Communicating freely

Thoughts on how we can all talk a little easier, and how that can make life better.

Freedom is important (so is evolution)

I just read Paul Cooper’s blog post about the FSF and FSFE.  One line really struck me: “[FSF(E)] could become irrelevant because certain elements are living in the past confined by the way things were rather than the way things are.”

I don’t disagree but I don’t quite agree either.  It’s a very broad statement.  There is a lot of leeway for individual interpretations of what constitutes the ‘way things were’ and the ‘way things are now.’

What I think is true is that there is some tension between the traditional hacker community and the wider free software developer-base.  Free Software is no longer exclusively a hacker arena.  We are seeing Free Software deployed in very serious places and we’re seeing professional levels of support and development.  This includes the NSA with SELinux and Novell with SuSE.  It’s been happening for years but a certain critical mass is being reached.

The field is evolving.  The organisations that support it must evolve too.  

I think I was in London (speaking to GLLUG) when I started talking about how we’re seeing the rise of management layers in Free Software projects.  We’re seeing stuff like usability engineers, project managers and public relations people.  In short, we’re seeing the ‘businessification’ of Free Software projects that are regarded as mission critical.

There is a reason that we’re seeing this.  Programmers are programmers.  They are not managers or public relations people or usability engineers.  When you get to a certain size you really need to find experts.

Strap on a beard and wrinkled brow “but then you’re becoming the MAN…you’re like a company.”

Ah.  Herein lies the rub.  The traditional hacker culture was very much about being an independent person.  About hacking away and discovering stuff and playing with code because it was fun.  That’s fine.  That’s good.  It’s a noble aim.  However, when Free Software grew up and went into the real world it needed to fulfil the requirements of usability and reliability.  The Freedom bit of Free Software remains but the edgy technical hobby stuff falls away.  The government of Bhutan are not interested in cool new features; they want an empowering digital infrastructure for the future of their people.

Because Free Software is Free Software the guys who want to hack can do so.  But the big mainstream projects need to produce big mainstream products.  They need to be “the man.”  Well, the man without shareholders making technology to empower everyone.  A nice man.  The kind of man you would be happy to see your daughter marry.

I recently saw a flame-war appear on a mailing list because two people were having an argument about who was more free.  When there are five billion people in this world who lack basic infrastructure I find these arguments tiring and pointless.  

I think the four freedoms of software are important.  I think people should be able to use, modify, redistribute and improve their tools.  I think this is especially important in terms of getting this stuff out to developing nations.  It’s also important for me.  When I was fifteen I had no money for a new computer.  I got a DOS 3.3 computer from someone’s garage.  I wish I had known about GNU/Linux.  I wish I could have learned about the freedom of software at that juncture.

I think the FSFE is important.  It’s mission is to protect and promote the four freedoms of software in the European arena.  Patents and DRM challenge Free Software and the FSFE really engages on these issues.  It also educates people and has some great initiatives coming up to further strengthen Free Software in our area.

I think engagement with everyone is important.  I have nothing but admiration for the companies that are embracing openness and freedom (well done Sun and Novell).  I’m looking forward to the day that Microsoft start considering software freedom.  I’m looking forward to the day that Java is released under the GPL (hint hint).  I’m looking forward to the day that children learn at school.

I think that software freedom is relevant.  I think that promoting freedom is essential.  That’s why I’m out here talking to people, putting forward initiatives, and generally trying to do my little bit to provide digital infrastructure for everyone.

6 Responses to “Freedom is important (so is evolution)”

  1. marcus Says:

    I think you are drawing a wrong picture

    I think you are drawing a wrong picture by labeling the free software developers as the opposite of “professionals”, and free software as the opposite of “usable and reliable” software. Free software is, as proprietary software, a mixed bag. But let’s not forget that the GNU tools had a better usability and reliability than all the other vendor’s UN*X tools. Long command line options vs. cryptic short options? GNU wins. Info documents vs. man pages? GNU wins. Not crashing on random input vs crashing on random input? GNU wins (7% in GNU vs 15-43% proprietary vendors[1]). Three strikes and you are out ;)
    It is true that free software had overall technical defects. Usability of GNOME got a big push by Sun’s investments. However, these contributions have been under the free software terms that we defined. So, in some sense, one can say that “the man” becomes like us, not the other way around, and that is good.
    I do not even agree with your premise: I have never associated the “hacker culture” with the “free software principles”. The free software principles find their justification in broad, moral arguments about the nature of human beings and nature of digital information that’s useful for society. I never considered it to be related to a particular style of work, or even limited to software. We are seeing a broad extension of the scope of our movement, from book writing (wikipedia) to music composition (electronic music). This expansion is not perfect nor complete. For example, in the artists world, the primary distinction is still often commercial vs non-commercial use, instead of proprietary vs free use. But I consider this to be a transitional effect (see my latest blog entry).
    I strongly believe that of all free software organizations out there, the FSF and the FSFe are the ones *best* prepared to deal with this expansion, exactly because they take an uncompromising strong stance on the philosophy of freedom, and have the right arguments to support this philosophy, no matter what the circumstances. I also think that Cooper is paying way too much attention to the few popularized quirks RMS has, and not enough to the important and substantial work he is doing in this area.

  2. michael_kallas Says:

    Wondering about virtualschool

    I wondered what kind of organization that could be and then I tumbled over
    No thanks, I don’t want to buy an “eProduct” where I have some “Customer” “Rights”…

  3. shane Says:

    Some good points Marcus

    Hi Marcus

    Thanks for your comments! :)

    I agree with you about the negative focus on RMS. Richard Stallman is an exceptionally clear and principled writer about software freedom. I believe his book ‘Free Software, Free Society’ is an enlightening and highly important work. RMS’s contribution towards, and defense of, Free Software is a historic contribution.

