July 28, 2022

Free in a nutshell

I discovered today that the old Shakespearian chestnut “bounded in a nut shell” was rather prophetic, insofar as everything we rely on, computing-wise (so pretty much everything, then) runs on a thing called a kernel – the seed or nut in the real world – that is the little bit of programming that dictates how the computer runs. Scheduling, memory management, system management, drivers, everything.

The Linux kernel, the version invented (written? Designed?) by Linus Torvalds three decades ago was devised to be open-source – or free – alternative to UNIX, the mother of operating system code. Owned by AT&T. Which maybe explains the reason Linux was invented?

Anyway, apparently a lot of people are now rather nervous about the free part of freeware.

Nervous that something owned or pretty much accessible to the entire programming community and so completely at the core of the modern world makes it an ideal environment for people with less than principled motivations – “Experts are worried that blind spots about the people who run open-source software make the whole edifice ripe for potential manipulation and attacks.” as one Sergey Bratus put rather pithily. And he should know. He’s in charge of DARPA’s ‘SocialCyber’ programme.

Stumbling on this left me feeling rather amazed, that something so small and so important could be this vulnerable. I must get a dozen phishing emails a day to my own account and have to be really vigilant. Imaging having to look after not only the entire internet but every single thing connected to it. I can’t begin to comprehend it.

Open source would appear to have made so many things possible. Giving something important away to help others shows the best side of us. And everyone loves free stuff – apparently 70% or more of all software contains open source code.

But it looks like the speed and cost benefits of ‘free’ might contain an altogether unexpected feature. Old William used the metaphor to illustrate one could be contained in a nutshell and believe they had everything they could want. Turns out that might need to include ‘and the things you really don’t’.

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About Richard Hill

Creative director, writer, designer, illustrator based in the UK with global project experience and consulting skills across sectors.

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