everything wrong with free software
"obedience breeds foolishness"
*originally posted:* aug 2021
the title is neither clickbait nor what you probably assume it means, its quite true but there are so many different things it could mean.
lets start with what it doesnt mean:
* a lot of the time when i talk about a problem, im talking about bad people and/or people doing bad things. but thats not always the goal, and it isnt this time.
* im definitely not saying its a bad thing to be a stallman follower. im in favour of people treating stallman as a teacher, leader, visionary and pioneer-- including in the present tense.
* i dont think its (at all) a waste to create a "stallman project" (or a few) to protect and defend his legacy, as many people try to attack free software by attacking stallman. the fact that people devote themselves to such a project is a good thing and ive been broadly supportive of it.
basically all of the defences of stallmans character are reasonable and/or beneficial in my opinion. hes a great person. so whats the problem?
stallman is well known for having an exceptional track record for being right. i admire this track record too, as it demonstrates his value as both a teacher and a futurist. whether or not stallman considers himself a futurist, he has made too many worthwhile predictions to dismiss him.
and therein lies the problem-- not that hes right so often, but that it makes it very difficult for people to question anything he says. technically, they may do so. but thats not the pattern im writing to highlight.
its nearly impossible to highlight any problem in the free software community. it doesnt help that open source has spent years insinuating all kinds of corporate bullshit into the free software discussion, making supporters of free software more defensive. theres no way this was not deliberate (there are too many memos that make it clear this was a war) but the willingness of the movement to admit mistakes is close to zero.
if stallmans position on something is not strong enough (or he doesnt bother to repeat it anymore) the willingness of movement to say "this is insufficient" is even closer to zero. wherever stallman is (and is not) willing to be a "pope" of free software, he is treated too much as being infallible. it takes an unusually strong advocate to stand up and say "some of us are going to do this differently, because its necessary". i dont mean gnu.fools-- what theyre doing is neither honest, nor necessary.
free software tries very, very hard not to make mistakes in the first place. and that of course, is very admirable.
but then what? if then free software does make a mistake, it is well-trained in saying the problem isnt real. (note i do blame open source for this in part, but only free software can fix this).
ive seen many real problems, undeniable problems, and free software advocates seem to pooh-pooh every one of them. no amount of explaining seems to help, often the answer is something along the lines of "ive never seen anything like that" or "it isnt like that at all". and no amount of evidence...
of course its necessary, theyll tell me, to fight for free software. but its always to fight non-free software itself. if non-free software companies take over free software, they act like that isnt a real problem. if free software gains anti-features that hurt the user, the whole point (stallman DID say this in a recent speech, but you find echos of this nowhere) of free software is for people who CAN write it to do so for those who dont.
nowhere in free software does it say that everyone has to write free software (only that if they write software, it should be free) and of course i agree with this too-- i think everybody should LEARN how to code, but i know not everybody is going to make free software tools (or any software tools) because im more realistic than that. it isnt even the (only) point of learning.
so we have already established that some people are going to write software and some are not. there is agreement there. and we have established that software that is written should be free. there is agreement there as well. but when it comes to liberating the user, when it comes to undoing what is done with the express intent of taking over free software on behalf of corporations-- MOST ADVOCATES and stallman followers dont seem to get it at all.
ive long noted exceptions to this, of course. if there were no exceptions there would be no real point. SOME advocates (including very pro-stallman ones, because the person who claims to support free software but throws stallman under the bus is either clueless, or dishonest) really are out to liberate the user. but they are a niche within the broader community. and i cant figure out why.
unless of course, their advocacy is relatively shallow. i dont mean they lack passion, because they are certainly passionate about the trappings of free software, as well as the established order (the known, most common rules) of free software. you cant deny them that. but anything which takes advantage of, exploits, or works around those rules? its not just that they are unaware, they are in denial and defend free software from reasonable criticism. (defending free software from UN-reasonable criticism is a time honoured tradition, which ive participated in countless times).
i dont know what its going to take for them to understand, but i wish at least they would look at their own people (the ones established as insiders in the movement) who are taken the extra (and necessary) steps to defend users-- because there arent nearly enough of those.
free software doesnt merely need more advocates, it also needs better advocates. and it needs advocates who look ahead-- not ones who simply act like a decades-old organisation that refuses to do anything except more of the same, when new threats and new problems present themselves, for free software to face and do something about.
this is the problem with most of stallmans followers. and just for comparison, if this mainstream portion of the free software moevment is merely misguided, then open source is cynical; if free software has gotten cynical, or too sure of itself, then open source is corrupt. by no means is "open source" the solution (it is the problem). and still i see a lot of people talking about funding, about things that open source has always made too much of (letting funding concerns take over others is one of the routes open source has used to attack free software, regardless of very practical concerns about things like running servers and keeping the lights on) but what i DONT see is much concern about (ANY) problems that affect user freedom directly.
whats even funnier about this, is that if you are a free software user, theres nothing you can say them about this. if you are a free software developer, there is nothing you can say to them about this.
free software advocates when it wants to. when users self-advocate, free software is a FUCK-awful listener. and open source is not better, because open source is a flat-out liar. you basically have awful listeners, bad liars, and self-advocates who will never be heard.
thats free software, and you cant knock its successes-- we have a lot to be grateful for. but gratitude will not fix problems, and neither will most free software advocates who deny that these problems exist.
thats the part which ought to change, but until then free software will always flounder.
if youre telling people "let us fight for you" and then people say to them "PLEASE FIGHT FOR US" and they say "theres no problem!" what the fuck even is that?
all free software has to do is look at its best people (cerrtainly including, but not only stallman of course)-- and they dont even need to put them in charge. they just need to figure out why theyre they best... and then just try to be more like them. not because its a competition, but because freedom is NOT a fucking game. freedom matters. and people who respond to that with "wha??" year after year, its unfortunate. ive personally been given the runaround for years with these people. most would give up! and then open source lures them away with lies about "dont worry, we will fix ALL OF THAT" and then later they go "HA HA HA HA! JUST KIDDING, ITS JUST CORPORATE BULLSHIT! SUCKER!!!!!!!!!!" if free software hadnt given up advocating for these users the moment they met, we might have kept them on our side.
i have yet to see much of a plan for this to get fixed. but more money? why not? that always solves everything. how about money, and another good hard look at the problem? or money, and learning how to hear users? money, and actually fighting for freedom? that sounds like a nice combination. but just money? heck, i think non-free software already solved that problem. is that all youve got?