Free Software, Free Society: Of Democracy and Hacking

When explaining why Free Software is important, one question that often comes up is: “do I really need the software freedom?”

The utility of software freedom is indeed not obvious for all. Not everyone can understand the source code of a program, and less modify it. It appears that the capacity to enjoy the four freedoms is only valuable to hackers and programmers. It’s hard to convince people to give up on proprietary software only for freedom’s sake, as long as they don’t understand the utility of that freedom.

It’s important to think of this issue not only as a singular commitment to freedom, but more as an issue of systems.

First, the fact that one cannot enjoy the freedom of something does not mean he does not enjoy its effects. The most obvious analogy here, are political systems. The Constitution is to sovereignty what a Free Software licence is to copyright. The Constitution that defines our political system gives to every citizen freedoms and rights, such as the right to run for an election.

Anyone can run for an election, but it does not mean that everyone will. Because not everyone has the capacity or the will to become a politician. This being said, would you say that Democracy does not matter because you do not want to be in politics? I guess most people would not say that.

It’s the same thing with Free Software. Anyone can use, share, study and improve the program. But the fact that you will not do that, does not mean that it’s not important to you. It’s important for the whole system. And the more important the system becomes, the more valuable is that freedom.

So unless you assume that software is not important, Software freedom is not important. But then, I suggest you shut down your computer and stop reading, take a flight and spend the rest of your days on a desert island.

Now, let’s take a closer look at the utility of software freedom. As more and more software is used in our society for important matters, more and more people should be able to understand the software. Otherwise complete control is given to others over yourself. Others will shape the system for you in order to get more control and more weight in the system.

That is why we need democratization of hacking. This will come naturally if Free Software is broadly used, because when one has the capacity to explore something, one will explore it, by curiosity at least. Just as Printing gave people the will to be able to read and then to write, computing will give people the will to be able to read and then to write. This is a long process of course. But this can be a far longer process if we use proprietary software: software you can’t read, nor modify, nor share.

Do we want a society of digital illiterates or a Free Society?

11 thoughts on “Free Software, Free Society: Of Democracy and Hacking

  1. In my professional experience, software freedom is like backups and redundancy – businesses won’t understand they need it until the lack of it actually bites them in the backside. That’s called experience ;-)

    (We’ve had ridiculous wrangles lately at work with the supplier of our proprietary CMS platform. They’re very nice and helpful and worked hard to fix the problem. But the fact that it’s a black box we have not even theoretical control over and a single locked-in vendor is a major source of pain. I don’t expect us to move off them any time soon, but the understanding of the pain of proprietary is coming into place …)

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  3. “But then, I suggest you shut down your computer and stop reading, take a flight and spend the rest of your days on a desert island.”

    It’s a little too strong and might offend some people. Professional developers and engineers do enjoy sitting on an island with no computer as they have to deal with them too much daily.

    Use a different arguments, stating how important software is (the fact that software is everywhere and controlling/affecting human life in every way).

    You can also expand more on how proprietary software and corporations try to gain control of human rights by gaining control of software. I think that has more impact than just hacking free software to fit one’s need.

    Anyway, sharp writing there, especially the political/democracy analogy. Keep going. Practice makes perfect.

  4. This line intended to be humoristic actually :)
    The question of why software is important is another topic.

    But you’re right, software is invasive some might say. And it becomes a problem when it is proprietary software (with such cases as those you are referring to).

    About that I would like to point to this article by Glyn Moody that clearly points out how Microsoft, behind appearances of philanthropy, is just doing immoral business by trying to proprietarize African agriculture.

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  8. A very nice read – many thanks!

    One point: “So unless you assume that software is not important, Software freedom is not important.” – that’s a bit unclear. How about “So when you make the assumption that software is not important…”

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