everything wrong with free software
"obedience breeds foolishness"
*originally posted:* aug 2021
in pioneering days of psychology, you had freud who was interviewing people and writing down notes, trying to look for patterns and classifications of specific behaviours and anomalies. at least some of these observations were informed by comparison to folklore or mythology.
jung (at least at one point) sought to divide everyone broadly into personality types, and also drew some observations from mythology or mysticism (though its not my intent to overstate this, only to mention it).
as to the amount of value this has in the field of psychology, ive read that its largely debunked, it does not seem to have gone away. i think its safe to say though, that there is an upper limit to the wisdom that can be derived from archetypes and stereotypes. when people lean too heavily on these categories and observations, they end up with straw man arguments and cheap attacks on people. i dont want to encourage this-- but i think these ideas are potentially useful as a starting point if theyre not taken too seriously.
from an even broader point of view, what we are doing here is taking apart society (as interactions between people) itself to see how various components work. you can (to some extent) learn how a clock works by taking it apart, learn why a car is malfunctioning by taking it apart and looking each part, the idea of separating things into parts to look at them separately for the sake of understanding the whole is one of the most unoriginal and time-tested ideas there is.
of course, how you go about doing this has some effect on the outcome. you can even try different ways of sorting types and categories, then try to find some way to evaluate the merit of each system just based on what practical information was gleaned from the outcome. psychology has had a substantial amount of time to get started on this. other fields of medicine have had even longer-- we started understanding medicine, arguably, with talk of elements and bodily humours. that wasnt incredibly useful by itself, but it was a starting place for understanding the body in terms of parts and substances, which we technically still do (thankfully this has gotten a bit more advanced in the past few centuries).
if youre just having fun, you could start with any sort of categorisation before moving on to something a little more reasonable. you could start with zodiac sun signs, or the michael scott comparison of various office departments to groups of people on the titanic (as both a fan of the office and someone who wrote a book comparing the fsf to the titanic, i sort of like this one but im not saying this is a very useful approach) or you could do like freud and start thinking about individuals, and try to move up in abstraction from there-- instead of starting with abstraction as jung did. the modern system that is most similar to jungs research has 16 personality types-- its a few too many for my own efforts to figure out the state of the free software movement, really. but you could try.
the very basic, hopefully straightforward system i want to try first is based on combinations of feeling, motivation and the effect of those motivations. and the sheer simplicity of it is hopefully plain to observe. we start with two basic motivations (we are treating apathy as a negative motivation):
1. people who think nothing (major) is wrong
2. people who think something is definitely wrong
note that these are not evenly distributed (neither are the 16 personality types you will typically find in a modern discussion of archetypes). people who think that nothing major is wrong (or at least act as if this is the situation) are the majority by far-- people who think something is definitely wrong are the exception, and the relative (social) isolation of this feeling or hypothesis makes it an easy target for people either being condescending, or treating those who feel this way as either paranoid or otherwise delusional.
note also that not everyone in the first category pays much attention to, let alone thinks very negatively of people in the second category. people the second category are targets of derision but not necessarily by everyone who disagrees with them. the most common response to a concern from someone in the category is something like "i dont get what the problem is" or, "i dont think its really that bad".
this system does not include (nor does it try to include) a way to determine who is "right" about this, it focuses primarily on the motivations of those who disagree and the effects of those motivations. those who are in category 1 will (broadly) assume that they are the ones who are generally right, and those who are in category 2 will also (broadly) assume that they are the ones who are generally right. to what degree this assumption is made will likely vary from individual to individual, and may (or may not) also be a function of the category.
since we begin with two major categories, from there we divide them into subcategories. the first division that i suspect could shed light on anything is dividing based on some degree of autonomy, or how "agreeable" people are in terms of dealing with other people from the other category.
so for category 1, we can divide that into a subtype that just gets on with the status quo without worrying about what category 2 thinks, lets call this the "non-reactive" category 1, and then the subtype that interacts (whether in a positive / constructive or combative way) with category 2 on the matter, which we will call the "reactive" category 1. this corresponds (probably very) loosely to introvert and extrovert categories of personality types, although that was not intentional.
