Category Archives: Discourse

The New Shape of the Free Software Movement

Once upon a time, a movement started. Richard Stallman observed that he was better served by having the freedom to modify and share software, and he codified that observation in a manifesto, in several licenses over time, and in the software that he and others built that were distributed under those licenses.

Thirty years have passed.

Now, the free software movement consists of more than just one group. There are people who still work on free software, and advocate for it, because they are better served by free software, because it benefits them directly. But there are also those who work on free software because of the benefits to their community. There are still more who work on free software because of the benefits to the projects themselves. And further people work on free software just because they’re paid to do it as part of their job, or because it will look good on their CV.

I think it’s time we stopped drawing lines in the sand. I think we need to expand the free software movement to these new groups that may not be recognized by a lot of us. We need to understand the motivations that make sense to those people, and we need to start to accept them.

Personal Benefit

A lot of people who are already part of the movement want to help free software because it’s directly beneficial to them. There’s nothing wrong with this kind of advocate, but their perspective means they have a different view of things than others.

  • I should be able to use software under any conditions I choose.
  • I should be able to share software with people with whom I collaborate.
  • I should be able to fix or augment software however I like.
  • I should be able to distribute those fixes and augmentations to people with whom I collaborate.

Community Benefit

These are for community-minded people who want to work on free software that benefits the people around them. “Community” could mean almost anything, from the extremely small community of a family unit, to the extremely large community of “all humans.” The motivating factors are the same:

  • Members of my community should be afforded the right to use software under any conditions they choose.
  • I, and others, should be allowed to share software with my community, so everyone can benefit from it.
  • Members of my community should be allowed to fix and augment software to fit their needs.
  • I, and others, should be allowed to distribute those fixes and augmentations, so that my community may benefit from them.

Project Benefit

Some people work on projects that are free software only because they want that software to be better.

  • People should be allowed to use software under any conditions so they may better test the diverse functions of the software.
  • People should be allowed to distribute copies of the software to better enable the above testing goal.
  • People should be allowed to modify software so they can make it better.
  • People should be allowed to distribute modified copies of software so they can better test their improvements.

Career/Corporate Benefits

The last group of free software developers and advocates have slightly different motivations, but they still need a framework to enable them to act them out.

  • People should be allowed to use software under any circumstances so they can accomplish business goals.
  • People should be allowed to distribute copies of software to achieve word-of-mouth recognition of the software and its contributors (including corporate sponsors), as well as to solicit contributions from the community and other companies.
  • People should be allowed to modify software to better fit their business needs, and to give them a platform for recognition as a positive community force.
  • People should be allowed to distribute modified software so they are better recognized as benefactors to the community, and to solicit further improvements from the community and other companies.

How these groups play together

You probably noticed that I formatted each list of motivations along the lines of the original “four freedoms” document set out by Richard Stallman. Well, that’s all well and good, but Richard has a lot of opinions that get conflated with his written essays, so I have not restated those points here. I’m saying here today that I fully accept every single one of these groups as potential allies in the struggle to bring free software to mainstream awareness. No matter what your motivation for building up free software, I welcome your contributions.

Now, I want to be clear that I’m not negating my past position on companies who make token efforts towards free software – I still do not suggest using GitHub, Facebook, or Google services, because they are all based on non-free software. But I’m saying that we should be welcoming of the contributions that they make nonetheless, and that we should also accept the contributions of the other groups.

For example, while many die-hard free software advocates are currently skeptical of people motivated largely by community forces, we should start to embrace them instead and work towards their goals in conjunction with our own.

Likewise, people who are working on free software solely so they can have the tools they need to accomplish their own goals should be welcomed with open arms, and invited to join in the grander advocacy efforts.

I worry that too much of the free software movement has been trained to reject these groups, to be distrustful of corporations, to be dismissive of people who are utilitarian in their contributions. I hope we aren’t too far gone to rescue this movement that needs to be so much bigger than it currently is.

On Feminism

Update

Sorry to top-post, but a friend of mine has recently convinced me basically the opposite of what I’m saying in this post, and I needed to be sure that this historical context-providing post was framed in the right light, which now includes me disagreeing with my past self.

