everything wrong with free software
"free as in speech"
=> bullshit-of-the-week.html bullshit-of-the-week
*originally posted:* apr 2021
im not going to go to the trouble to make this sound less critical of stallman-- i definitely give him more credit than this is going to make it sound like, and he defintely deserves more than what this will sound like. but for the course of this article my priority is defending freedom, not stallman.
stallman is a personal hero and a great emancipator, and doesnt deserve to spend his non-retirement years with a corporate lynch mob outside his door. but maybe youll understand why i talk about emancipation as a starting point when i tell you that before i even knew about stallman, i was already inspired by other prominent voices for freedom.
when i was a child, i found martin luther king jr. inspiring. he wanted a world where superficial differences didnt decide whether you would be safe or prosperous, where character mattered more than outward appearances. of course his focus was on race, but his dream was of equality and fairness. i knew plenty of fake christians, people who talked about love and tolerance but didnt know anything about it-- but here was a real one, one of the greatest preachers of his time or any time-- with a timeless message for a better humanity. he also cared deeply about freedom, and spoke out against war. he didnt kiss up to the establishment, he was killed for standing up to it. the world is waiting for more people with his level of devotion and dedication, but if more people were serious about that sort of thing they wouldnt all need to be as great as he was.
naturally, we heard much less in school about malcolm x and frederick douglass-- thats a shame. they absolutely came up in history, for about a minute and a half. malcolm x didnt like white people, and that was difficult for white people to relate to. but they could have mentioned that later on, he saw things less in terms of race and more in terms of oppressor vs oppressed-- which is how many of us still talk about things now. its difficult to be free, if you cant talk about oppressors. stallman is really good at figuring out that sort of problem, though other than that i wouldnt compare him as much to dr. king or malcolm x.
of the three, i would compare stallman most to frederick douglass-- who escaped slavery himself and went on to convince lincoln to emancipate the south. like douglass, stallman is an abolitionist. he doesnt believe anybody should be tied to their computer or to a publisher by non-free software or drm that they dont hold the keys to. people often wonder how you can get away with leaping from emancipated slaves to source code and a free license, but its the sort of eyebrow-raising metaphor that seems outrageous at first, but at the very least less so years later when you see the real effects of non-free software. non-free software is about users being controlled by publishers, and stallman isnt the only person who gets that.
but this is less about stallman and his philosophy (both of which matter greatly) than it is about the movement and its trajectory (both of which also matter greatly). and since the movement and its trajectory are where my real critique and disdain are generally focused, this is going to sound like a critique of stallman as he has led the movement since founding it. but it would be just as true to say there is more to freedom than emancipation.
at the end of the civil war, the slaves were freed. it was written, it was done, it was law. immediately people who werent exactly friends of freedom decided to start resisting this-- they wanted to fight against both equality and freedom, by ensuring that former slaves continued to live in fear and under oppression. lets call them the open klux-- alright, thats a cheap shot. but its not entirely undeserved. you really ought to hear what some of the most respected people in this community tell me along these lines, but im not here to make their lives difficult for things i already agree with them on.
where im coming from with this is about patterns of human behaviour that exist within aspects of culture. years ago i dated a sociology major, though im sure i would know more about it if id taken the course myself. but cultural patterns persist and evolve over time to create all kinds of interesting habits and cycles. in some ways we (as a society) continue to play out themes from a hundred or even hundreds of years ago. those patterns evolve, just as we do-- but they also persist and create artifacts of behaviour that society plays out. some of these artifacts are positive, and some are very negative.
one of the themes i wish theyd touched on in school is one that i typically resist the urge to talk about because i know people will get the wrong idea. but since im pretty used to people having the wrong idea, and im constantly defending someone who people already want to have the wrong idea about, ill share something i learned just today. this is something i can thank malcolm x for talking about. i could actually just quote him at length on this and it would suffice, but for copyright reasons im going to use my own words and ideas knowing that ive already (today) read things he wrote that i believe back up what im saying.
the truth is that when i think about corporate shills (and i love that phrase, that one is for bill hicks) theres an older image that i think about from time to time-- the house negro. sadly for ibm, there isnt another name for "house negro" that we can just do a search and replace on. its a specific concept, which malcolm x talks about to explain just how slavery works, and if someone wants to come along and find a "nicer" way to say "house negro" in the context of literal slavery i welcome them to try-- but what would the point of that be?
house negroes live with the master, love the master and take care of him. if the "field negroes" get out of line, the house negro puts things right again. in the context of open source, this is more about appeasement and "cooperation" than harmony or collaboration, there is an inherent one-sidedness in this that perpetuates a cycle of human exploitation.
of course youre always "free" to quit your job, write your own software stack, create an operating system like gnu and eventually get sued over bogus software patents or removed from microsoft github, etc.