for category 2, we can similarly divide into subtypes of reactive and non-reactive, and then take a moment to examine (or speculate about) the potential behaviours of these subtypes.
to make labeling easier, lets call category 1 "non-sceptics" and category 2 "sceptics":
1a. "non-reactive non-sceptics"
1b. "reactive non-sceptics"
2a. "non-reactive sceptics"
2b. "reactive sceptics"
lest you think this is all hypothetical, i have indeed encountered all of these types. and i would note that (as with everything like this, probably) not every individual has both feet in a single category. the idea is that people fall mostly into one of the categories, even if every placement is a bit of a spectrum.
thus, a person who is mostly a non-sceptic may sound or act like a "sceptic" would at one time or another, but they dont tend to do that. when we talk about which category a person belongs to, it is implied that we mean "on average" or "most of the time" or "more often than not". one of the mistakes that seems common among non-professionals and even mediocre professionals, is to lean too heavily on categorisation and ignore the exceptions to the rule or classification as if those exceptions dont exist. and i would like to discourage people from doing that, or at least encourage them to try not to overdo it. im not saying its easy...
even with this caveat, the value of such categorisation for learning about interactions is not entirely compromised; we can still glean useful things from what amounts to generalisation and oversimplification. in fact if we couldnt, the entire field and industry would probably collapse. the key is to not put too much stock in what is certainly not etched in stone, but HOPEFULLY, anybody who throws the word "science" around knows that much already.
now that we have some categories and subcategories, we can think back to interactions weve had with people we suspect belong to these subcategories and write down some aspects of those interactions. we could say something like:
### 1a. "non-reactive non-sceptics"
* are eager to get back to work. this is actually addressed in an article on this website which i didnt write, but which i found via the fsf mailing lists under a license that allowed me to reproduce the article:
> Boxer's slogans are "Comrade Napoleon is always right" and "I will work harder!" Boxer feels it should work very hard and should not have anything to do with others.
i am making no attempts to hide any personal bias here, but i will at least note that i have a personal bias and that it shouldnt take a degree in psychology to guess which category i belong to. i am trying to present a system that is mathematically neutral, and perhaps someone from another category would use the same system to make a series of arguments that are entirely different than any conclusions i draw-- but that is not considered a fault of the system, i think it is actually a small triumph if it doesnt necessarily lend itself completely to one group. as i said, this system does not determine which group is "right".
* may find it a bother or burden to hear category 2 arguments, even if they are unlikely to respond.
* are likely more agreeable on average, as they would rather simply work on projects alone, or with others, than worry about whether the status quo is under threat or in some way problematic.
### 1b. "reactive non-sceptics"
* may seek, enjoy or welcome either a polite, or even contentious debate with someone from category 2.
* are likely confident that nothing (very important) is wrong with the status quo.
* may (or may not) be derisive or condescending towards ideas, questions or concerns raised by someone from category 2.
* are more likely than non-reactive non-sceptics to be the one who says "we dont have time for this, could we please get back to a meaningful, on-topic discussion?"
### 2a. "non-reactive sceptics"
* are probably resigned to simply working on solutions. the debate about the situation may (or may not) be pointless altogether.
* similarly, may have a more "practical", less "ideological" temperament than the reactive sceptics.
* probably understand where the reactive sceptics are coming from, but (similar to non-reactive non-sceptics) really dont want to talk about it.
* are likely less condescending or derisive towards reactive sceptics than reactive non-sceptics are, but could be just as eager to get back "on-topic".
-- note that NON-REACTIVE sceptics and REACTIVE non-sceptics are (in this summary at least) the ones most likely to agree on the course of the conversation.
-- note that this commonality could lead to a misunderstanding or miscategorisation by a reactive sceptic: "youre just being a topic nazi because you think this isnt a real problem!"
-- (i sympathise more with the reactive sceptic, but im nonetheless aware of this possible misunderstanding or reaction).
