Sunday, October 20, 2019

on rms / necessary but not sufficient

I’m old enough now that, of the famous people I admired when I was young, more have fallen in my estimation than not. At best I’ve learned about the difference between a person and the construct of their fame, and something about how to put the work I still admire in context and acknowledge its problems. At worst, well, plenty of days I’m just disgusted. The idea that you shouldn’t have heroes at all resonates in these times, even if there are a few I still find it hard to let go.

I couldn’t tell you exactly when I first ran into Richard M. Stallman’s thinking. I spent an ocean of time on Slashdot and IRC in the 90s. I probably read “The Right to Read” right after it was published. I was running a Linux desktop by late 1998, and read Steven Levy’s Hackers right around then. I was 17, which must be right about the age when radical ideas take hold with the most ferocity: You’re old enough to entertain big thoughts, but not old enough to have many defenses against taking them on wholeheartedly.

Since then, I’ve built my working life and quite a few personal beliefs on ideas that originated and developed in hacker culture. Even so, most of the people, places, and institutions that crop up in the hacker mythos have stayed in the realm of abstraction or distant figure for me.

I’ve shared both antipathy and (I hope) friendship with people from the orbit of MIT, but it was never anywhere near my orbit. American East- and West-Coast cultures crop up repeatedly in my life, but they aren’t exactly my culture either. I haven’t worked on public projects of much significance (until recently, anyway), and I don’t do conferences all that often.

As a result, I’ve never been in direct social proximity to RMS, the staff of the Free Software Foundation, or most of the people who work on GNU projects. I also haven’t spent much time on the mailing lists, forums, or IRC channels that would have given me more experience of them as distinct individuals. I suspect the same is true of many people who rely on GNU tools, advocate software freedom, publish work under the GPL, and donate to orgs like the FSF.


The way it now reads to me, RMS has behaved like an asshole for a long time, and the moment of his resignation from the FSF after ill-advised opinionating about the Epstein scandal was bound to come in some form eventually. A lot of people in that scene have written to the effect that there’s a long term pattern here, and/or that they and others tried and failed to get him to behave less like an asshole.

Some links:

I don’t think these read as simple efforts at character assassination, and they appear to come from people who share the values of the movement and have put in the work to prove it.

I also find it credible that there’s been an ongoing problem here because I paid a little attention during a couple of previous blowups about RMS, and I sent this to the FSF late in 2018:


I wasn’t really sure where to write, but as someone who continues to support the FSF financially, I wanted to register with the organization in some way that I broadly agree with what Bradley M. Kuhn has to say here:


– Brennen Bearnes

And then: I’ve talked with women who have said that RMS’s behavior is alienating or that they’ve stayed away from the FSF because of his reputation. I have every reason to think that this kind of thing drives people away from a movement that’s supposed to be liberatory and fundamentally concerned with human agency.


I’m not writing this to throw fuel on any fires. Not that it would be needed; reaction in some quarters has been more or less on par with the systemd flamewars of these last 5 or 6 years or the least pleasant threads I’ve slogged through on Wikimedia mailing lists.

I’m tired of that kind of thing. I’m tired of technical work and technical politics being defined by fear and loathing. I’m far less willing than I used to be to participate in the outrage cycle that’s overtaken social media and journalism. I’m weary of callouts, pile-ons, and network-amplified harassment. I’m way beyond jaded by the dysfunctions and endless self-immolation of activist culture. I have friends and colleagues who are decent people without sharing many of my beliefs, and for the most part I’m happy to collaborate with them on things that seem beneficial regardless of that.

So: As little sympathy as I have for the view that free software isn’t a political project, I understand the desire to avoid getting drawn into the unrelenting nightmare of partisan politics and its ancillary culture war.


But free software is a political project.

Software, broadly speaking, is a political project, and it’s one that has come to govern human existence. So far it’s done so mostly without the consent of the governed, and it operates to an intolerable degree in the interests of concentrated wealth and unaccountable power.

Computation is everywhere. Less and less of it is subject to the understanding or control of its individual users. Or, for that matter, to any democratic representation or governance. Systems that define our jobs and social lives are managed by a technocratic class beholden to megacorporations and billionaires. These systems' workings are opaque, their maintenance is an unrelenting nightmare, and everyone involved is fundamentally compromised.