    I would not call movements to introduce freedom to music or print our movement. We are protecting free software. The other movements are certainly inspired by us and overlap with our ideals to a huge extent, but they don’t necessarily constitute ‘us’. For instance, the Creative Commons is really making in impression in text distribution. But the values behind CC are not the same as the values behind the four freedoms. Sometimes we overlap but sometimes we don’t. It depends on the CC license we’re talking about.

    Wikipedia is interesting. It’s using the GFDL.

    I believe we all share a common social goal of increasing freedom and empowerment.

    Finally, I agree that the FSF and FSFE are best placed to discuss and protect Free Software. These organisations have a huge number of highly talented and intelligent individuals who tirelessly work to protect ideals. Their actions have been consistant and principled throughout. I think this is why – for all the occasional bickering about FSF(E) – most people have a great respect for the Free Software Foundations. It is a deserved respect.

  4. shane Says:

    Forgot something…

    I forgot to say something in the last comment: I was not suggesting in my post that Free Software was not usable or that Free Software programmers were not professional developers. What I was suggesting is that as Free Software became widespread it needed to refine itself according to the needs of the market. Usability increased – and needed to increase – for software to get deployed deeper in organisations. This has lead to a sea-change in many critical Free Software projects. Gnome is not the same as it was in the 1.x days. The massive increase in polish and usability is directly connected with greater deployment and the investment of business capital to refine the project. As I said in the article, a programmer alone does not make a great end-product. Usability engineers, project managers and public relations people are needed for enterprise deployment.

    I think Marcus made a good point about “the man” being OUR man. That’s why I said that “the man” is a nice man you’d like your daughter to marry.

  5. florianhaas Says:

    “The man”

    Free Software is defined through it’s license. Wheter the process to create it includes marketing-, sales- and usability-experts or long coffee&pizza-nights is not relevant to the discussion.

    The FSF and FSFE have traditionally cared mostly for the developers of software. This has changed in the last years, focussing more and more on the decisionmakers in the economy and in the politics. This change was needed, and everybody disagreeing with it is in the wrong community. The FSF(E) is about Free software, not about an alternative lifestyle & world peace. If wearing a suit helps gaining more support, so be it.

  6. marcus Says:

    I’m not sure

    I’m not sure I understand your argument anymore. I think the main difference between us is that we disagree with where the boundaries of the free software movement are. You seem to think its restricted to free software alone. You explicitely excluded works of art, and you seem to think that free software is/was strictly a programmer’s business (before business participation).

    I don’t I simply do not agree with that. Now, don’t get me wrong: I completely realize that free software was, in the beginning, and for most of its time, a “individual programmer” thing, with all that means. This is a simple factual observation, which you made, and which I think is entirely correct on the large scale. I am not trying to imply otherwise.

    However, I think that this is merely because the programmers did not learn in such a short amount of time to reach out to other people. There are many reasons for that. One reason is that the free software movement was, as far as clarity of vision and the ability to implement it unhindered is concerned, a pioneer movement. There were simply no other movements to connect to which had a similar consciousness about what they did. It probably didn’t help that programmers are a pretty lonely bunch, rather anti-social than social, and pretty much keep to themselves.

    Is there a reason to believe that this would have stayed so, business involvement or not? Difficult to say. Business involvement surely sped things up, but at what cost? Maybe the “free software user interface” is yet to come. Well, I am certainly much more happy about the free software desktop than a couple of years ago, but I also think that the whole software science is still in its infancy. There is much more to come in ages ahead, and it will probably not come from business alone. In todays socio-ecological climate, existing computer systems are mostly “good enough”, and new developments are hindered rather than supported. Just compare cutting edge research with existing practice, in any area.

    Anyway, I need to get to my main point: I really, respectfully, but strongly, disagree that free software is a software-only thing. The true contribution to society made by free software is not the software: It’s the lesson that given marginal costs of 0 for duplication and distribution, it is immoral to exclude the majority of the population of all the things that are beautiful and useful. It is the lesson that if you just remove all the obstacles for the human man kind to participate in the construction of everything, everybody will be much richer.

    In fact, I want to take it one step further, following Eben Moglen in his keynote at the Wizards of OS. Not only is the struggle for free software related to the bigger struggle of free knowledge of any kind, but that struggle itself is tightly related to the struggle for human equality:

    “We have associated the struggle for human equality with the struggle for freedom of knowledge and we have associated them rightly: they belong together. Because the recognition of individual possibility, to allow each to be what she and he can be, rests inherently upon the availability of knowledge; the perpetuation of ignorance is the beginning of slavery. So we are part then of two struggles, whether we like it or not. A struggle for the freedom of thought and a struggle for justice to persons. That the ownership of culture, the commoditization of learning, poses a danger to a movement for equality and economic justice is obvious to all. This is, as Thomas Krueger just pointed out, I think, very eloquently, an inherent part of the problem of globalization, whose sunny side we are. For globalization otherwise means the impoverishment of workers through remorseless competition between the rich and poor parts of humanity. A struggle conducted for the benefit of the shareholders, that is the few, through limitations of knowledge available to the many. Accordingly, we meet the 21th century not as the inventors of something new, but as the latest generation struggling for ideals that are very old.”

    If you have not done so yet, I highly recommend to read (or listen to) the whole talk, “Die Gedanken sind frei” at

    A side note: I agree with your characterization of the creative commons organization. It does not go far enough. However, I think it is at this point a step in the right direction, and it is an important lever to get people on board. Currently, the ideals that we already are living in the software world are unbelievable in other areas. Creative Commons is one step towards making people realize otherwise, namely by giving people a tool set and a language to understand and talk about these issues.