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06.24.20

Three Steps to a Free Software Reboot

Posted in Free/Libre Software, GNU/Linux at 10:33 pm by Guest Editorial Team

Article by figosdev

CTRL+ALT+DEL sequence

Summary: “Do we teach people to code just so they can be forced to use GitHub, or so that they have a choice, or so they can help us fight against such a monopoly?”

This was going to be called “Three Necessary Ingredients”, but I was reminded of Lawrence Lessig’s address at Dartmouth called “Rebooting Democracy”, and I decided to borrow his CTRL+ALT+DEL sequence.

“We need to take back control of this movement.”The CTRL+ALT+DEL key combination was originally used to reboot a PC, and now gets hooked for other purposes as well. As to why write yet another article like this, it’s no secret that I’ve nearly given up on the free software movement — at least for now. But when people have questions about fixing problems with the free software movement, I often feel the opportunity should not be ignored.

For the moment, I’m particularly enheartened by a comment made to a previous article:

Now that our “platform is burning”, what are the things we should do? Is it still possible to put out the fires? How do we discern friend from foe? As far as I’m concerned, the pragmatic user who doesn’t care about the Libre process is just a tourist and shouldn’t be counted among our numbers. Do we still have sufficient numbers to turn the tide?

I actually liked the entire comment, but maybe this is the part that’s the most important to address. So let’s talk about these three things I think we will need:

CTRL:

We need to take back control of this movement. And by “control” I don’t mean the kind of top-down structure that sponsors have co-opted, I mean in the sense that each user needs to have “control” of their computing. Only a grassroots movement can save one that is centred around a group of 501(c)3 and similar organisations that were co-opted by sponsors.

“Only a grassroots movement can save one that is centred around a group of 501(c)3 and similar organisations that were co-opted by sponsors.”I’m not entirely against these non-profit corporations — they are probably necessary for certain types of goals. When the FSF was founded, it made perfect sense to have a 501(c)3 non-profit for handling things like equipment, donations, office space, and printing costs and merchandise.

We may always need non-profit organisations as some part of what we do, though I don’t know of any that were fully salvaged after being taken over by sponsors (Bill-and-Melinda-Gates-sponsored NPR comes to mind).

“I am wary of the implications of not only Microsoft and IBM but also Google funding so much of what the “free software” movement does lately.”My problem with these organisations is their inherent vulnerability to corporate takeover. It shouldn’t be possible — trying to control a non-profit through obvious-strings-attached deals with for-profit sponsors ought to be against antitrust law, but we know that antitrust law is more rhetoric than anything these days. I am wary of the implications of not only Microsoft and IBM but also Google funding so much of what the “free software” movement does lately.

So even if these organisations prove to be a necessary evil (and I’m not trying to prove they are, only acknowledge what I consider a likelihood) there is a great and non-hypothetical danger in letting them speak for us. When these organisations speak for us, they get co-opted and begin to to stifle conversations that are necessary for us to advocate.

“When these organisations speak for us, they get co-opted and begin to to stifle conversations that are necessary for us to advocate.”I wrote about the dangers of this with regards to rms getting ousted, after the first stage of the coup regarding LibrePlanet — before rms was ousted. I also wrote that ousting rms was not unlike ousting most of us — if he isn’t “allowed” to represent the movement he founded, how permitted are we? Indeed, that was all before the mailing lists were being censored to remove any messages that supported him. So once again, this concern was not only valid — it was later proven realistic.

If we do not find ways to speak for ourselves, and if we do not try to hear each other, we effectively outsource all of that to an organisation that could be run by rms one day, and a global patent troll the next day. As long as we rely on monolithic organisations for advocacy, this proven vulnerability remains.

Obviously maintaining anything other than a fringe advocacy, without relying on some level of centralisation is easier said than done. But it is not unheard of. When it comes to other sorts of rights, there are many different organisations and groups espousing many different points of view. Not only do I consider this natural, but I consider it unavoidable if our goal remains for “all software to be free software”. That was the goal of the free software movement.

“Freedom does not automatically produce choice in all things, but choice is a common byproduct. Its absence is telltale.”I’ve written a lot about ways we could go about decentralising the free software movement, for those of us who are sincere about self-advocacy and not simply trying to drive a wedge into the FSF so that large corporations can take over — that’s what “open source” did, first to OSI and now to the FSF, on behalf of GIAFAM and other corporate interests. The THRIVE guidelines (which are about self-organisation, more than they are about “conduct”) include some of my very best ideas about this.