The conversation that convinced me to change my mind culminated in realizing that while women-only programs are bad, a situation where no women-only programs exist would be even worse, leaving women at a disadvantaged stage, because society is still pretty unbalanced.

At first I was happy to say that things like women-only support groups and hackerspaces were OK, because they provided support that was integral to giving women an edge, especially in such a male-dominated field like the tech industry, but that policies governing the distribution of salaries or stipends should be radically gender-neutral. The turning point on that principle was the realization that, to quote an unnamed wonderful person, “money is the primary medium for transferral of social power!” After making that connection, I stopped being particularly opposed to OPW, because I realized the necessity of that transferral and that money is one of the best ways to accomplish it.

The original post is preserved below, again, for historical reasons.


One of my favourite teachers ever was my 11th grade history teacher, Ms. Conway. She would give lectures that made us laugh and cry. But the most memorable thing she ever said to our class follows:

How many of you are feminists? (a few people raise their hands) You know, feminism only means that you think women and men should have the same rights. Now, how many of you are feminists? (nearly everyone raises their hands)

(see the definition of feminism at Merriam-Webster, e.g.)

Since then, I’ve firmly identified as a feminist. Maybe that makes me a member of a minority, especially considering the sort of person I seem to interact with on a daily basis. My feeling is that feminism is viewed as an extreme, radical thing, and that feminists are seen as people who hate men. Neither are true – feminism is the simple belief that neither women nor men are better than the other.

OPW

With that in mind, let’s talk about GNOME’s “Outreach Program for Women” (OPW), for which I was a mentor from January through April, and through which I met a lot of cool and interesting people. Another Wikimedian, an OPW intern herself, has already written about the idea that OPW is a sexist program, and I have to say, I have had a very similar feeling about it from the start.

In December, when I was asked whether I’d like to be part of more mentorship programs, I responded “yes” emphatically. A few days later, I got some emails and IRC messages about OPW, and read the literature. I was excited that the program would be bringing in more contributors for Wikimedia, so I again responded yes.

After a few more days had passed, though, I thought back on some of the literature, and on some of the things I’ve read in the past about affirmative action programs. I asked a few questions in various channels about why this program, specifically, needed to exclude men. Why was it that a program offering paid internships for working on free software was being offered to half of the population but not the other? The answers were a little dismissive, but satisfactory for me at the time, and ones that I had heard before and would hear again: Women are disproportionately affected by the current lack of women in the tech industry, we need to actively seek them out, and it’s helpful for them to have a place where they feel comfortable when they start out working somewhere, as well as a place that specifically indicates to them that they’re qualified to apply.

During the program, there was a lot of busy time. Not a lot of progression of my ideas on the matter. When the program closed, though, I asked in the OPW channel about the same thing. The same answers seemed to come out, but for the most part, I’m not sure I was convinced. While I’m glad that women feel more comfortable in that scenario, it’s at best a stopgap measure. Sustainable growth isn’t accomplished by treating women specially, it’s accomplished by making sure that the industry, and the communities where women will be joining along with men, are friendly enough places that nobody feels excluded.

More generally

Segregation isn’t the way to solve segregation. Affirmative action was maybe a good idea once upon a time, to open the door, or maybe just because we didn’t fully understand the issues at play, but we’re in a different time. Discrimination, at least in the Western world, is not looked upon as acceptable, and sexism is no exception. So maybe we should stop practicing it as if we still need to use these temporary solutions to crack open the door. The door is already open, or opening, and we just need to let everyone through. Having women-only events or programs excludes men who might want to learn too.

Things People Say

When I ask people why they’re choosing a women-only event, group, or program, I often hear many of the same answers and continue to be unimpressed. A few of the ones I’ve heard are below (please, comment, and I’ll try to add yours!) (also, if you want to rebut one or more of these, I’m happy to continue the conversation in the comments)

Women need to be able to count on support from peers
This is one of the more common explanations I hear, though it comes in different forms. Women and men sometimes have different needs, but some men have the same needs as most women and some women don’t have the same needs as other women. It’s ridiculous to offer a service to women and not men just because most women need the same service.
Women are intimidated by the male-dominated industry and need a women-only place to find support
While there’s certainly some truth in the intimidation, I reject the concept that women can only find support with other women. If there’s some *quality* of women that you’re looking for, maybe you should start a group that allows entry based on that quality rather than based on the professed gender of a person. It’s insane to block men from entry simply because they’re men.

