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?