ALT:

If we expect things to change, we need alternatives to the status quo. Freedom may outrank choice, as some people say — but if you have no choices, it’s unlikely you have any freedom, either. Freedom does not automatically produce choice in all things, but choice is a common byproduct. Its absence is telltale.

“Although I no longer support Devuan, I continue to support the idea of forking distros to remove IBMd.”Free software has a love/hate relationship with choice — those of us who have paid attention are aware of the problems caused by license proliferation. I personally think license proliferation is a negative thing, and exceptions are much rarer than examples. But I am also aware that without forks, LibreOffice would not exist and OpenOffice would likely be proprietary now. Although I no longer support Devuan, I continue to support the idea of forking distros to remove IBMd.

In fact, I support the idea of forking EVERY non-free distro to produce a libre version. The FSF does not. RMS does not. But just as Trisquel is still better than actually using Ubuntu, I firmly believe this holds true for any distro. It holds even more true for distros that offer something no free distro really offers.

Of the current list of “fully-free” distros the FSF endorses, none are as lightweight as Slitaz or as modular as Tiny Core. I have long advocated (to rms and to others) that we create a fully-free version of Tiny Core. In fact I would say that (despite a kernel I would prefer be replaced with Linux-libre or something from HyperbolaBSD) Tiny Core has a greater commitment to freedom than Trisquel at this point.

“But the FSF is not paying attention to any modern threats, and the only “freedom” Trisquel offers you now is something very cynical.”The definition of “fully-free” that puts linux-libre above all else, but allows IBM and Microsoft (via systemd and the Linux Foundation) to co-opt practically all functionality is overly specific and lacking the vigilance needed for the user to be free. I think for the most part, it’s a good definition. But the FSF is not paying attention to any modern threats, and the only “freedom” Trisquel offers you now is something very cynical.

Trisquel was the distro that made me switch to fully-free and Linux-libre in the first place, and as recently as Trisquel 8 I made an automated remix that replaces systemd with upstart — even on the live DVD. This relied on upstart being in the repos, which I highly doubt is a permanent fix.

I spent no more than a day or two on that automated remaster script, and at least one person asked me to share the workings of it (it’s free software, but consultation sometimes beats documentation) so they could create a similar project. I wanted to demonstrate the idea, and to be able to say it had been done. But I don’t think Trisquel cares about your freedom anymore. I believe they think they do.

“Modularity is the closest that “one-size-fits-all” can get to pleasing every individual’s needs.”It’s not just that we need more distros. We need more software that respects the user’s right to NOT run the software — we need more software that is not designed to push YOU into using a thousand other things you don’t want at all.

And I think this was an intrinsic, de facto part of free software from the beginning, which we ignored the importance of until it was half-gone. I think this is the primary route (apart from lies, threats and bribery) that enabled corporations to take over free software. The 10th THRIVE guideline says:

Communities should avoid, as much as possible and practical, efforts to lock other users into their software or distributions. The more important and popular (and fundamental) the software is, the more modular and optional and flexible the software should ideally be. Even the distro itself should become more modular and universal — via thoughtful design conventions, rather than rigid and demanding standards.

As long as we are free to be different, we will have differences. Modularity is the closest that “one-size-fits-all” can get to pleasing every individual’s needs. In fact I think it’s unlikely that computing will ever take care of your every need. Sometimes what you need is pen-and-paper. Sometimes what you need is a completely new idea. If computing took care of every possible need, what would be the point of writing new software ever again?

Corporations try to corral us into their one-size-fits-all plans because that’s what gives them the most power to control users. They practice colonialism, and denounce (and even fear) our ability to form tribes.

“Corporations try to corral us into their one-size-fits-all plans because that’s what gives them the most power to control users.”Tribes are the antithesis of the sort of control that corporations want. This is why “tribalism” is such a dirty word to people who used to work at IBM and Microsoft. They want us to be “unified” — under their control. Empires promise everlasting peace to those they consider savages, but first you must give yourself over to the empire. Eventually you will learn that their promises were lies.

Our ability to celebrate (and yes, sometimes argue about) our differences scares them, whenever they can’t use it to cynically give themselves more power over what we do. They are supposed to have control over the narrative, control over our computing — control over everything we do. They would even like control over what differences we are allowed (and not allowed) to have or even talk about. Tribes are chaos to such schemes. But freedom isn’t bothered.

“Empires promise everlasting peace to those they consider savages, but first you must give yourself over to the empire. Eventually you will learn that their promises were lies.”This isn’t to say that every kind of chaos helps. It’s a known fact that GIAFAM have introduced their own preferred forms of chaos into our movement so that they can take control in the aftermath. The FSF is now unfortunately as good an example of this as any. But it’s worth mentioning that the form of “chaos” we represent to them is simply being true to ourselves and not all being the same corporate cookie-cutter person. The form of chaos GIAFAM spreads is the means to an end, where they get more control than before.

