatekeeper to the walled garden, takes a cut for each application sold. People are treating the coherent, easily-updated app store as a novel development; in fact, projects like Debian have provided huge repositories of coherently distributed and updated applications from the beginning, but with one key difference. Debian provides these applications not as part of a "walled garden", but though a cooperative agreement on how applications should be installed and updated in its environment. Because the great majority of Debian's applications are under Free Software licences, the coherence and scope of the "app store" goes well beyond those offered in the proprietary realm.
Because Debian focuses itself profoundly on Free and Open software, the social contract of those who produce its thousands of packages reflects the contract's principles both in philosophy and engineering. There are guidelines for creating and maintaining individual software components, but no compulsion, no specific carrots and no hefty sticks. One would assume, then, that this peculiarly libertarian but cooperative environment would lead to chaos and instability. In fact, Debian is renowned as one of the most stable - perhaps even conservatively so - distributions available, and has been so for longer than companies like Google, Facebook and even Apple (in its revitalised form) have existed.
We at Positive Internet have used Debian almost since our inception, and have systems with many years of uptime on it. We take for granted the abilities it gives us to keep systems secure and reliable, and yet replete with a rich collection of important applications for running the latest web-services for our clients. The huge variety of tasks we have demanded from the distribution is testament to its flexibility: from small firewalls to massive bank-grade clusters, we don't give a second thought that Debian will be up to the job. And where it needs tweaking, or some special package demands particular tending, we know that a universe of maintainers and developers will be there with us in that task.
So, for 19 years, the Debian project has modestly, unassumingly, engineered myriad human minds, with myriad separate requirements and motivations, to deliver, e pluribus, unum. This project of massively heterogeneous conception, emerges as one unified, elegant body of work. It is a pity that so many political theorists, economists and philosophers are technophobes: would that they weren't, they would have a case-study of of two decades of cooperative productivity in the networked age that is uniquely captures our species' capabilities in a liberated networked world.
Debian has spent nearly 20 years proving conclusively that a well-tended garden needn't be walled. And for that, they deserve a toast or two.