Protesilaos Stavrou
Philosopher. Polymath.

On free software pedantry and leadership

While I have no comment on the recent events surrounding Richard Stallman, I do feel this is the right time to reflect on the pernicious insistence on technicalities that is hampering our efforts to educate people about the virtues of software freedom. I also believe this is an opportune moment to address the topic of leadership within the broader community.

Free software vs open source

Consider the distinction between free software and open source. The Free Software Foundation’s former president would argue that the latter is part of a devious plan to undermine the former. The idea is that “open source” does not emphasise the ethical side of things that the FSF wants to promote. This, in turn, allows corporations to peddle open source solutions without educating their users about software freedom.

I find this argument tenuous. Reading through the Debian Free Software Guidelines and/or the Open Source Definition gives me assurances of a technical as well as an ethical sort. It is a misrepresentation of facts to consider “open source” as purely technical, for it does expressly grant liberties to users.

If a corporation is making something that is truly open source, then we have the right to access the source code, modify it, redistribute it, etc. In other words, it is free software.

What would be a valid concern in this debate is companies engaging in fraudulent practices, where they would use confusing language to market their products. For example, “open core” accompanied by extremely complex license structures tangled with patents and other restrictions. Here we can indeed raise the alarm. Such products deny us of our freedom.

But we must never conflate legitimate open source with fraud. Doing so in a manner that is consistent and systematic is a disservice to our cause. It also is dishonest.

As for arguments about emphasising freedom, these too miss the point. It is not the job of each individual developer or piece of software to preach about the four freedoms. Let entities like the FSF handle the task of educating people on that front. They are better equipped for the task.

Free, libre, gratis

We all know that the word “free” is polysemous. This compounds the problem of insisting that free software is not open source, because now we must spend an inordinate amount of time explaining the difference between free as in beer and free as in freedom. Then we must borrow words that the average English speaker is not familiar with to help us in our pedantry. The one is gratis, the other is libre.

Language is an intersubjective phenomenon, meaning that it is not enough for us to find increasingly obscure ways of describing the various analytical constructs we have deduced. Everyone listening to us must also be on the same wavelength. Else the message is lost in translation.

As such, when we try to attract new users to our community, we face the impossible task of first indoctrinating them about abstract concepts and only then delving into the specifics of our applications and operating systems.

Yes, there is a value to insisting on precision of statement. The right words can be very important to achieve clarity of concept. However, we must have a sense of the prevailing circumstances and the context: people have their beliefs and use whatever is given to them to get the job done. I thus find it more effective to show them in practice the tangible benefits of free software. Only once I have their undivided attention I can, where appropriate, address technicalities of this sort.

Free software is not a dogma

It is common for activists to misinterpret their cause as justification for absolutism. The result is a binary world-view whereby the cause is perceived as purely good and must be pursued at all costs, while everything else is evil and should be eliminated with extreme prejudice.

Free software is no different. The underlying reason we have all this pedantry is because some people do not keep things in perspective. They are too idealistic to recognise any possible deviation from their reified concepts. They are blinded by their vaunted beliefs to the fact that the world is complex and does not conform with some simplistic categorisation along the lines of good versus bad.

We should not have to atone for some spurious sin of using non-free software, especially when it is done out of practical necessity. There are forces outside our control which compel us into action. We do not unilaterally decide on the prevailing conditions in our workplace, our immediate locality, our politics at-large. We may not have access to the means that enable a life of 100% software freedom. Or, more likely, we may not have the luxury of offloading all non-free-software interactions to a trusted intermediary. There are permutations and combinations in between the morally black-and-white world that certain groups think they live in.

Absolutism engenders elitism, which can in turn produce cults of personality or beget trolling. This comes in various forms. Think of the tacit—at times explicit—praise that Linus Torvalds receives (used to?) each time he goes on one of his usual abusive rants. Consider how the “btw I use Arch” meme provides grist to the mill of the buffoons that attack users for choosing “Noobuntu”. Then there is this misunderstanding about the Unix philosophy that fuels the talk about “bloat” in free software (see my relevant video blog: Emacs mindset and Unix philosophy).

The overarching theme is that pedantry, else elitism, leads to patterns of behaviour that are against the very people that are attracted to free software. Users choose open source for a variety of reasons, usually practical and then, after some further research, moral or political. Even then practicality remains of paramount importance.

While data is not available, I will dare speculate on this: it would be rather odd to find that new users are attracted to free software primarily because they were impressed by Stallman’s or Torvalds’ toxicity, or were persuaded by some troll’s musings about bloat in Linux distros…

Leadership in free software

One of the reasons I was attracted to Debian is their system of governance. The “Debian Project Leader” is not what the title may imply: their role is mostly that of a public face for the project as well as a liaison between the various specialised task forces that comprise Debian. The DPL wields no real power, in the sense of being able to pass orders backed by threats. They essentially are just another developer who has to deal with even more email traffic while “in charge”.

In my time as a Debian user, the DPLs have been Chris Lamb and now Sam Hartman. I know more about the former, though the latter has given me a positive first impression. People such as those two are prime examples of what the free software community needs more of. Individuals who are approachable and who are not cult favourites for all the wrong reasons.

Debian’s structure facilitates the election of such personalities. The project is organised in a distributed manner. Every field has its own dedicated team, its own domain experts. The different teams coordinate their work with the help of the DPL where necessary. What we end-users understand as Debian is the concerted action of a world-wide community that effectively operates without a figurehead.

The lesson to be learnt is that free software communities must adopt decisions and resolve tensions in ways that are consistent with the spirit of freedom that unites them. The notion of a powerful leader who can single-handedly forward the cause and stand up against the forces of “evil” (recall the binary world-view) is better suited to rigid hierarchies.

Focus on software

Judging from my experience and that of people I have directly helped start their free software endeavours, there is little appetite for joining some quasi-religious group. Users want to solve practical problems. They do not wish to partake in some meaningless collective flattery on Reddit centred on Stallman’s or Torvalds’ latest obnoxious antics.

This impression I have is further reinforced by the feedback I receive via email or in my screen casts that currently focus on Emacs. Users appreciate practical tips that make a tangible difference in their workflow. Someone watching these might want to try out Emacs in an attempt to boost their productivity. There are no exhortations. No pretences of holding the moral high ground. Just the software and the real benefits it offers.

Perhaps then, it would be more interesting and fecund if we stopped caring about emblematic leaders and focused our efforts on improving the tools we have or, as in my case, making their value more apparent to end users.

Then all the controversies surrounding the likes of Stallman or Torvalds become background noise that we can easily ignore. Free software—open source, if you will—must always be about the code and the concomitant freedoms attached to it. All the rest ends up supporting the agendas and inflating the egos of individuals, much to the detriment of the community at-large.