As for cloning rms, I am alright with the idea of a thousand rms clones, provided that they think and speak for themselves. I’m not bothered by leaders and followers — I find parrots who simply regurgitate words without serious critical thought (with outsourced values) to be much creepier. Talking to people like that is like talking to a wall.

But you also can’t expect people to just change their minds because you’re “right” and they’re “wrong” — even if your position does have more merit in any context you can imagine, people just don’t work that way. We want to advocate for freedom — to make the very best arguments for it we can, and invite other people to do the same.

“The sincerest form of advocacy isn’t something that can run on auto-pilot.”If there’s a phrasebook (or a dictionary) we all have to regurgitate lines from, that isn’t any kind of “freedom” I’m interested in. If you really are an advocate, you’ll have to learn to support the lines you repeat with your own words and your own thoughts and feelings. The sincerest form of advocacy isn’t something that can run on auto-pilot.

I have cautiously promoted the idea of linking together free software with other ideas. The FSFE (an organisation I have zero admiration for) has done this with veganism, for example. I have proposed that anti-capitalists create their own free software organisation, but this sort of thing is just an example though, and part of something broader and more universal.

If we really want all software to be free software, that includes specialty software. To design specialty software for various groups, those various groups need to have input — and possibly even training. I don’t think one organisation can possibly satisfy those needs — it makes more sense from a sheer laws of physics (and theory of communication) perspective that we would have smaller organisations for special purposes, possibly linked together by voluntary (optional) umbrella organisations. These organisations can (and possibly ought to) remain smaller, by virtue of not taking on too many tasks.

“If we really want all software to be free software, that includes specialty software.”But I am cautious to promote that because I realise that side-interests have co-opted free software already. If that is inevitable, we need to find a better way to deal with that inevitability than we have done so far — I think we can have specialised free software organisations, but the danger of having free software co-opted is always there. If we have many different organisations with many different side-interests, perhaps it will be necessary (and thus hopefully encouraged) that we NOT let a single interest take over for all the others. Free software is the thing we have in common.

So I encourage anti-capitalists to create their own anti-capitalist free software organisation — to promote both free software and anti-capitalism as they think best. This does not mean I think all free software organisations need to adopt such a stance. That’s the difference, and I think that’s important.

Above all, alternatives are about the freedom to try new ideas — this is important to science as well as philosophy, and the idea of calling a user “free” when they have no opportunity to try new things seems very cynical to me.

“Freedom and Vigilance do go hand in hand, though to be truly free you must also be able to resist efforts that are made to enslave everyone — even when those efforts are seductive and more comfortable.”Sometimes the worst ideas — about dragging everyone in the same direction regardless of what they want, are presented as “the freedom to do something different”. I believe in that freedom, but I certainly don’t believe forcing everybody to do the same thing has anything to do with the freedom to try new things.

DEL:

The commenter from the other article asked if we still have enough people we can count among ourselves. I ask myself that all the time, and I don’t know the answer. There’s a bit of a Catch-22 to get past here, in that we won’t know how many there are to fix this until enough of us are promoting something that appeals to them.

If every effort to establish freedom for the user is met with 12 offers to sell the user out — or even sell ourselves out — we need to be able to practice saying “No”.

This is another reason why the freedom to NOT run the software is so important — if you haven’t developed the ability to say “No”, then it means nothing when you say “Yes” and are agreeable. If you are only agreeable (as people are encouraged to be as a matter of course these days) then you are not acting with agency — you are preaching Freedom without any concept of what it is actually like.

“If enough people are saying “No” at the same time — even if they aren’t all saying no to exactly the same things, they will eventually be heard.”Freedom and Vigilance do go hand in hand, though to be truly free you must also be able to resist efforts that are made to enslave everyone — even when those efforts are seductive and more comfortable. Nobody can expect everyone to be stoic — but the very idea of Civil Disobedience that inspired Gandhi and King was coined by a minimalist — a person who repeatedly said “no” to many of the things that keep life from being simple, as well as many of the things that keep life from being questioned.

If we do not question our way of life then we cannot change it — we are stuck waiting for someone else to give us the means, on their terms. We cannot have freedom without questioning. There is no surer way to question your everyday habits than to step outside of them, as much as possible — to do something completely differently for comparison.