### 2b. "reactive sceptics"
* are most likely to try to lead (or spend the most time talking about) the movement, why its important, how it can improve, etc.
* this is the category stallman started out in, and the category he has belonged to for most of his career. he is a "reactive sceptic" of non-free software.
* are arguably the most temperamental of the four categories, since they are (naturally) neither content with the status quo, nor do they think it is (USUALLY) better to shut up about it.
* NON-reactive sceptics may advocate, but tend to be more "toned-down" in their advocacy.
* this is not to say that reactive sceptics are all clueless about effective methods of advocacy. they can actually be extremely (read: maybe even most) effective at times, although plenty of other people are uncomfortable with this even when the outcome is demonstrably positive. (arguing for a better world makes many people uncomfortable!)
note that even in the dsm and other diagnostic manuals, a list of traits or markers or indicators is not always a 1:1 list corresponding to the member of that group or diagnosis; in other words, someone may have some or all (but typically a certain percentage or number) of traits listed, and even then the entry seems to be generally some form of shorthand. otherwise we could all get a copy and ask someone a few short questions, and we wouldnt need any professionals anymore (that is neither my opinion nor my argument, but if these manuals alone were sufficient that would certainly be a reasonable outcome-- except someone would still have to write them).
you could (and should feel free, in my opinion) to treat this as either an entirely separate article, or (maybe) a continuation of a theme that started in the boxer syndrome article. that article concludes:
> Many people we know are effected with the Boxer syndrome and forget when is the correct time to take a position or change the situation, or even do anything that matters, sadly.
that was written by an advocate who would clearly lament the proportions of the movement, if it is divided into these four subtypes. there are, if you ask the author, too many "boxers" in free software.
while i do feel similarly to his conclusion, this article is intended as a starting point, rather than a conclusion. i hope that someone will consider (some of) the ideas here, possibly even a way that will increase the overall understanding of NOT ONLY the direction this movement is headed in, but also how to change the overall direction.
the goal here is certainly not to change all boxers into non-boxers. i dont think thats possible, and i think the effort would be energy spent on something futile. a "non-reactive sceptic" may agree very strongly on the idea that it is wasted energy, but they are still more inclined to feel that way than i am-- i am actively looking for ways to re-energise a movement. i simply dont want to bother with specific methods that dont achieve anything.
another thing i want this article to touch on, but it wont go into detail about, is the idea that as a movement shifts direction, the proportion of these types also shift. one thing i get from talking to people who know more about OTHER movements and organisations is, this sort of shift is COMMON.
in fact, this sort of shift from reactive sceptics to the RELATIVELY apathetic "lets just get back to work, this discussion is fruitless" types (which by the way, are not by any means a useless group or bad people to have on your side, its just not a good sign when they seem to represent the bulk and even the SPIRIT of the movement) is the most common trajectory of non-profit organisations-- a point ive been working for more than a year to make to as many people as possible.
ive said to richard stallman that if he wants free software to move forward, that being organisation-based and increasingly corporate will kill the movement.
an ngo is a tool, to be picked up by a movement when it is needed, and put back down when it no longer serves the purpose. if the movement wants to continue, it WILL (ultimately) need to put the fsf down and start anew. people who have seen the horrible cynicism, dishonesty and co-opting from front groups like osi and sellouts and slanderers like sfc have every reason to be wary of "new organisations". i dont blame them for that at all.
unfortunately, though it will happen more slowly, the trajectory of the fsf (as ive said for years now) is ultimately to become more cynical, less useful, and really MORE like these other organisations that we are wary of. compare this microcosmic reality to the considerably larger usa: so many of us would choose the usa over china any day of the week. and yet for (almost literally) decades, the usa has inched more and more towards what china is, even if it is certainly better.
not many people think it is going to get better in this regard. it will simply inch closer and closer to china, but more to the point-- it already has TOO MUCH in common, even if it is FAR, FAR better without question.
this is (by far) the most likely future of the fsf, to start out FAR better than osi and forever inch in that direction. oh sure, there will be improvements here and there. those will help with its image. and yet, the fsf is done-- it will never be the fsf again, it could not even re-elect richard stallman as president. im not saying that example is the most important thing, im not saying i blame stallman, but every time i hear "JOIN US" and "SO WE CAN FIGHT FOR YOUR FREEDOM" i think... "fucking seriously? who are you kidding? you BARELY fight for your own fucking leader. what can you do for the rest of us (peons)?"
the answer is "not much" and thats why the movement matters more than the organisation.
