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10.18.19

Should Anybody Dictate the Free Software Movement?

Posted in Free/Libre Software, FSF at 1:02 pm by Dr. Roy Schestowitz

By figosdev

A hand

Summary: “There’s a great myth, as Jagadees reminds us, that advocacy doesn’t produce software. That myth is corporate, and proper advocacy has at times produced the greatest software in the history of computing. If we want great Free software to continue, we need advocacy more than ever.”

I want to start this article out by thanking both Jagadees.S and Techrights for the service they did in bringing us the article this is in response to. My goal is to comment on that article without hijacking it; I hope it won’t be taken that way.

I also want to be careful not to misunderstand the intent of that article. It’s possible that some of what I say will be reactionary, and it’s important to me not to take the wrong way anything that was said.

Let’s start with: “We should start a second phase of the Free software movement that’s making good software and putting users at the center.”

This is a good idea overall, but the tricky part is the implementation. I want to nod to Alessandro and say that for a while now, we have talked about an organisation with a working title of the “Association for User Freedom”. If he did things “my way”, he would start simply with a page like freesw.org or Free Software Force has. This is a good way to get started on an organisation that promotes Free software.

“…advocacy for users is particularly important when “designeritis” comes in and tries to overhaul suites that tens of thousands (or even hundreds of thousands) of people use every day.”There is also a point specifically on a theme of users in the (non-binding, completely voluntary) THRIVE guidelines.

“Without some greater commitment to the needs and education of users, Free software will soon lose too much ground to corporations that falsely pander to them. This is not a call to make everything ‘user friendly.’ As a user, you are free to develop on your own terms. There are still areas in which progress could be made regarding development.”

This expresses at least mild concern about users becoming a distraction from software development. And while I think we need to do more to advocate for users (advocacy in the sense of listening to users, helping consolidate their needs into something coherent and then using that to inspire developers who wish to better design and cater with users as their audience) I think of this in terms of maintaining a natural balance.

“The software industry is a perpetual fashion victim, and in my opinion we aren’t advocating for users if we don’t give them a way to opt out of useless trends.”How we decide to support users matters just as much as whether we support them. Some developers are prone to flights of fancy, and as long as they aren’t undermining the tools we rely on and love, they do no harm. On the other hand, advocacy for users is particularly important when “designeritis” comes in and tries to overhaul suites that tens of thousands (or even hundreds of thousands) of people use every day.

The software industry is a perpetual fashion victim, and in my opinion we aren’t advocating for users if we don’t give them a way to opt out of useless trends. Not all trends are useless either — one of the best ways we can help users is to give them choices, to make choices as easy and seamless as possible, and to not force them to constantly bow to our whims.

The call to modularise and consider the Unix philosophy of “Do one thing and do it well” makes these choices easier to offer. If we have truly neglected the user, it is likely because we have done too much to neglect that philosophy.

I agree with Jagadees on the importance of freedom, not just good software: “But what if you joined the movement because the software is fast? Faaaaaast, or beautiful or secure etc. You cannot really understand what this community is for. You see it as just a company.”

“Whether Red Hat asks us to do so or not, we do end up measuring progress in lines of code or packages contributed — when these packages don’t always improve the situation of either users or freedom, as much as they improve the situation of large companies.”Open Source has encouraged many of us to treat this software as just a product of a company, when this is actually a community. That has made it easier for larger companies to come in and assist development, though these larger companies bring in some of the unfortunate habits we worked hard to escape when we traded legacy operating systems for community-based ones.

I see this too as a balance, because too often these very large contributors put their needs and priorities over ours — they overpower our communities and drag them into increasingly corporate territory. But there are some benefits to allowing their contributions as well — Red Hat encourages us to look at the benefits they bring in terms of lines of code (or even packages/tools) added.

Bill Gates (a man I certainly do not admire) is quoted as saying: “Measuring programming progress by lines of code is like measuring aircraft building progress by weight.”

Whether Red Hat asks us to do so or not, we do end up measuring progress in lines of code or packages contributed — when these packages don’t always improve the situation of either users or freedom, as much as they improve the situation of large companies. This was once done carefully, as with marketing, to avoid rocking the boat too much and have communities reject these contributions like an immune system rejecting an organ transplant.