(by the way, people still tell me they didnt know microsoft owned github until i called it that).
but thats getting ahead of the story.
the reason free software is like emancipation, is that it finally gives you software that doesnt tie you to the computer or the publisher via the license. you are legally and officially free, to use, study, share and modify the software-- you do not need permission, you have no company you need the blessing or permission of to do this. it comes with the license. so the gpl in this story is like the emancipation proclamation.
when the software is free software, the user is a free user. thus, like the freeman who can walk right off the plantation without being caught, shot, or sued, the user is emancipated from the publisher. its a very important start, and without it freedom is completely hypothetical.
and for many years its been enough. ive actually installed trisquel before (even upgraded gnewsense on a lemote) and back then, when you installed trisquel you got a wholly free operating system. i loved it. i miss it! sadly, trisquel is nothing like that system today.
take it from someone who wrote a script to download, open, reconfigure, recompress, and automatically spit out a bootable trisquel live iso with upstart instead of systemd-- trisquel today is nothing like it used to be. ive used it (my modified version of it) but even the people involved do not care about your freedom (sorry, guys-- you dont!) they havent cared for years, so i dont bother with them. it serves no fucking purpose. if you care about your freedom and they just want to bullshit you, just walk away. i have no loyalty to that sort, and they demonstrate no honour. ruben just left the fsf-- good riddance! a bit late in the game, but its technically progress.
you know whats great about not being in the fsf? i dont have press my lips against the backsides of traitors.
and you know, some people will say he isnt like that at all. guess who cares? to me, 9 out of 10 trisquel fanboys are traitors-- they have been for years. ive talked to a few that were alright, but ruben isnt one of them. i mean i could list other reasons why i think the shoe fits, but its not important. the fsf lost MANY traitors recently. many! and gee, people told me they were mostly out literally last year. how many have they got?!
i dont care about ruben. best of luck to him in his future bullshit. the point is, i dont need that guy for anything. which is good, because he doesnt care about freedom. (so there!) and you know what? he can say the same thing about me. he doesnt know shit about me, but i know hes bullshit. so its great. but he can read everything ive written and say "fuck that guy! i dont know who he is, but im pretty sure i can name 100 people who think im a hero!" thats great for you. but it does fuck all for my freedom, so its moot in my opinion. ruben is not fighting for me, this is a fact. should he? i do not care. he stopped being important to me when i stopped using trisquel.
i should really mention that hes only one example of many, so sorry ruben (not much though).
what the fuck did that guy do, anyway? i mean what the hell, why even go there? this is big picture stuff actually. lots of people want me to think they care about my freedom. so we put it to the test. the test goes alright for years, it starts going to hell, you make a fuss about it and some people get it, some people explain it, some people deny it and some people tell me (or rather everyone making the same complaint) to just shut up and like it. then they smear the people who have a valid complaint. then they wonder why someone calls them a traitor later on. hmm.
so its really not fair to pick on ruben just because hes one of the house negroes telling everybody to calm down and its not so bad. its not really fair, because hes one of thousands of people doing this. indeed i only single out the guy because of his prominence and alleged role in our side of the fight. to put it frankly: i call bullshit. but its really not about just one guy. if only it was!
there are much worse examples, and (purely out of fairness!) i am even nastier to them. the big picture problem is not the bullshitters (ok, they are a significant part of the problem actually) but the bullshit. so... ...what bullshit?
lets go back to the emancipation of the slaves and what a just world would have looked like. if youre waiting for me to join the communists, you might have a long wait. im more of a "capitalisceptic" (capitalphobe?) than a communist or anticapitalist. maybe someday theyll bring me to their side.
i dont care about people trying to make money-- stallman wants people to be able to make money. im pretty fucking tired of corporations taking over free software projects though. they typically become less free (theres less freedom) then.
and it shouldnt be too surprising. open source is a system of taking over free software projects and poaching developers-- "just like" what happened with gosling emacs. then after theyve poached developers and bought out companies like red hat they say "well, you cant maintain these things without all this corporate support".
but thats kind of bullshit, because they inserted themselves into the process and made it more dependent on them. which is exactly what they did with general-purpose computing hardware using non-free software, so why couldnt they also do it with general purpose software ("oh the free license makes it more difficult!") sure, but not impossible. but thats still getting ahead of the story.