Disclaimer

I fully recognize that I’m missing things here. I invite people who understand this topic better than I to comment and help me understand. Hopefully we can learn from each other. I promise not to dismiss your ideas out of hand and strive for a fair conversation on the subject. I want to learn from you just as much as you want to learn from me.

Hostility to Free Software (follow-up)

Last week, I wrote a blog post about people who seem to be generally hostile towards free software advocates. A lot of people weighed in, and I’m happy to say that it’s resulted in a significant shift in my thinking.

The first thing I needed to do was to split up the question into several parts; so I split it into different groups of interaction. Those groups, and my conclusions about them, are as follows:

Free software user towards other free software users

This category, I think, was the one I was most worried about when I wrote the original post. It’s clear to me now that, in order for someone to make most of the criticisms that I highlighted in the previous post, someone would have to be aware of at least parts of the GNU philosophy.

These people are usually irritated with a free software advocate who disagrees with their preferred licensing scheme. Copyleft advocates don’t get along with permissive advocates, and vice versa. I’ve mostly observed permissive license advocates being discourteous, but I’m sure copyleft advocates have been just as discourteous at some point.

This category of hostile interaction is absolutely ridiculous. Sure, there are disagreements, but it’s foolish to argue about such things. Even the most hardcore copyleft advocates agree that, in an ideal world, permissive licenses would be better. Copyleft advocates use the tools available to them to ensure the freedoms they desire, for themselves and their users. And permissive advocates, while they’re usually very friendly and practical people, get very offended by copyleft advocates who are too insistent, claiming that copyleft is too restrictive. Both groups have goals, but both are working towards digital freedom. That ultimate goal needs to be the focus, rather than the particular tools used.

Free software users towards non-free software users who make free software

This is something of which I’m guilty, I’m ashamed to say. People who make free software for non-free platforms, like the iPhone or Windows, are sometimes victims of criticism because they straddle a fence between two worlds. But that fence is a huge barrier to some people, and the people who sit on it can help bring people across.

The problem, I think, is that when I try to help these people find free tools (like Gitorious, for example), I tend to come across as being too focused on one side of the fence. The people in this difficult position see me as attacking them, or their decision to help people in this way. I could try to explain at length that I mean only to find better tools for them, but that seems like wasted effort. They appear to be doing good work, so why bother criticizing? Someone making free software with non-free tools should be encouraged to continue making free software above all else. It might be helpful to encourage free developers to use Gitorious from the start, but criticizing their use of GitHub now seems unnecessary.

Free software users towards non-free software users

This is probably the most ridiculous form of hostility surrounding the free software movement, and probably the source of a lot of negative feelings. Free software users and advocates might occasionally look intimidating based on the fact that their information is something most people don’t ever consider, and don’t already understand. This fact combined with the very serious nature of most free software advocates makes for a very difficult person to converse with.

The best way to deal with this situation, then, is never to criticize, and never to obstruct people. I maintain, as I have in the past, that it would be better to not help people to support non-free software. However, rather than simply refusing without explanation, or with only a few words. Explain a way to accomplish the same thing with free software, and why you prefer free software. The goal here is to be verbose, so brush up on your ability to explain things to non-technical users!

Free software users towards non-free software developers

This is a relatively justifiable form of hostility, since the objects of it are directly opposed to the mission of free software advocates. However, there’s a problem: Developers are the best way to spread free software (more on this later), and we’re starting to alienate them!

Maybe we can’t win these people over with words, but it would be helpful to stop alienating them, certainly. For now at least, my best advice is to simply not advocate to them. Telling somebody that they’re doing things wrong is probably not the best way to win them over, and that’s really our only tack with non-free developers. Simply allowing these people to be, and encouraging them if and when they create free software, is our single best play.

General advice

In general, there are some things we should keep in mind when talking to the public. First of all, try to avoid “smear campaigns”. This is one of the most common criticisms of the Free Software Foundation in particular, and it makes a lot of sense. While Free Software is a reasonable idea, some of the ways it gets spread can be a little unnecessary and hostile. Simply calling technologies by their proper names will not cheapen the message at all, especially when the person speaking is already criticizing the technology for valid reasons.