Free software saw much of this coming and tried to stop it. It failed, in ways large and small. It’s a very incomplete set of answers to a problem of almost incomprehensible scope. But any humane future for computation is going to require ideas and practices that have thrived within the free software movement. The content of the ideas matters, and without them we’re basically fucked. That’s what’s at stake.

Accordingly: I think it’s reasonable to ask better of people with authority in our community, and imperative that we outgrow cults of personality as an organizing principle. I’m not still in this after 20 years because I admire a particular dude. I’m in this because at heart I’m an anarchist a lot of the time. Free software isn’t whatever RMS says it is. Free software is what we make of it: We who want to be free, we who want others to be free.


I’ve been using the phrase “state of total defeat” when I talk about the goals of free software and related ideas, but I recognize that that’s hyperbolic and not especially nuanced.

I’m writing this on a computer that, even if I can’t inspect it all the way down to the metal, runs an operating system and a bunch of applications I can crack wide open any time I feel like it. The OS and its package repositories are a product of anarchy in the real sense, assembled over the course of decades into a mostly-coherent whole by a distributed collective of volunteer hackers from the work of thousands of other projects.

Free and open source software has given me both a tolerable scope for my individual use of computers, and the ecosystem where I make a living. To the extent that free software was about wanting the freedom to hack and freely exchange the fruits of your hacking, this hasn’t gone so badly. It could be better, but I remember the 1990s pretty well and I can tell you that much of the stuff trivially at my disposal now would have blown my tiny mind back then. Sometimes I kind of snap to awareness in the middle of installing some package or including some library in a software project and this rush of gratitude comes over me.

The elephant in the room is that open source, combined with the networks it did so much to help build, has provided much of the technical architecture for a proprietary control over computing that exceeds all but the wildest dreams of a few decades ago.

There are plenty of ways that RMS-style obsession with terminology has done more harm than good in the last few decades. The conflation of “free/libre software” and “open source” into one thing might even be a good idea, provided the political motivations of the “libre” side of the question are retained. But it’s still worth making some distinctions, and worth knowing some history. Open Source™ set out partly to make open code palatable to business, and it succeeded in that.

In fact, tons of people taught business that open source / FOSS was a good way to get economic leverage: At one end of the scale, just people like me and a lot of my coworkers, who started out as amateurs on shoestring budgets, wanting to make a living with the stuff we already knew and liked. At the other end, straightforward predators of the sort who found tech companies and hold upper management positions: People who looked at open code and open standards and saw unpaid labor and a commons ripe for enclosure.

Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, Twitter, Netflix, Uber, and so on down the line: To varying degrees, they’ve all used FOSS as a basic technical foundation for their current empires. Google and Facebook’s history is riddled with instances of using an open technology or medium to gain the leverage necessary to subvert the tech’s openness: Mail, RSS/Atom, the web itself.

Android and Chrome use open source rhetoric and development practices to drive their adoption while operating purely in furtherance of Google’s agenda — a pattern you can see replicated in countless products and systems. Locked-down APIs replace protocols, personal computers are relegated to the status of “client”, and keystone projects like web browsers become impossible to replace without billions in funding and hundreds of engineers.

The scale, complexity, and rent-seeking of megacorps have poisoned our expectations for software and the practice of software development to an extent that’s hard to get your head around. Technical work is well-paid, at least for the skilled and well-connected, but that typically comes at the price of a livelihood held hostage by terrible people in service of terrible goals.


It could be otherwise, but I think we first have got to recognize that the existing tools of FOSS aren’t remotely sufficient to remedy everything that’s broken about software. What the communities writing and publishing all this code have accomplished is astonishing, but it remains embedded in a system of exploitation and a profoundly damaged larger culture.

Technical culture is broken, generally concentrating rather than diffusing the inequities and pathologies of the one that surrounds it. Employment is broken and jobs are rife with bullshit. What Diana Thayer calls the poverty gun — the relentless, asymmetrical threat of unemployment pointed at anyone in conflict with the whims of capital — stifles most meaningful dissent. Capitalism, however inevitable or useful some of its basic elements are, is broken.

I don’t know how to solve those problems. What I think I know at the moment is that free software is necessary, but it’s not sufficient. As something necessary, it needs to be better. As something insufficient, it needs to be a place where more people can find a home.

tags: topics/free-software, topics/politics, topics/technical

p1k3 / 2019 / 10 / 20