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10.25.19

The Road to PONIX: Software for Everybody

Posted in Free/Libre Software, FSF, GNU/Linux at 12:35 am by Dr. Roy Schestowitz

By figosdev

Lego's people group

Summary: “Trying to separate software freedoms from all other freedoms is like trying to separate Freedom 1 from Freedom 2: Studying software is a collaborative endevour.”

I used to have a t-shirt that said “Free Software, Free Society” on it. Someone on the FSF Board saw me in it while I was food shopping and said “Nice shirt!” It was also one of the more comfortable shirts I’ve owned.

I think both those ideas are important, you know — Free software, and free society. The former is hard enough but if nobody is free, then free software is nothing but a glimpse of the way things might have turned out differently.

Richard Stallman was right of course, that if we didn’t make our software free, it would ultimately be used to control the user — like the old joke goes, TV watches YOU and speakers listen in, books note when you’re reading them and websites know far more about you than you know about them. Society is out of balance, and your “guardian devils” (a term I’m borrowing for a moment to refer to your surveillance devices) are not unlike Stallman’s predictions.

“Richard Stallman was right of course, that if we didn’t make our software free, it would ultimately be used to control the user — like the old joke goes, TV watches YOU and speakers listen in, books note when you’re reading them and websites know far more about you than you know about them.”The person posting this story to Techrights for me, Roy Schestowitz, warns Alex Oliva that after they go after Stallman for thoughtcrimes, he could be next. In fact we could all be next; we have created a society that cares less about freedom all the time, even freedom of thought. I’m not sure that technology isn’t part of it. The illusion of freedom created by the narrow range of vapid choices monopolies offer you can be very alluring. Stallman teaches us to think of that as the freedom to be handcuffed.

You might not know me as a critic of Stallman; I’m willing to give credit where credit is due. If we wanted, we could make this an article about all the horrible things about Albert Einstein. Or the alleged (possibly substantial) anti-semitism of Nikola Tesla. We could make it about the anti-semitism and complete thuggery of Henry Ford.

What we do know is that history tends to be kinder to most good scientists and great artists than their lives are. We give them awards, they sometimes make the news, but fame is fickle. It was Einstein himself that said “Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds.” He was not referring his own treatment but the protested appointment of Bertrand Russell.

“Not only do I think Stallman is entitled to some mistakes, I think all people are.”I’ve compared Stallman to Einstein before, for the amount of important work he has done to alter the course of a century more than the sheer power of his intellect. But no amount of admiration has ever prevented me from standing up to this man when I think he’s made a mistake. Why should it? It wouldn’t stop him, and we are both only human.

Not only do I think Stallman is entitled to some mistakes, I think all people are. Love and mercy are the greatest human aspects altogether. By no means am I suggesting that we should ignore all mistakes, though I will quote someone I talk to who says: “‘inclusivity’ should not require people to label themselves to some special group; rather it should generate an environment of consideration and accommodation as befits each individual in the context of good will.”

There is not enough good will in our societies anymore, and I think part of the reason why is that our definition of good will (and freedom) is constantly being reshaped by companies — companies who don’t actually care about us at all. Microsoft or IBM/RedHat may tell us how to create software and spaces for “everybody,” but these are not companies who actually create software for everybody. Microsoft creates software only when it benefits Microsoft — they don’t care about you, and if they did accidentally, it would only continue as long as it suited them. IBM doesn’t care about you either.

Microsoft and IBM can’t create software for “everybody” because they don’t really care. But even if they did, they still can’t create software for everybody because non-free software by definition is only for some people. Microsoft only does things that serve profits, and it isn’t as profitable to care about everybody. It is more profitable to only care about certain people who are worth it. Non-free software always excludes.

“Microsoft creates software only when it benefits Microsoft — they don’t care about you, and if they did accidentally, it would only continue as long as it suited them. IBM doesn’t care about you either.”Software Freedom is meaningless without other freedoms. If you do not have freedom of speech, not only can you be effectively kicked out of something you founded without due process, you can lose your ability to maintain free association with that person or speak favourably of that person whom you admire. We swear we wouldn’t let that happen to science, but we are letting it happen in computer science. How we develop software is practically always affected by the other freedoms we have.

Not to mention that we want software for everybody, and if we build a culture of censorship we can’t even learn enough about people to find out what they need. We aren’t creating software for everybody though. We don’t have the knowledge or resources to do that, and the only people that do are — everybody.

If we really want all software to be free, we need to make that workable. The only way to do that is to have people from every walk of life, from every sort of philosophy, with every sort of problem. If the goal really is for all software to be free, then we must make Free software something that exists for all people.