“It was Free software that slowly forced corporations to play by our rules with regards to licensing, and it has taken them decades to come up with effective ways to circumvent those requirements.”But today, such contributions are so overwhelming that you are (in the words of Steve Litt) frequently given a Hobson’s choice of “take it or leave it.” We are often given this “choice” with extra “take it” and very little “leave it”, because the work of removing these contributions or making them optional continues to increase.

This should be considered bad behaviour, and not in good faith, to take the amount of choice and control we have as users — and continually work to make it more and more difficult to make choices at all. But it is defended by people chasing sponsors and corporate “contributions.” At some point, users must put their foot down. They must decide, if they are tired of this sort of treatment, that they refuse to accept any more of this degradation and manipulation of their Free software ecosystem.

It was Free software that slowly forced corporations to play by our rules with regards to licensing, and it has taken them decades to come up with effective ways to circumvent those requirements. Although it would almost certainly undermine the 4 freedoms to put new requirements on the same level — on a completely separate level, a slightly lower tier than the 4 freedoms, we can make our stand regarding choice, user advocacy and platform and UI stability.

Stability is underrated and under-catered to by companies who want to drag (control) users from one “experience” to the next. I offered to install Trisquel on someone’s notebook once, as part of my advocacy of Free software. They turned me down of course, but I wanted them to know such a thing was possible. When they found themselves using Windows 8, they finally took me up on it. They found 8 a complete nightmare, as did I when I tried it, and Trisquel offered greater stability and usability at the time than “8″ did.

Free software is not immune from similar nightmares, and if we listened to users a bit more we would know that. Projects to preserve abandoned user-facing software like MATE and Trinity should be encouraged, not treated as second class citizens (I’m looking at you, Debian — the Once Universal operating system. You’ve made too many compromises and dismissed too many users. But why you did that is very interesting too.)

“Free software is not immune from similar nightmares, and if we listened to users a bit more we would know that.”We really don’t want to drag users along like cattle. Calling that “freedom” becomes a little too cynical. It isn’t acting like a community, but a company.

“So everything is fine. Then you think that Free software politics have become obsolete.”

Another great point from Jagadees. We get so caught up in development that we forget about the freedom that made it possible. Ubuntu is such a great example of this. Named after the quality of humanity itself, Ubuntu whispers “Corporate” into everything it can get its hands on. It has a “universal” package system that is controlled and dictated by Canonical. And when the forums asked: “What are your Likes and/or Dislikes with Ubuntu Forums” I replied:

“Culturally speaking, I think the forums are far too apolitical. I haven’t expected any different in nearly a decade (I was also here around 2010 or something) but that’s my primary dislike.

Plenty of nuisances and unpleasantness are avoided that way, but in their place is an enforced sterility. I doubt I’ll ever be a fan of that. To each their own, I guess?”

At least I got away with saying that much. My favourite reply was from “super moderator” DuckHook, for the point it puts on the entire issue:

“I’ve always valued UF as a sanctuary and a respite from such conflict. Were it to turn into just another politicized, polarized, jingoistic mudfest, I would be out of here faster than you could say ‘RMS’.”

“What Canonical and its “Humanity to others” has typically done over the years is say in gentler terms: “If you don’t like it, GTFO.” Hobson’s choice again.”Mark Shuttleworth used to advocate Software Freedom to some degree, until his values diverged far enough from it to where he couldn’t fool anybody into thinking he cared about freedom anymore. Today it is a recipe for a “politicized, polarized, jingoistic mudfest” to even discuss such things. I mean, they want you to think it is. Corporate is happy to tell you that we are all better off if we just avoid those topics — and adopt corporate values instead.

If we did more to sincerely advocate for users, they would tell us how they feel about this. What Canonical and its “Humanity to others” has typically done over the years is say in gentler terms: “If you don’t like it, GTFO.” Hobson’s choice again.

Jagadees: “So all of a sudden you see the group of innocent corporate donors, even Epsteins. You will be happy with them and thank them for their support. Also, you might support their beliefs (in making money). This is the beginning of the conflict of interest.”

Stallman has made it very clear that making money isn’t a problem in and of itself, and I agree. It’s not money that is the root of all evil, but the “love of money” (over people, over integrity, over other kinds of value.) Greed, in other words. And lust for power. Taking those who lust for power too seriously puts our community (and society) in jeopardy. We should be able to comment, to mock greed, to (as Benjamin from Wayne’s World put it) “humiliate our sponsor.”

