An economic truism is that there’s no such thing as a free lunch. While lunch itself may not be free, you can get a lot of free software and education. In the open source movement, a lot of skilled programmers have put their time into software that they give away. You can get graphic editors, music production software, office suites, and even operating systems. The programs come with thorough user guides and YouTube demonstrations, so you can figure out how to use them. Its not always as a good as what you would pay for, but you didn’t pay for it.
Open education is even more exciting. On an informal level, people with know-how, a camera, and time have posted instructional videos on how to do almost anything. You can learn how to change a flat tire, build a solar panel, play guitar, and anything else you might be interested in taking up. Educational institutions have gotten in on the act with top universities like Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and Cal Berkeley posting videos of entire courses online. Sorry you never got that Philosophy degree? Don’t be; you’re probably better off. I’m speaking from experience. And you can just attend that Existentialism in Film and Literature class you were dying to take via iTunes.
I can’t really get my mind around the fact that open source software and open education exist. It really challenges my views on human nature. Who builds something and just gives it away? Who freely shares the skills that that provide their livelihood? Why are universities voluntarily giving up their status as gatekeepers to knowledge? Maybe there is a compelling account of how all of these activities are ultimately self-interested, but it seems like what they’re giving is of far greater value than what they’re getting.
Regardless of motive, the open movement lowers barriers to education and productivity. By buying a computer and spending tens of dollars a month on an internet connection, all the tools you need to learn and do interesting and valuable things are right at your finger tips. This could have a massive effect on human productivity if eventually it doesn’t require any money to get a world class education and a number of tools to make good on that education. We are almost there already.
However, in the nearer future, its more likely to cause some economic disruption when free services displace ones that generate income. People rely on that income, and its hard to compete with free (this is Google’s business model, by the way). And of course, the “digital divide” of those who can access to the internet and those who cannot limits the effect of these open movements, but with 2 billion people online, the leap in innovation could be drastic.
By this point, you’re probably ready to start learning and doing. Here are the links to the free stuff that I know about. If you’re struggling to use any of the programs, search for user guides, forums, and instructional videos on YouTube. All you have to lose is time:
Open Culture – its a library of free media on the internet. It has links to classes at a number of universities, movies, e-books, etc.
Internet Archive – same as above.
Ubuntu – an operating system complete with all the programs you need and then some. You can install it to run alongside your operating system or replace an operating system altogether.
Chromium OS – the open source version of Google’s Chrome operating system. I haven’t used it yet, but it supposed to be very fast, light on features, and heavy on web applications.
Cyanogen Mod – an Android Gingerbread operating system for mobile phones and tablets. I found instructions on a forum to install it on my girlfriend’s Nook Color, and it is a huge upgrade.
Open Office – a complete productivity suite. It has 90% of Microsoft Office’s functionality and 0% of its price. Therefore, I don’t own Office.
Libre Office – word on the street is its better than Open Office.
GIMP – the free version of Photoshop. I used it to make the banner on the site.
Dafont – fonts to use with GIMP or any other graphic editor. There are a lot of free sites like this; just search for free fonts.
I recently heard a presentation on music education where I learned about a bunch of resources. I’ve only used a few of them. Try them out, and let me know which ones you like:
LMMS – I haven’t used Garage Band, but this is supposed to be pretty similar. It has a tough interface, but after spending a little while with the user guide, I’ve had a lot of fun tinkering with it. You really need a keyboard and MIDI input to make full use of it.
Muse Score – for composition and notation. It looks like Finale.
Lilypond – composition and notation.
Impro-visor – notation with an emphasis on understanding jazz solos.
Hydrogen – a drum machine.
Rosegarden – it looks like it has everything above rolled into one.
Ardour – looks like LMMS.
Audacity – audio recording and editing.
You can find more free applications that aren’t necessarily open source for Windows and Mac. One service I unequivocally recommend is Evernote for jotting down idea, saving links, and making it all searchable. Here are some free video editors.
It would be greatly appreciated if you added any other open services to the comments below. Enjoy your free lunch.