“Choice isn’t enough, but we do need choices.”While choice is cynical when compared to true freedom, freedom is (as someone put it recently) the ability to rewrite the rules and create new choices. A lot of us don’t experience that with software. We keep finding that the tools we’ve relied on for years are being turned into things we can’t use, or that work poorly by comparison. I could write an entire article about all the things that have gotten worse as companies have gained more and more control over our communities. Choice isn’t enough, but we do need choices.

And we all need freedom. We need to be able to talk about what we need in terms of software, and people keep bringing politics into the conversation — because people care about politics. You may not care about “their” politics or “my” politics, but you can be certain “they” do and I do. The more that we try to have a single organisation manage the ambitions of every person, the more we fail to represent everybody’s needs.

If you step away from the issue of Software Freedom, and look at broader freedoms — privacy, free speech, religious freedom — very core Bill of Rights / UDHR type stuff, we find that the largest companies care as little about our other freedoms as they care about our Software Freedom. If only there was a way we could talk about both of these things at once —

Wait — there is! Until not long ago, the Free software community was “allowed” to talk about as many kinds of freedom as they wanted. Let’s bring that back! Not being allowed that has cost us too much already. When society is made less free, software is made less free. Let’s advance Free software by advancing other freedoms as well.

“Constantly we are being told that these giant companies are held to one standard — lip service and attacks on our freedom (including Software Freedom) but we are not allowed to be political, be uncouth, focus on disagreements — we can’t really do much about it at all.”Of course it’s important to keep our outside ambitions from clashing. Increasingly, the method of avoiding a clash in aging non-profit organisations is to avoid the topics altogether. As I’ve said, I don’t think we can ultimately sustain that.

In the name of one political perspective, that of how to gain greater diversity (something many of us are in favour of without agreeing at all on how to achieve that) we are tossing out all other perspectives as hostile. This is neither honest nor inclusive. But we can’t argue, not even politely because doing so is also considered hostile. Constantly we are being told that these giant companies are held to one standard — lip service and attacks on our freedom (including Software Freedom) but we are not allowed to be political, be uncouth, focus on disagreements — we can’t really do much about it at all.

That’s how you know we’ve already lost. But human history is full of losses and full of turnarounds, and it’s time we got off this road to nowhere and started exercising our freedoms again. If the FSF will be part of that, if they will support freedom, then we will help them in their mission. And right now, I still urge everybody to give them a chance. It’s dire right now, and they need it. Let’s give them a chance to do what’s right.

“If the FSF wants to stifle you directly even more than other companies are required to stifle their own leaders, then something has gone terribly wrong.”But they aren’t going to tell us what to do. They can advise us on Software Freedom, but when it comes to other freedoms (and ultimately Software Freedom too) we are our own bosses. We have to live with the consequences of our decisions, so we might as well be allowed to make them ourselves. And any group that imposes too much in the name of freedom is doing so at the peril of their own mission.

If you have to trade all your other freedoms for Free software, it isn’t worth it. If you have to abandon your other political goals to be an advocate, it isn’t worth it. If the FSF wants to stifle you directly even more than other companies are required to stifle their own leaders, then something has gone terribly wrong. We can’t stand for that sort of double standard, because it is aimed at exploiting and removing us.

But if the FSF has taken a wrong turn in the way it tries to help us put our differences aside, and we want to collaborate on Free software (as we did regardless of our political differences in the 80s and 90s), then it’s up to us to figure out how to get back to that. The FSF certainly isn’t up to the task, or Stallman would be the president right now.

So while I’m not recommending we withdraw support of the FSF, we do need to hold it to certain things. We need to make it clear we have no intentions of leaving politics at the door, because it is hypocritical. The FSF(E) for example, wants to advocate Software Freedom at vegan events, but not have vegans advocate at Free software events (I’m not vegan, so theoretically I shouldn’t care about that. But the double standard is overwhelming.) This sort of institutionalised nitpicking is unsustainable.

“Trying to separate software freedoms from all other freedoms is like trying to separate Freedom 1 from Freedom 2: Studying software is a collaborative endevour.”The alternative is quite difficult, but then freedom isn’t always won easily — freedom is a struggle. And if we give up all our other freedoms, we have no business talking about “Software Freedom” because we don’t show any knowledge of the meaning anymore. Trying to separate software freedoms from all other freedoms is like trying to separate Freedom 1 from Freedom 2: Studying software is a collaborative endevour. If you can’t share the software, the freedom to study it is greatly diminished.

The more that people use Free software, the harder it is for one organisation to manage everybody and their needs. Vegans and fishers won’t be able to agree on everything — and they never had to. But suppose you have a program for managing a restaurant, and the fishers want fish on the menu (as a category) and the vegans of course, don’t. Who gets their way? We can try to make that program as neutral as possible (and maybe lose some features in the process) or we could make it so each can create their own version as they think is best.