WE CAN DO SO MUCH MORE for free software than the fsf can do for us.
the fsf is NOT the movement. the fsf is really barely anything anymore.
but boxer isnt hearing a word of it. we need to understand that boxer isnt bad, and im not making him out to be the enemy here. we need to understand that boxer isnt here to fight for us-- at best, hes just going to do work. but he wont fight. its just not what hes about.
unfortunately, we have a movement that consists PRIMARILY of people who wont fight for freedom. theyll just go along with what theyre told to do, and stay out of conflicts and unpleasant discussions (even unpleasant truths).
i want people to understand, that this categorisation is NOT simply about who is "best" or who cares and who doesnt (though in a way, it sort of is about who cares and who doesnt).
rather, if you think about this, there are different things that different people are good at.
and we defintely need more non-boxers. but since converting boxers to non-boxers is HIGHLY unlikely, then non-boxers will have to be found SOMEWHERE ELSE.
because there are scant few in our midst. and there are several, at least. but its NOT the movement that it used to be.
if you simply divide the movement into its various parts, you can plainly see-- we are very, very different than we used to be.
fight for your freedom? hardly. they will just work harder-- they do not want to fight. if we are going to STAND UP and make ourselves heard, if we are going to tackle new problems DIRECTLY and with the sort of fierce determination that stallman once brought to the table (inspiring boxers and non-boxers alike to help out, of course) then we need to address the overall MAKEUP of this movement.
it is stagnant, apathetic, and (in more ways than one) OSI-fied.
we can count on boxer for the same things we always counted on boxer for. but he (note that boxer isnt stallman, boxer is the archetype generally the farthest from stallman) will not fight for our freedom. if we want a movement that lives up to the (empty) promises the fsf makes these days, we need more non-boxers. theres simply no way around it.
if i thought it was hopeless, i would resign myself to being a non-reactive sceptic. some of those non-reactive sceptics DO think (or fear) it is hopeless, so they are somewhat resigned. others are simply playing to their strengths and own personality type, and we shouldnt fault them (or misunderstand them) for it.
the SITUATION-- the movement-- is not hopeless. it is only bleak. the fsf however, is most likely hopeless. ive been saying that for some time now, and-- *checks watch* nope, nothing yet. dont count on it, folks. theres no reason to think the fsf is going to fight for us other than misplaced sentimentality.
i do not blame stallman. hes only given his entire career to us, founding the movement and tirelessly strategising and fighting year after year. (a bit less so for the past 5 or 6 years, sure-- most people would have quit altogether over less).
i wonder which arm he broke. and i hope hes fixed up soon.
at any rate, he is more than a decent template, we need more people of his type, who do not simply parrot what he says but take on the ROLE and the spirit of his lifes work as well. the words of stallman and the temperament of boxer, will not lead our movement to do anything other than work hard, and not fight.
though people working hard and not fighting can still help the movement, if thats what the movement consists of-- then this is not freedom, it is servitude to corporations.
i really wasnt kidding about the fsf turning more and more into osi. its pithy, i know, but im not saying it only to be mean. its also true. and ultimately typical. people who think what happened to "listener-supported" npr cant happen to the "member-supported" fsf, are people who believe in fsf-exceptionalism.
its the same idea as american exceptionalism, but this is what bastions of freedom do: they rise, they fall, other bastions rise.
im not the least bit happy about it, but pretending its different than it is wont get us anywhere. a movement that refuses to take a hard look at the future is only going to chase its tail.