“We should be able to comment, to mock greed, to (as Benjamin from Wayne’s World put it) “humiliate our sponsor.””Otherwise, we simply put them on a level over us, and make them VIPs while we become serfs. We even let them spread this narrative that — if not for Red Hat, we would still be poking at ordinary VT screens in caves or something. (What did we ever do without them? The work that actually got us all here — useless!)

Not that we don’t want any large contributions, but we want them on our terms — we want choice. If taking your contributions means we need to abandon all of our own priorities and ignore our own needs, sorry — take your contribution and go. We must have freedom, first.

“Otherwise, we simply put them on a level over us, and make them VIPs while we become serfs. We even let them spread this narrative that — if not for Red Hat, we would still be poking at ordinary VT screens in caves or something.”Jagadees: “they want the same model of development without its politics. Model of development in this context means volunteers developing software. So they don’t have to pay for anything. Maybe once in a while they’ll give some trip to a foreign country or a podium position. Even better than the gig economy!”

I think I’ve heard the comparison of this third (corporate-first) age of Free software to the gig economy at least one other place, but it’s worth reflecting on. Yes, it’s disruptive technology — but disrupting the previous model doesn’t automatically imply freedom. It only implies change. Big companies want us to confuse something as basic as change with freedom, when it isn’t the same thing at all. They want us to think that anything other than the status quo is progress (as did Apple in their 1984-inspired commercial.)

Another gem: “Breaking a system from the outside is a tough job. It may backfire and strengthen the system. But it will be very easy to break things from inside. Ruling classes know and have known this for centuries. What they have to do is entryism — just act like they’re supporting people’s movements.”

I couldn’t agree more.

“We should start a second phase of the Free software movement that’s making good software and putting users at the center. There will be user communities. They will raise resources and fund things. They will recruit workers. Workers will develop software. Once a project is completed workers will be ‘fired’.”

This is an interesting approach. Because an increasing number of us are treating Free software as a federation, we can have an organisation (or more than one) that tries out this approach. And the model Jagadees is referring to is known traditionally as the Bounty system. I suspect that in reality this will be a combination of paid workers and community volunteers, but the call to keep paid developers at arm’s length is worth considering. With federation, we don’t all have to adopt this but many of us can try this out.

“We should teach everyone to code, and if that is too difficult to teach, we should look at the many tools (and develop new tools) that make it easier to learn how to code.”The beauty of federation is we can explore more options and methodologies towards creating Free software.

“Techies should not dictate the Free software movement. The Free software movement is for Free software users. Not developers.”

I still think it’s about a balance, and that the line between user and developer is too artificial. In my opinion, we shouldn’t just make it easier to be a user, we should make it easier to be a developer. We should consider working on friendlier development tools and the Free software movement ought to support better education.

“I think we need to take our communities back, not to exclude developers or even ban corporations entirely, but to make it clear that nobody “dictates” whether or not we all may advocate.”We should teach everyone to code, and if that is too difficult to teach, we should look at the many tools (and develop new tools) that make it easier to learn how to code. That’s something I was working on prior to this major Free software crisis — a crisis I predicted, I might add.

But I still love to code, and we should share that joy with users. Freedom is a vital goal, but empowering the user is not complete until we have invited them to our developers’ table.

I am not offended when Jagadees says “The Free software movement is for Free software users. Not developers.” We shouldn’t take offense to this. I am fond of saying that “freedom is for everyone.” Many developers have stopped listening to users, and developers have stopped listening to advocates of freedom. Everybody has more to learn, from developers and users alike.

There are still a lot more of them than there are of us, and besides — I’m a user too. I think we need to take our communities back, not to exclude developers or even ban corporations entirely, but to make it clear that nobody “dictates” whether or not we all may advocate.

“If we want great Free software to continue, we need advocacy more than ever.”And if that’s “just another politicized, polarized, jingoistic mudfest” — then let’s get our hands dirty. I know it might offend the “suits”, but I really never cared about that and I don’t know why people are fooled into thinking that’s so important these days. They’re just people, and we’ve spent too much effort on brown-nosing companies — and too little on advocacy.

There’s a great myth, as Jagadees reminds us, that advocacy doesn’t produce software. That myth is corporate, and proper advocacy has at times produced the greatest software in the history of computing. If we want great Free software to continue, we need advocacy more than ever.

Licence: Creative Commons Attribution-Sharealike 3.0 Unported

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