Sunday, March 2, 2014

Encountering the people of Free Software

Over my time as a programmer, I have grown in the practice mostly by way of contact with the free software community. However, for the first 8 years of this time, that contact was entirely mediated by Internet communication, for my hometown did not feature a free software community to speak of.

So, instead, I learned what these people, mostly distributed among the other continents, were like by way of their mailing list messages, IRC chats, wiki edits, and committed patches. This is a fine way to become acquainted with the hats people wear for the benefit of the projects they're involved with, but isn't really a way to observe what they are really like.

About face

Then, a few years ago, I moved to Boston. Well-known for being steeped in history, Boston is the geographic heart of free software, being also the home of the Free Software Foundation. Here also is the FSF's annual LibrePlanet conference, a policy conference accompanied by a strong lineup of technical content.

I first attended LibrePlanet in 2012. There, after a decade of forming an idea in my head of what these people were like, I could finally test that idea against real-life examples.


Richard Stallman (rms), the founder and leader, both in spirit and in practice, of free software has long since excised non-free software from his life. If he cannot use a website without using non-free software, he will not use that website. If he can't open a document you send him without using a non-free program to open it, he will ask you to send it in a different format, or otherwise simply not read it. If he cannot use a newer computer with only free software on it, he will use an older computer instead. Because people keep asking him to do these things, this is an ongoing effort. This is well-known about him.

So here was the surprise: my fellow attendees had all followed rms's example, with varying success. They traded tips on the freedom-respecting aspects of this or that hardware, yet admitted those areas where they hadn't yet been able to cut out non-free software.

Little things

There was no grand philosophical reason for this, no essential disagreement with rms's philosophy in play. It was just life. Perhaps they had a spouse who simply would not do without this non-free video streaming service. Perhaps they had friends with whom contact over that non-free messaging service was the foundation of the community. Perhaps they would like to work from home, albeit over some other non-free corporate network connector, in case they get snowed in.

Or maybe they simply haven't found the time. Maybe they tried once, failed, and haven't had the opportunity to try again. There are many demands on people; they deal with them as best as they can.

I should have realized this, and I should have known it from what rms himself had said.
"I hesitate to exaggerate the importance of this little puddle of freedom," he says. "Because the more well-known and conventional areas of working for freedom and a better society are tremendously important. I wouldn't say that free software is as important as they are. It's the responsibility I undertook, because it dropped in my lap and I saw a way I could do something about it…"


For all of these compromises, though, there was still the sense that these compromises are not the end of the story. Maybe free software isn't (practically) better sometimes. Maybe there are compromises that could ease up as the situation changes. Or maybe some inconvenience will be worth the trouble in the long run; after all, that practically inferior software probably won't get better without users.

People are perfectly capable, on our own, of following Milton Friedman's method of entering gain or loss of freedom on the appropriate side of the pros-and-cons list when making such choices: when you have little, the loss of a little means a lot. Why, then, look to the example of rms, or those small ranks of others who have also cut out all non-free software from their lives?

The people of free software don't necessarily believe that rms's goal is reachable within our lifetimes. I think that what people respond to is his clear, clearly stated, and continually adapting ideas of how the world could be better, never mind the occasional bout of eerie prescience. Maybe we will never get there. Does that mean people shouldn't set a lofty goal for making a better world, and spend a bit of time pushing the real one towards it?