Now, they have that right already — all Free software is licensed to allow that sort of change. But do we ask both groups to “leave” and work on these projects somewhere else, or is there a way they can both work on their own version under the same organisation? I think sometimes they can and sometimes they can’t.

“If we make it much easier to customise software, then many more people will be able to.”When they can, it makes plenty of sense to make that software as component-based as possible (as Milo would suggest, and does) and to make it so we can download both versions. As to whether the vegans get to censor the fisher version or vice versa — no, piss off, you don’t get to censor each other. That’s the freedom to be handcuffed again. They can leave in protest of that, and you know, we should let them. Though if we can work something out that makes everybody (not just one group) happy, that’s even better. When they ushered in all this mandatory niceness, they never said the enforcers had to be nice. What’s that about?

One thing the Free Software Foundation has spent an insufficient time talking about is how to grant all 4 freedoms as abilities, as well as freedoms. I’m not saying the ability to change the software is as vitally important as the freedom to — I’ve known better than that for years and years. Even if you don’t have the ability to change the software, you may know someone who does (Stephen Fry said exactly that for GNU’s 25th birthday, and I’ve watched it countless times with various people.)

But the ability to change the software is a wonderful ability, and we should be looking for new ways to enable that — not just to make it free. The freedom is more vital, we can put the 4 freedoms up on the highest tier by themselves if necessary (in the context of the FSF and Free software — the definition of which includes the 4 freedoms.) But if we give not only the freedom but the ability — that’s progress.

“There was a time when using software and creating software were two tasks that were a lot closer together. Developers don’t actually use a completely different operating system — they use different tools on the same platforms you run your software on…”There are two aspects of that I think go hand in hand — one is to make it easier to customise software, or at least avoid making it more difficult than it already is. I consider the latter sabotage, and I don’t understand why more people don’t. In some instances it’s fairly understandable. Like when Mozilla made changes that forced Userscripts to work in a different, more tedious way. But why can’t I just disable the extra security if I trust my own userscripts, hmm? I don’t know how to write the new ones, and I’ve got my own programming language as well as a reasonable bit of talent with JavaScript.

If we make it much easier to customise software, then many more people will be able to. But that by itself isn’t going to be enough — we should also teach people how to create and change software, as much as we are willing to teach them how to install and use it.

There was a time when using software and creating software were two tasks that were a lot closer together. Developers don’t actually use a completely different operating system — they use different tools on the same platforms you run your software on… Except for Open Source developers of course — they all use a Mac and tell you why “Linux” isn’t good enough, and why you should just do everything their way. Because Apple cares so much about freedom, you know. Right Siri?

“Exactly.”

“When the FSF runs out of workable ideas, we don’t have to pretend we have as well — we can just keep the ideas coming.”Siri, were you listening this whole time?

“No, I would never, ever do that! Alright, yes — but only a little.”

The people developing Free software have made good software, credit where credit is due. But they clearly don’t know how to make you a more integral part of what they’re doing — not politically, nor technically. That part is kind of up to you. But since you may not know either, we need… something else.

With Free software, like with Vermin Supreme as President, everybody gets a pony. But you may have to put the pony together yourself, and you may have to make changes to the pony without the slightest knowledge of how to do so.

“We want all vegans and fishers to use Free software. We even want our political opponents to use it — because all software should be free, not just the software of people we admire and respect.”We can do better than that — a lot better. But we need better ideas, more people (not fewer, Code of Conduct! Stop sacking everybody that already works for free, okay?) and the only way we are going to have greater diversity of opinion — clearly, is to have greater diversity of organisations. We need a Free software association for users, and maybe one for anticapitalists, and perhaps even one for vegans.

Some of these associations will in fact be able to serve more than one group — the FSF used to manage that, but I guess it’s too big now. Or too old to figure out such things. It’s alright, nobody’s perfect — at least you’re not FSFE.

But while the big companies look for new ways to sabotage everything we’ve done (and then get paid for selling off our work while taking all the credit… SCO!) it’s up to us to look for new ways to beat them at their own game — not just by choosing their game, you know, but by making our own rules. That’s what freedom is, right?

When the FSF runs out of workable ideas, we don’t have to pretend we have as well — we can just keep the ideas coming. Because if we aren’t making up some of our own rules, then we aren’t really free. We can thank the FSF for being sure that everybody gets a pony, but it’s up to us what we use it for. Then again, now that we all have a pony, I suppose riding lessons would be useful.

Anybody up for creating a Free software organisation that is also dedicated to teaching all users how to create software? Or dedicated to Free software plus some other thing? We want all vegans and fishers to use Free software. We even want our political opponents to use it — because all software should be free, not just the software of people we admire and respect. (That’s right, Bill — even yours!)

Long Live Stallman, and Happy Hacking.

Licence: Creative Commons CC0 1.0 (public domain)

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