This summer marks the 10th anniversary of the email exchange that set in motion the writing of Free as in Freedom: Richard Stallman's Crusade for Free Software and, by extension, the work prefaced here, Richard Stallman and the Free Software Revolution.
Needless to say, a lot has changed over the intervening decade.
Originally conceived in an era of American triumphalism, the book's main storyline - about one man's Jeremiah-like efforts to enlighten fellow software developers as to the ethical, if not economic, shortsightedness of a commercial system bent on turning the free range intellectual culture that gave birth to computer science into a rude agglomeration of proprietary gated communities - seems almost nostalgic, a return to the days when the techno-capitalist system seemed to be working just fine, barring the criticism of a few outlying skeptics.
Now that doubting the system has become almost a common virtue,it helps to look at what narrative threads, if any, remained consistent over the last ten years.
While I don't follow the software industry as closely as I once did, one thing that leaps out now, even more than it did then, is the ease with which ordinary consumers have proven willing to cede vast swaths of private information and personal user liberty in exchange for riding a top the coolest technology “platform” or the latest networking trend.
A few years ago, I might have dubbed this the “iPod Effect,” a shorthand salute to Apple co-founder Steve Jobs' unrivaled success in getting both the music industry and digital music listeners to put aside years of doubt and mutual animosity to rally around a single, sexy device - the Apple iPod - and its restrictive licensing regime, iTunes. Were I pitching the story to a magazine or newspaper nowadays, I'd probably have to call it the “iPad Effect” or maybe the “Kindle Effect” both in an attempt to keep up with the evolving brand names and to acknowledge parallel, tectonic shifts in the realm of daily journalism and electronic book publishing.
Lest I appear to be gratuitously plugging the above-mentioned brand names, RMS suggests that I offer equal time to a pair of websites that can spell out their many disadvantages, especially in the realm of software liberty. I have agreed to this suggestion in the spirit of equal time. The web sites he recommends are DefectiveByDesign.org and BadVista.org.
Regardless of title, the notion of corporate brand as sole guarantor of software quality in a swiftly changing world remains a hard one to dislodge, even at a time when most corporate brands are trading at or near historic lows.
Ten years ago, it wasn't hard to find yourself at a technology conference listening in on a conversation (or subjected to direct tutelage) in which some old-timer, Richard Stallman included, offered a compelling vision of an alternate possibility. It was the job of these old-timers, I ultimately realized, to make sure we newbies in the journalism game recognized that the tools we prided ourselves in finally knowing how to use - Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, Internet Explorer, just to name a few popular offerings from a single oft-cited vendor - were but a pale shadow of towering edifice the original architects of the personal computer set out to build.
Nowadays, it's almost as if the opposite situation is at hand. The edifice is now a sprawling ecosystem, a jungle teeming with ideas but offering only a few stable niches for sustainable growth. While one can still find plenty of hackers willing to grumble about, say, Vista's on going structural flaws, Apple's dictatorial oversight of the iPhoneApp Store or Google's shifting definition of the word “evil” - each year brings with it a fresh crop of “digital native” consumers willing to trust corporate guidance in this Hobbesian realm. Maybe that's because many of the problems that once made using your desktop computer such a teeth-grinding experience have largely been paved over with the help of free software.
Whatever. As consumer software reliability has improved, the race to stay one step ahead of consumer taste has put application developers in an even tighter embrace with moneyed interests. I'm not saying that the hacker ethos no longer exists or that it has even weakened in any noticeable way. I'm just saying that I doubt the programmer who generated the Facebook algorithm that rewrites the “info” pages so that each keyword points to a sponsored page, with an 80-percent semantic error rate to boot, spends much time in his new Porsche grousing about what the program really could have achieved if only the “suits” hadn't gotten in the way.
True, millions of people now run mostly free software on their computers with many running free software exclusively. From an ordinary consumer perspective, however, terms like “software” and “computer” have become increasingly distant. Many 2010-era cell phones could give a 2000-era laptop a run for its money in the functionality department. And yet, when it comes time to make a cell phone purchase, how many users lend any thought to the computer or software operating system making that functionality possible? The vast majority of modern phone users base their purchasing decisions almost entirely on the number of applications offered, the robustness of the network and, most important of all, the monthly service plan. Getting a consumer in this situation to view his or her software purchase through the lens of personal liberty, as opposed to personal convenience, is becoming, if not more difficult, certainly a more complex endeavor.
Given this form of pessimistic introduction, why should anyone want go on and read this book?
I can offer two major reasons.
The first reason is a personal one. As noted in the Epilogue of Free as in Freedom, Richard and I parted on less than cordial terms shortly before the publication of that book. The fault, in large part, was mine. Having worked with Richard to make sure that my biographical sketch didn't run afoul of free software principles - an effort that, I'm proud to say, made Free as in Freedom one of the first works to employ the GNU Free Documentation License (GFDL) as a copyright mechanism - I abruptly ended the cooperative relationship when it came time to edit the work and incorporate Richard' lengthy list of error corrections and requests for clarification.
Though able to duck behind my own principles of authorial independence and journalistic objectivity, I have since come to lament not begging the book's publisher - O'Reilly and Associates - for additional time. Because O'Reilly had already granted my one major stipulation - the GFDL - and had already put up with a heavy stream of last-minute changes on my part, however, I was hesitant to push my luck.
In the years immediately following the publication of Free as in Freedom, I was able to justify my decision by noting that the GFDL, just like the GNU General Public License in the software realm, makes it possible for any reader to modify the book and resell it as a competitive work. As Ernest Hemingway once put it, “the first draft of anything is shit.” If Stallman or others within the hacker community saw Free as in Freedom as a first draft at best, well, at least I had spared them the time and labor of generating their own first draft.
