Happy hacking: Dim Sum with Richard Stallman

It is a well known fact that hackers – the original MIT hackers, anyhow – love Chinese food. In truth, I think it’s because the only restaurants open when they’d come to after 7, 13 or 24 hours of straight programming, only to find it was 4am and they were about to faint from hunger. I imagine this accounts for Richard Stallman‘s request for dim sum during his whirlwind tour of Vancouver last weekend.

There were a variety of people at the lunch, including SFU’s Andrew Feenberg, Alexandra Samuel of Social Signal and Ifny Lachance, of Free Geek. It was great to get to see Stallman up close – I’d already checked out two of his talks the day before – the afternoon gig at UBC (Hummingbird 604 live blogged it) and the evening one at the Maritime Labour Centre (see Trophycase’s report here), where he joined the Creaking Planks for a rather muted rendition of the Free Software Song.

At the UBC talk, Stallman emphasized the four freedoms inherent in free software, and the societal constraints that prevent or inhibit these freedoms. He was lucid and compelling, as well as entertaining. He insisted he was not radical, and for a moment I almost believed him. He focused mainly on the ethical implications of computer technology and its use, noting that society encourages people to judge software programs based on superficial, practical characteristics – is the software  efficient, reliant, cost effective? But this mode of evaluation ignores a more important facet: how the software impacts the social solidarity of the community. He insisted on the primacy of freedom, even at the expense of superior software: on this point he was adamant and unapologetic.

“This is not a question for techies; its something citizens of every modern society should be concerned with.”

These are fighting words indeed. The kind that make the blood rush to my cheeks and my heart skip a beat. The kind that make me more confident in my belief that an ethical stance can take precedence over these other requirements of our technologically rational but morally depraved world. “It’s a question of ethics, not technology,” as Stallman bluntly put it.

“The aim of the free software movement” Stallman explained, “is to liberate cyberspace and all its inhabitants.” Software is free (as in liberated, not gratis) if it respects the users freedoms: “A social system of distribution and use is an ethical system that respects users freedoms. A free program is a contribution to society but the existence of proprietary program is a social problem,” Stallman said.

“I reject proprietary software and you should too. And you should reject propaganda terms used to demonize the act of cooperation in our society.” By this he meant the redefinition of the word “pirate” to mean somebody who shares software or other information on the internet.  This equates “helping your neighbour with attacking your ship. They sneak it in as an assumption and hope people will take over without critical thought.” Music or software “piracy” is a ridiculous concept: “Pirates don’t use instruments or computers to attack ships,” Stallman deadpanned. “I reject propagandistic meanings.

Stallman said he reached these ideas in 1983. “I wanted to use computers and live in freedom but how?” At the time, it was impossible as all operating systems – which computers require to run – were proprietary. Stallman was an o/s developer. “All I had to do was write another operating system: I’d be the author and  I could make it free. So I found a way to put an end to a social problem with technical work. It was an important social problem that affected narrow part of society, but that was growing. I had skills necessary to try to eliminate the problem. I had been elected by circumstance to do this job. I had a duty.”

Stallman went on to describe the development of what is today the GNU/Linux operating system. “I decided to develop a free software operating system or die trying. At the time the free software movement I was founding had no active opposition. The big obstacle was a pile of software we had to develop in order to have a complete free system.”

“I decided to make UNIX-like system so it would be portable. I decided to make upward compatible with Unix so users would find it easy to switch.” All Stallman needed was a name. It’s longstanding practice in the hacker community to give humourous names to their programs. He chose a recursive moniker: GNU, for Gnu’s Not Unix.

“In the 70s, system level programming was not portable. So it was common to see a useful program and want to run it, but was impossible. The only thing you could do was write a subprogram.” Thus “your program is not the other one.” Boasted Stallman, “GNU is the most humour-charged meaning in the English language. According to the dictionary, ‘g’ is silent. When it’s the name of our system, please don’t call it by the dictionary pronouncement: it’s not ‘new anymore.”

Stallman spent a good part of both talks, and the lunch, carping on the misrepresentation of the GNU o/s as Linux. Most people – even the programmers didn’t know the backstory. In 1991, Linus Torvalds created the kernel that would eventually complete the GNU o/s. It was packaged with the GNU system and released as Linux. From then on, what is almost wholly the GNU system became known as Linux, after the final piece that completed the puzzle. On the point that the o/s be called GNUslashLinux, Stallman is intractable. He won’t allow it in his presence or earshot.

There are two reasons for this. The first is that he wants credit given for credit due. This is another aspect of hacker culture: motivation for programming is not money but recognition and the status that accrues with meritorious work. Stallman said he worked tireless on the GNU project, at some personal cost. All he wants, he says, is to be treated fairly.

The second reason is more philosophical. “Getting credit is not most important ethical thing in life. There is a more important consideration: your freedom is at stake.” The name Linux has an indirect influence, because it represents a philosophy that opposes the free software movement. “For 25 years, GNU has been associated with freedoms and Linux associated with Torvald’s ideas. Stallman condemns our ideas of freedom; he says what matters is powerful, reliable software and he argues against our ideas.”

This is contravenes the raison d’etre of GNU and is obviously damaging to the cause of the free software movement. As Stallman warned, “Our freedom is frequently threatened. If we don’t defend it we will lose it.” This has already happened in the US in the wake of 9/11, he reminded. “We have to teach people to recognize what freedom is so they can value it and protect it.”

Two of the main obstacles for the free software movement, said Stallman, is that users of GNU have never heard of it and they haven’t heard of free software. They’ve only heard system described as “open source”. “So they never hear our ideas; and a different set of ideas is hiding us from public view even from people who use our work.” The term open source “enabled corporations to hush up questions about freedoms users deserve. We have to work very hard to get people to realize there is an ethical component.”

Responding to his erstwhile designation as the father of open source, Stallman said: “If I’m the father of open source it was done using purloined sperm through in vitro fertilization without my knowledge.”

His constant refrain was a request: that we all use “GNU/Linux”  instead of Linux. “If you care about freedom please show it by talking about freedoms. Call it “libre” software; you can’t confuse the meaning of free in French.”

2 Responses to “Happy hacking: Dim Sum with Richard Stallman”

  1. Not Left To Chance :: Ending the War on Sharing :: February :: 2009 Says:

    [...] Stallman spoke on the issue of community and copyright law. After Kate Milberry asked if the practice of software development and sharing he’d been talking about can be [...]

  2. Ending the War on Sharing « Not Left To Chance Says:

    [...] Stallman spoke on the issue of community and copyright law. After Kate Milberry asked if the practice of software development and sharing he’d been talking about can be [...]

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