If we question more and more, if we become sceptics of the elaborate monstrosity that computing invariably becomes when we don’t have control, again and again I believe we will find that minimalism is always closer to freedom than excess — and I don’t tell you this from a mountaintop or a monastery. Even Thoreau (so I’m told) went to his mother’s house to do laundry. At least half the benefit of minimalism is in the effort to get there.

If you are looking for a place to get started, my advice will usually include a boycott of some kind. Boycott everything — boycott all software, if it pleases you. But if you can’t boycott all software, at least try to use as little software from GitHub (sadly, that’s most of it now) as possible. And when you discover that includes parts of the GNU project, boycott that as much as possible. And maybe eventually, we can drag Perl out of Microsoft’s clutches and get GNU Automake working again.

But since virtually all software seems to require either Perl or libFFI or zlib1g (all GitHub) at some stage, boycotting all software is the logical solution. Boycotting as much as possible is the practical solution. Changing nothing is the non-solution.

“But ultimately we need to teach the teachers computer literacy (too many were taught that computer literacy is the ability to use applications, nothing else — like using an Office program means you understand the computer and aren’t helpless once the application closes or does something peculiar) — too many literacy programmes are centred around making people proficient with a specific Brand of computing solutions.”If enough people are saying “No” at the same time — even if they aren’t all saying no to exactly the same things, they will eventually be heard. And possibly even answered.

Finally: “Rebooting” Implies Booting —

Getting things started again means we need places to start. And while I would have said “Start with the boycott” (and by all means, feel free to!) it’s more reasonable to start at the beginning. We need to learn and preserve history, to get a better idea of where we are.

If you take that to mean history in general, so be it — though I’m referring to the history of computing, the history of things like copyright and patents which (for better or worse) have had profound impacts on our freedom — software wasn’t even copyrightable in the USA until 1980, locking up software required an NDA prior to that. If you want to fight GIAFAM you need to learn about your enemy. It also helps to learn about our heroes (for one, it shows what utter propaganda we’ve been dealing with for the past few years). And I’m referring to the history of the free software movement.

All of this is context that gives us more power over our lives. Knowledge is power, and learning is a powerful workout.

When I talk about creating free software organisations for various purposes, I don’t only mean different intersections with politics. I also mean a free software organisation that specialises in education. I’d still like to see computer literacy initiatives that work with teachers to design tools they understand and can teach more powerfully with.

But ultimately we need to teach the teachers computer literacy (too many were taught that computer literacy is the ability to use applications, nothing else — like using an Office program means you understand the computer and aren’t helpless once the application closes or does something peculiar) — too many literacy programmes are centred around making people proficient with a specific Brand of computing solutions. This is deliberate and suits the owners of the brand, but it is a cynical miseducation.

“Do we teach people to code just so they can be forced to use GitHub, or so that they have a choice, or so they can help us fight against such a monopoly?”Teaching everyone to code is still the best route to universal literacy in my opinion, though how we do that makes all the difference. Do we teach people to code just so they can be forced to use GitHub, or so that they have a choice, or so they can help us fight against such a monopoly? How and what we teach makes all the difference.

To make all this work, I think we need to do a lot of collaborative research. This doesn’t mean putting all our eggs in one basket, or all our faith in a single institution. The dangers of doing that are well demonstrated by now. Nor should we simply trust everybody. Instead, we should gradually establish a broad, grassroots network of networks (just like the internet itself) and work together to figure all this stuff out.

How should we organise that? On each of our own terms. That’s not just the cost of freedom, it’s the benefit as well. And I don’t think we should torture ourselves with boring institutional learning, unless that’s what you feel driven to do. Instead, think of the Wright brothers. To succeed where others failed, they took it upon themselves to learn whatever they could about the subject — they were pioneers, not experts, nor were there classes they could take on how to produce powered flight — such “hooey” was discouraged by most of the day’s scientists as frivolous and stupid.

“The next free software movement won’t always be comfortable for the user, and not all the conversations will be pleasant because that’s how things work in real life — and it will all require some pioneering.”They started small, building working models of increasing size, until they had an airplane that could carry a pilot — all they needed was the engine. They also knew that for their model to create lift, it required flying against the wind. They accomplished what no one else had through lots of curiosity, reading, experimentation, and iteration.

The next free software movement won’t always be comfortable for the user, and not all the conversations will be pleasant because that’s how things work in real life — and it will all require some pioneering. But it could still be fun, sometimes. Flying against the wind is something you can feel, and I think most aviators would consider it worthwhile.

Love live rms, and happy hacking.

Licence: Creative Commons CC0 1.0 (public domain)

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