Now that Richard has indeed delivered what amounts to a significant rewrite, I can only but remain true to my younger self and endorse the effort. Indeed, I salute it. My only remaining hope is that, seeing as how Richard's work doesn't show any sign of slowing, additional documentation gets added to the mix.
Before moving on to the next reason, I should note that one of the pleasant by-products of this book is a re-opening of email communication channels between Richard and myself. The resulting communication has reacquainted me with the razor-sharp Stallman writing style.
An illustrative and perhaps amusing anecdote for anyone out there who has wrangled with Richard in text: In the course of discussing the passage in which I observe and document the process of Richard losing his cool amid the rush hour traffic of Kihei, Maui, a passage that served as the basis for Chapter 7 (“A Brief Journey through Hacker Hell”) in the original book, I acknowledged a common complaint among the book's reviewers - namely, that the episode seemed out of place, a fragment of magazine-style profile interrupting a book-length biography. I told Richard that he could discard the episode for that reason alone but noted that my decision to include it was based on two justifications. First, it offered a glimpse of the Stallman temper, something I'd been warned about but had yet to experience in a first hand manner. Second, I felt the overall scene possessed a certain metaphorical value. Hence the chapter title. Stallman, to my surprise, agreed on both counts. His concern lay more in the two off-key words. At one point I quote him accusing the lead driver of our two-vehicle caravan with “deliberately” leading us down a dead-end street, an accusation that, if true, suggested a level of malice outside the bounds of the actual situation. Without the benefit of a recorded transcript - I only had a notebook at the time, I allowed that it was likely I'd mishandled Stallman's actual wording and had made it more hurtful than originally intended.
On a separate issue, meanwhile, Stallman questioned his quoted use of the word “fucking.” Again, I didn't have the moment on tape, but I wrote back that I distinctly recalled an impressive display of profanity, a reminder of Richard's New York roots, and was willing to stand by that memory.
An email response from Richard, received the next day, restated the critique in a way that forced me to go back and re-read the first message. As it turned out, Stallman wasn't so much objecting to the “fuck” as the “-ing” portion of the quote.
“Part of the reason I doubt [the words] is that they involve using fucking as an adverb,” Stallman wrote. “I have never spoken that way. So I am sure the words are somewhat altered.”
The second reason a person should feel compelled to read this book cycles back to the opening theme of this preface - how different a future we face in 2010 compared to the one we were still squinting our eyes to see back in 2000. I ll be honest: Like many Americans (and non-Americans), my world view was altered by the events of September 11, 2001, so much so that it wasn't much longer after the publication of Free as in Freedom that my attention drifted sharply away from the free software movement and Stallman's efforts to keep it on course. While I have managed to follow the broad trends and major issues, the day-to-day drama surrounding software standards, software copyrights and software patents has become something I largely skip over - the Internet news equivalent of the Water Board notes in the local daily newspaper, in other words.
[RMS: The September 2001 attacks, not mentioned later in the book, deserve brief comment here. Far from “changing everything,” as many proclaim, the attacks have, in fact, changed very little in the U.S.: There are still scoundrels in power who hate our freedoms. The only major difference is that they can now cite “terrorists” as an excuse for laws to take them away. See the political notes on stallman.org for more about this.]
This is a lamentable development in large part because, ten years in, I finally see the maturing 21st century in what I believe to be a clear light. Again, if this were a pitch letter to some editor, I'd call it “The Process Century.”
By that I mean I we stand at a rare point in history where, all cynicism aside, the power to change the world really does delegate down to the ordinary citizen's level. The catch, of course, is that the same power that belongs to you also belongs to everyone else. Wherein past eras one might have secured change simply by winning the sympathies of a few well-placed insiders, today's reformer must bring into alignment an entire vector field of competitive ideas and interests. In short, being an effective reformer nowadays requires more than just titanic stamina and a willingness to cry out in the wilderness for a decade or more, it requires knowing how to articulate durable, scalable ideas, how to beat the system at its own game.
On all counts, I would argue that Richard M. Stallman, while maybe not the archetype, is at the very least an ur-type of the successful reformer just described.
While some might lament a future in which every problem seems to take a few decades of committee meetings and sub-committee hearings just to reach the correction stage, I, for one, see the alternative - a future so responsive to individual or small group action that some self-appointed actor finally decides to put that responsiveness to the test- as too chilling to contemplate.
In short, if you are the type of person who, like me, hopes to seethe 21st century follow a less bloody course than the 20th century, the Water Board - in its many frustrating guises - is where that battle is currently being fought. As hinted by the Virgil-inspired epigraph introducing the book's first chapter, I've always held out hope that this book might in some way become a sort of epic poem for the Internet Age. Built around a heroic but flawed central figure, its authorial stamp should be allowed to blur with age.
On that note, I would like to end this preface the same way I always end this preface - with a request for changes and contributions from any reader wishing to improve the text. Appendix B - GNU Free Documentation License offers a guide on your rights as a reader to submit changes, make corrections, or even create your own spin-off version of the book. If you prefer to simply run the changes through Richard or myself, you can find the pertinent contact information on the Free Software Foundation web site. In the meantime, good luck and enjoy the book!
Sam Williams Staten Island, USA
License: Published under the GNU Free Documentation License. Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.3 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, no Front-Cover Texts, and no Back-Cover Texts. A copy of the license is included in the section entitled "GNU Free Documentation License."
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