Second, focus on positive reinforcement, rather than negative feedback only when things go wrong. I touched on this somewhat in the previous sections, but here it is again: We should be seen as an encouraging community, rather than some resistance that fights against people. This is why sites like OpenHatch have such great importance to the free software movement–we should encourage people to do good work, rather than criticize them for doing bad work.

Third, consider now that other freedoms, freedoms that aren’t related to software, are also important. While most of the time, people who make this argument simply mean freedom of choice. I maintain that freedom of choice isn’t freedom at all, merely an illusion–similar to allowing prisoners yard time. If you allow some amount of space, that’s good, but it’s still prison. It’s the same with non-free software: You can choose a lot of different software just like you could walk around the yard, but you can’t modify or share it, among other things.

Supply and Demand

One of the interesting points I’ve heard recently is that there are two major theories about the most effective approach. Some people prefer supply-side advocacy. This method is when developers are targeted, and they change their ways. This method costs relatively little, because there are fewer people who are more aware of the subject, but it can also be severely tedious. As we’ve seen, non-free developers are very set in their ways.

The other theory is demand-side advocacy, which is focused on users rather than developers. This takes a lot of time as well, since users can also be set in their ways, but are also troublesome because of their lesser domain knowledge.

My view of this is that supply-side advocacy should be the focus. Developers, while stubborn, feel good simply by making software. Add in altruism as a motivator, and possibly the ethical benefits of allowing their users freedom, and they’ll certainly be interested in making free software….or at least, that’s the goal!

Demand-side advocacy can be helpful, but since a lot of people don’t understand software, it can be difficult for them to understand the importance. If the landscape of free software gets wider, users should start to spill over more readily.

Thanks again for reading this blog, and thanks especially to everyone who contacted me in response to the last post. As always, go freely!

Hostility to Free Software

The free software community has been around for quite some time now–longer than I remember, since I’ve only joined in the past few years. And for some reason, though that time seems to have been spent on good works that benefit humanity, and advocacy that teaches people how to be free, the movement is sometimes the object of some hostility.

With every blog post, I encourage people to comment by emailing me, but for this post in particular, I’d like to make a special request for feedback, because this particular problem is a very important one to solve. If you have any ideas about how to further explain the below points, please email me.

Zealotry

One complaint I’ve seen very often is that free software advocates are mostly zealots. However, whenever I come up against that complaint, I turn to the dictionary definition of “zealot” and find the following:

  1. One who is zealous, especially excessively so.
  2. A fanatically committed person.

source

Both of these possible definitions involve some version of “excessive”, but that has never made sense to me. The second definition also includes some sense of irrationality, which also makes very little sense. Free software advocates love freedom, it’s true, and would rather have freedom than convenience. But that exact choice, and the preference free software advocates tend to have, are exactly the subjects of many romantic depictions of heroic figures, both in history and in fiction. New Jersey still immortalizes it on their license plates, and countless authors continue to speak highly of those who choose freedom. So why should any commitment to that ideal be considered excessive?

Name-Calling

The next example of hostility is the name-calling that happens from time to time. Free software advocates are sometimes called zealots, as explained above. But several other names are also in use.

The first, and probably most offensive, is “freetard”. This term is particularly bad because it also perpetuates the use of the term “retard”, which is itself extremely offensive. But tying that term to the honorable choice to be free seems especially wrong. Implying that digital freedom is caused by some lack of mental capacity simply doesn’t make sense.

The next term is “bully”, used sometimes by people who seem to think free software advocates are too insistent. This is a bit strange, too, since most of the tactics used by the majority of free software advocates are very passive. This term was probably brought on by some of the more controversial tactics used by the Free Software Foundation, which itself tends to use name-calling on occasion. But that organization, while very important, does not dictate the actions of the rest of the community. Their philosophy articles are helpful, and they have good ideas, but their actions don’t need to reflect on all free software advocates.

