everything wrong with free software
"free as in speech"
*originally posted:* sep 2022
before we muck up our not-quite-pristine software platform with more projects, it would be wise to talk about why this is done only with some trepidation.
the projects most relevant to the next chapter are desktop environments or des, window managers or wms and toolkits or libraries. the choices we make there decide what kind of crappy developer politics we end up saddled with.
of all the laughable farces in the world, one of the greatest is that you can separate a project from "politics". as someone said a couple years ago, politics enter the equation the moment youre talking about free software. this idea of any project being "apolitical" is itself a political stance. it means that certain kinds of politics (not just the party/electoral variety either) are discouraged or forbidden in a project. a project that claims to have no politics will most likely find them introduced from somewhere, more likely than not from corporate sponsors who gain from undermining the project and its goals.
it does no good to be naive about this. people in "open source" assume (or pretend) that once sponsors have a horse in the race, that this can only be good for the project. history does not support this optimism, either in the trajectory of projects that are taken over by corporations or the fate of industry competitors purchased outright by bigger corporate fish. it is commonplace for monopolies to purchase a competing product with the aim of milking it for a few years, then killing it off. audacity and red hat (and especially fedora) are examples worth further exploration. in the future (even now) you can add the linux kernel, libreoffice and mozilla.
even if they dont kill off the project, it will more likely get worse (for freedom) than better. examples of this include the internet archive, debian and android, which was not originally made by google.
one of the most famous scams to avoid the subject of "politics" is open source. open source was created to talk about / sell / exploit free software, without mentioning either freedom or organisations that work for it-- in other words, to make free software indifferent to the forces that would neutralise it. open source is the pseudo-apolitical, "dont mention the war" corporate-friendly sell-out version of the free software movement-- so much so, that its flagship organisations own co-founder bruce perens resigned after just a year of open source selling out the movement it hijacked.
pretending to be apolitical is an industry unto itself, and industry loves to say that political discussions are forbidden, because if they werent you could call them on their own political atrocities (including, but not limited to literal war crimes).
once again, this is not just about politics tangential to free software itself. discuss open source for long enough, or discuss the ethical implications of software within an open source project for long enough, and someone will mention that political discussions are either "divisive" or a "waste of time"-- basically to "shut up and (dont say anything unless you) code". (but even if you do-- shut up and get back to coding, you fucking serf!)
you will reasonably expect the next chapter to be about graphics. but this book is about user freedom, and the next chapter is about graphics from the perspective of user freedom. some people will say "just choose your graphics layers based on their technical aspects". if you do that, you could end up with lock-in as well as the exploitation of users and developers. maybe thats great for you, but its exactly what this book exists to discourage as much as possible.
because so many free software projects are actually open source projects, and because these projects eschew "politics" and ultimately sell out their own users (along with developers who arent on board with the changes), it is absolutely necessary to examine the open source initiative as the archetypal example of this political bait-and-switch routine.
lets start with bruce perens-- i like to start with perens, because i believe he is (at the very least, was) the most sincere person in open source. perens and eric s. raymond founded the open source initiative in 1998-- more than a decade after the free software foundation was started.
it doesnt bother me that the fsf doesnt have a real monopoly on promoting free software, nor did it bother perens. he is the author of the debian free software guidelines, or dfsg. i happen to like the dfsg, even though ive lost all allegiance to debian. of important note is that the dfsg was the basis for the open source definition (osd) itself. thats how integral bruce perens is to open source.
eric s. raymond, i believe-- made open source what it is today. i dont think its accurate or fair to say he alone was responsible for the state open source is in. he may have made the decisions that led us to where we are now. he absolutely did not act alone.
the paradox of esr is that he was very vocally anti-microsoft (microsoft is not a company, it is a cult and empire-- so for a moment, it may help to think of esr as anti-empire. though whether he really is would only be a guess) to the point of publishing the "halloween documents" on the osi website. from there, things get weird.
esr still hosts the halloween documents on his own website. these are based on memos leaked from microsoft (verified authentic) regarding their practices towards competitors. they prove that microsoft considers free software a competitor, that they intend to fight, thwart and if possible exploit it, and some of the overall methodology they might use to accomplish this.
raymonds comments were hardly sympathetic to them, though today microsoft has very arguably done to osi exactly what the halloween documents said they would do to free software and open source. raymond doesnt seem to be bothered about it.
for years ive tried to figure out the paradox of letting microsoft do to his own organisation exactly what he condemned them for, and i have still only come up with two possible conclusions-- one is that he lied about his true feelings originally (i doubt this, it is also less charitable than my other guess) and the other is that hes too proud to appreciate and admit the irony-- i think this one is probably on the money.
the farce of open source is this elaborate footwork around the idea that you can actually fight corporate hegemony without ever really talking about corporate hegemony. just wave your hands about "practical development methodology" and youll somehow hoodwink the empire into doing the bidding of the tech world peasantry! i dont picture raymond rubbing his hands conspiratorially and cackling so much as i imagine him thinking he could pull this off, cocky (and delusional) shit that he is.
at any rate, open source acts like free software is a "cathedral" full of sacred cows, while open source is (or pretends to be) very laid back, invisible-hand-like, replacing all "wasted time" concerns about freedom with de facto freedom itself. raymond is clearly VERY political himself, he simply thought free software should be like he says (and not like he does).
as it will become crucial to explain, the effect of all this dancing around truth and reality was to transform a volunteer force primed to bring freedom to users; today they are cheap labour for an industry that exploits everyone in it-- all the way to the very top of open source itself. microsoft and osi are both corporate cults, and osi promotes an ideal that you can somehow beat the cult if you worship just the right way-- turning the cult against itself. yeah, good luck with that.
while open source points and laughs at the sentimentality of free software and treats it as pompous, naive and even hateful, its worship of industry monopolies is revealed by the complete lack of a sense of humour about people mocking the empire. for all of free softwares alleged sacred cows, nothing is more sacred or hallowed to open source today than the empire itself. throw the smallest stone you can find at one of the corporations under their protection, and the "morals" and politics of osi will be revealed not only to peons like you and me, but even to linus torvalds and eric s. raymond.
in the open source cult, mocking the empire they originally exposed (osi no longer hosts the halloween documents, instead their board of directors have played host to microsoft themselves) is precisely the problem, and being "constructive" (pretending to not have any political qualms with microsofts actions against users, while pretending you can reform them with a "better design methodology") is the real answer.
unfortunately, this systemic and philosophical failure is not limited to osi, but is likely to play out in every project (as it has with too many) that caters to open source over free software. one of these is a movement; the other is a conceit.
license: 0-clause bsd
# 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021, 2022
# Permission to use, copy, modify, and/or distribute this software for any
# purpose with or without fee is hereby granted.
# THE SOFTWARE IS PROVIDED "AS IS" AND THE AUTHOR DISCLAIMS ALL WARRANTIES
# WITH REGARD TO THIS SOFTWARE INCLUDING ALL IMPLIED WARRANTIES OF
# MERCHANTABILITY AND FITNESS. IN NO EVENT SHALL THE AUTHOR BE LIABLE FOR
# ANY SPECIAL, DIRECT, INDIRECT, OR CONSEQUENTIAL DAMAGES OR ANY DAMAGES
# WHATSOEVER RESULTING FROM LOSS OF USE, DATA OR PROFITS, WHETHER IN AN
# ACTION OF CONTRACT, NEGLIGENCE OR OTHER TORTIOUS ACTION, ARISING OUT OF
# OR IN CONNECTION WITH THE USE OR PERFORMANCE OF THIS SOFTWARE.