imagine a world where the slaves were just freed, and they could just go get a job, or start a farm of their own-- where farmhands or farmowners are just like any other farmhands or farmowners, and the business belongs to the freed farmowner. this isnt the world we built, because the world is a big arsehole (alright, sometimes its nice) and it would rather just find another way to kick people around now that lincoln ruined all their fun.
i mean we are focusing on the negative for sure-- but thats just it! you cant fix shit by pretending its all wonderful all the time. thats what makes me fucking nauseous about what muckrights is like lately. this is a guy who cant even change the battery in his fucking smoke detector (its been FOUR MONTHS! how do you fucking stand it?) would you all please chip in and send him some pom poms so he can do his cheer routine properly?
but a lot of people just want to focus on marketing-- i mean the positive, and ignore problems until they get even worse-- i mean until they magically go away. alright, but thats still useless.
i am pretty fucking tired of corporations taking over free software projects and turning them into less-and-less-free projects. i wasnt impressed when they did it to trisquel, or debian, or python, or gnome (but really, with gnome it was bound to happen) or kde, or fucking emacs! what the hell? i mean this just keeps happening.
so to talk about a world where this happens to emancipated slaves, heres what it would be like maybe--
1. youve got nothing, but youre free to go even if you have no way to get there.
2. so lets be really nice and just hand you a free ticket to anywhere in the country. maybe its the least we can do after we kidnapped your parents and split up families for menial labour.
3. then you find a job thats not absolutely shit and your boss isnt the complete dick of the world, because we are still being optimistic for rhetorical purposes.
4. then-- just to make this more like the history of free software, things actually start to get good! youre making money, taking some college courses, you have the kind of apartment they sing about in west side story. this is a far cry from plantation life.
5. but you dont really care about the sort of work youre doing. you want your own farm. fortunately you have almost enough saved up, so you go and get a loan and now youre working outdoors-- for yourself and the family you start eventually. this is the sort of thing you always dreamed of, and now its true.
eventually people want to INVEST in your farm. so now a bunch of white people (im not saying "theyre all bad", just that its ironic in a way) want to tell you how to do things on your own farmland. they want you to grow less of what you need or think will sell, and more of what they think is best. but the moneys alright, so you say fuck it and do what youre told. i mean its not slavery-- you dont have to take their money or do what they say if you dont take it. its just business.
oh, and there are some complaints about management and efficiency. so although its at no extra cost to you (your benefactors will even pay the guy for you) theyd like someone to come in to "help out" and make sure that everything is running smoothly and meeting production goals and all that good stuff. so its free, it can only help, and youll even profit right alongside everybody else this way. and the future of the business relationship sort of depends on it, so you go ahead with this.
things do actually improve for a while, so no complaints there. but then you find that some days are just awful. you get sick, they still want you to work. and sometimes youre tired and your "management guy" yells at you a lot, maybe he calls you some terrible things or insults your family. maybe he even says he bets you worked a lot harder before lincoln butted in with his goody-two-shoes proclamation.
so finally you send these people away. you definitely didnt go to the trouble of starting your own farm just to be treated like youre still a slave. technically youre free, there are no chains and you can literally send your management packing and out the door. this is freedom, isnt it?
then the lawyers come, and tell you that the company you were dealing with is suing you for breach of contract, or some other thing of which dozens existed in the agreement you signed. bottom line, they want a significant portion of your farm as a settlment. you dont have enough to fight them, so you settle.
already you were struggling to make ends meet, though without the crops you needed to plant and the amount of land you were relying on to make enough income to pay your taxes, you find that within a year the people who came to help are now purchasing the rest of your farm out from under you. youre free and all-- its just business.
this is the sort of freedom that open source sells. perhaps i ought to take this up with capitalism and thats what some people would get from this story. im not saying theyre wrong, but i cant be sure theyre right either. but regardless, my problem with open source and with free software becoming more like open source all the time, is not that people want to make money.
my problem with open source and free software going in that direction is that people want to take over free software projects and make them less free. and they do it all the fucking time.
where the house negroes (who are now also freed, but they still love their masters more than they love any field negro) come in is they just want everybody to get along (and get back to work).
sure, not everything is great all the time, but lifes not perfect. technically youre free now, so would you mind just picking this bale of...
whether this is freedom or not is almost beside the point. this is not the freedom we were promised, nor is it the freedom we had, when there was less meddling in the guise of "help".