The last term people use, falsely in my opinion, is something similar to “communist”. Now, this particular example may not be terribly offensive, since the days of the Cold War are gone. But using terms that are untrue doesn’t help anyone. I hope to soon write further on this subject, but to briefly summarize, free software allows for too much freedom among people, and the free market would soon bring people to release their own versions of things, possibly for money. Socialism and communism, and similar systems, wouldn’t be fertile ground for software freedom; or perhaps more appropriately, free software wouldn’t be contained by those systems for very long. This is pretty clearly caused by the “open source” branch of the movement, where people emphasize giving back to the community, and communal ownership of the creative works in the society, but even that community appears to be more motivated by capitalistic intentions than anything else.

Reasons

There are a few possible reasons listed above, but I’m hoping to come to a more unified theory, since none of the individual incidents seem to be self-explanatory.

One idea I had was that people might be seeing free software as a threat to the software industry. Many people confuse “free” as being mostly related to the price of the software, so their hostility might be caused by a concern that profits would be lost if free software took hold. Of course, Making Money Ethically is a potentially helpful solution to that concern, but very few people understand the concepts set forth there, and even fewer would consider actually implementing those concepts.

Ideas?

In closing, I’d like to reiterate my call for feedback. I don’t know why people react the way they do to free software advocates, but I’d like to revisit this question with some more interesting data. If you think you have an answer, I’d love to get an email from you. If you think negatively about the free software movement in some way, can you trace your perception back to something concrete? Please contact me with any information you might have, and if possible, indicate whether you’re comfortable having your email reprinted on this blog.

Thanks for reading, and as always go freely!

Attractive Arguments

I spend a large part of my time trying to convince people that my ideas have merit. Most of the time, I can simply illustrate the differences between one idea and another and have them immediately distinguished–one is right, and one is wrong. There are, however, a few situations where that is not the case.

I have come to a few questions in response to those situations: Am I not a persuasive person? Are the arguments wrong, and I don’t know it? Am I not talking about them the right way? I’d like to explore a few of these situations in this post.

Persuasiveness

I have generally thought that I am a persuasive person. I don’t always have a lot of people listening to me, but I like to think that when they are, I can persuade them that I’m generally right. I have heard good things about my public speeches, and a few people have enjoyed talking to me on a smaller scale.

At the same time, several people I know have pointed out that I can be less than sensitive when it comes to serious discussions. This is true, because often when it comes to actually talking about a decision someone has to make, I try to immediately remove the question of emotion and bias, to better serve the pursuit of truth and reason. Admittedly, it doesn’t usually make people feel good, but generally I wind up persuading them anyway. Unless, of course, I am actually wrong–but that brings us to the next option.

Unhelpful Conversations

When I am wrong, I feel that often, the people who notice it are hesitant to tell me. I’ve found that our society has gotten too attached to positive feedback to actually give useful advice–which is why I generally don’t try to sugar-coat it, when I find someone is doing something wrong.

So, when I find that people actually think I am wrong, the first thing I try to do is find out why. My biggest problem with the Free Software and religion arguments has been that people cannot tell me why I’m wrong–or at least, can’t do so in a way that holds up to any amount of serious thought. At that point, the rational course of action for the other person in the conversation would be to evaluate what led them down that path that didn’t hold up to serious thought, and then consider a change in opinion. Of course, in most cases, I do not see that happen.

In most cases, the people I know actually look me straight in the face and ask me to agree to disagree. This moment brings a lot of thoughts to mind, most notably “so, you’re asking me to agree that you’re wrong and too stupid to realize it?”, but at this point in the conversation, my penchant for not sugar-coating things somewhat disappears. In some cases, in later conversations with the same person, that principle returns to the mix, but I generally recognize that person, at that point, as a lost cause. They have lost their capacity for reasoned discourse and are no longer even capable of change. This is possibly the most worrying trend of all–that people are no longer interested in or capable of change.

Wrong Methods

Possibly one of the most frustrating examples of the above, I think, is that even if I am not persuasive, or talking about something in a manner which does not endear me to the other participants in the discussion, I often find that people will either not tell me, or will try to tell me without having any concrete examples of how I could improve. Even those closest to me have been very unhelpful in this matter. Really, though, I take that as so much more evidence that I’m not, in fact, using any methods that are too offensive. How can I be, if no-one can even enumerate those methods to me?

Thanks for reading!