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Res publica non dominetur

June 9, 2010 2 comments

With the passing of legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden, I was reminded of the IBM “Prodigy” ad in which he appears. “Prodigy,” quite frankly, is the best tech ad ever — ever (sorry, “1984,” despite Apple’s ad introducing not only the Macintosh but Ridley Scott’s directing prowress) — and it joins Red Hat’s “Truth Happens” (QuickTime / OGG versions) as two short video pieces I show people when talking about GNU/Linux.

The ad is here on YouTube. Take a minute and 33 seconds to watch. I’ll wait. You may want to keep it open in another window to refer back to it.

What occurred to me while watching Wooden tell the kid, “A player who makes a team great is more valuable than a great player. Losing yourself in the group, for the good of the group, that’s teamwork” (emphasis mine), was that this quote applies not only to basketball in particular or sports in general, but specifically to those participating in making Free/Open Source Software work.

Watching the ad, then, with an eye toward how IBM addresses FOSS allowed me to watch with a new perspective. Other aspects of the ad also draw the same conclusions — pointing to the FOSS paradigm — even though all of those who instruct the lad don’t impart anything that can be directly tied to FOSS.

An anthropologist tells him “Homo habalis was the first to use tools.” It rings true because we are the first to use tools that we can’t actually hold — the digital bits and bytes that course through our hardware and over the World Wide Web.

Harvard professor and Boston police harrassment victim Henry Louis Gates tells the boy, in what I think is the most profound English sentence in the ad, “Collecitng data is only the first step toward wisdom, but sharing data is the first step toward community.” No additional commentary is needed there, and the overwhelming irony of having someone named Gates imparting something so profoundly insightful about the open source paradigm is almost too perfect.

A poet speaks: ” Poetry. There’s not much glory in poetry, only achievement.” Replacing “poetry” with “FOSS programming” is a simple and complete fit.

Even the male narrator says, after the poet: “What he learns, we all learn. What he knows, we all benefit from.” Where have we experienced that before?

Author Sylvia Nassar and actress/director Penny Marshall: Nassar says “One little thing can solve an incredibly complex problem,” and who hasn’t been there scripting or programming? Can I see a show of hands? I thought so. Marshall: “Everything’s about timing, kid.” Indeed.

Skipping over the businessman and the pilot — though the businessman does teach “constant improvement,” which is a FOSS tenet — we get to the heart of the ad: The Latin teacher and the plumber — the intellectual and the worker — both stating profound truths that apply to life in general and FOSS in particular.

The Latin teacher: “Res publica non dominetur,” which translates, as far as I can tell, literally to “(The) thing of the public (let) not be dominated” — more idiomatically, “Don’t let something that belongs to the public get taken over by a despot” (thanks, Willy Smith, for the quote on the translation, from his more eloquent blog on the “Prodigy” ad here). Like the Gates quote, notihng to add here, however I think I’m going to add that phrase to my personal Coat of Arms.

And the plumber, with the most succinct and direct quote: “Plumbing. It’s all about the tools.” Which the same can be said for FOSS: It’s all about the tools.

The others may or may not speak directly to the FOSS paradigm and philosophy, with the remote exception of Muhammad Ali’s chiling yet inspiring two sentences: “Speak your mind. Don’t back down.” I’m trying to find where the guitar player, the soccer player, the astronomer and the pilot fit in, but nevertheless, it seems that seven years ago, IBM did the Free/Open Source Software community a huge favor by producing this ad.

[Thanks again to Willy Smith for his insightful blog, which not only helped me translate the Latin, but also points out better than I do the FOSS nuances of this ad.]

[FSF Associate Member](Fedora ambassador Larry Cafiero runs Redwood Digital Research in Felton, California, and is an associate member of the Free Software Foundation.)
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