and sadly, even the fsf has taken on the role of house negro-- trying to get everybody to do work and simply get along with their oppressors. but then how can they really be oppressors, if we are actually free?
dont answer that, its a stupid fucking question. but its a question on the lips of so many people these days. its a question im tired of hearing, and the correct answer is "fuck you".
the fsf doesnt understand that answer, and they dont understand the question, and they dont understand the problem.
in short: fuck the fsf. fuck the white house, too. but that doesnt mean i hate the emancipation proclamation. it was a really fucking good idea.
since the emancipation of slaves, we have had a civil rights movement that made incredible progress-- but still leaves many people wanting. the equivalent of this has not yet happened in free software, but it will-- and this is a call for more freedom for everybody, it is not an endorsement of the sort of superficial pandering that has already been weaponised against the free software movement.
we have also had lots of other conflicts in recent years related to civil rights-- those too still leave many people wanting.
the point is that freedom is an ongoing process. you dont get it by saying "look, lincoln freed the slaves!" i mean that was good!
and im not saying all stallman ever did was write the free software definition, promote the gpl, create an operating system and found a movement. that would have been more than enough to get many people into the history books, but its still unfair to say thats all stallman did-- because it isnt true. so my point here has nothing to do with downplaying any of the work this amazing man has done-- or will do.
my problem is with an organisation that cares too little about further emancipation and too much about (contrived, superficial, cynical) unity and the status quo. how much of that is because of the traitors that are still leaving? i dont know. im not sure it matters-- maybe it does.
my problem is that for half a decade, the house negroes have run the show, and they seem to come first in everything while people who want to be able to have their own farm or actually put freedom to the test have a harder time doing so than ever before. not only is that by design-- but the designs are publicly available and the corporate plans to sabotage the designs are also publicly available, and theres clearly no amount of evidence that will convince some people. or it just doesnt bother them. who doesnt want to spend decades building something for freedom just to have it co-opted by a bunch of dicks in neckties, cmon? cool wallpaper for everybody!
the free software movement is losing autonomy and gaining dependency, and the fsf could end up losing the farm-- if they havent already.
but either way, its not our farm. and if we were free, we might be able to do a lot more for ourselves.
without keeping our lips on the arseholes of corporate fucks all day long. but lets be clear about this, not everyone is bothered by the arrangement. so those people are more agreeable, and we can make those people our priority all the time without constantly losing more freedom. or not.
i deeply admire malcolm x, and richard stallman for their insights into both freedom and its miserable, inhumane opposite. worth mentioning also as a major influnce (to myself, to dr. king and gandhi) is henry david thoreau, who may have contributed something to the unix philosophy long before it was created at bell labs. and please note this, mr. stallman-- thoreau wasnt just a minimalist, he was seeking a meaningful kind of freedom. theres a connection between minimalism (or as some people say, "more with less") and unix and freedom that gnu doesnt get. but when it had more of that that sort of quality it didnt necessarily believe in, gnu was doing better overall. like you could build it, for example. without microsoft fucking github.
i realise a lot of people who read this are going to take something the wrong way, or assume something awful that really isnt accurate. i dont care. people who understand it will understand it, people who dont want to will not bother.
some things are important to say but are said at the risk of being taken a different way. but i dont think the answer is to spend your life in fear of some arrogant shithole(s) on a mission to take things as worse than they were intended. people like that need to get a fucking life, and we really need to stop kissing their arses, because theres no fucking appeasing them. this largely refers to ratly... but i will also note that websters dictionary defines the word "mollycoddle" as: "[treating] with an excessive or absurd degree of indulgence and attention". make of that what you will.
peace is nice, i like peace. using trisquel when it wasnt shit, that was peaceful and lovely. but if trying to be free means that other people wont let us have peace, then fuck peace-- create a movement that doesnt put traitors FIRST all the fucking time. seriously, whats that about? oh, sponsors! fucking hell... fuck sponsors, too. ("wayne... what the hell are you doing?")
most importantly though-- stop ignoring people who really want to be free. if you dont, you will lose them to some competing cause, and all youll have left is sponsors and willing serfs, neither of whom know shit about freedom. people who care about freedom the most certainly wont go to open source, thats useless. but you will lose them. i didnt like the bait-and-switch bullshit routine from open source, and people wont stand for the same routine if its the road the fsf decides to stay on. now is a great time for the fsf to get real again, and set a real course. for many reasons, i dont think that will happen. it would still be good, though.