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Tech Anarchist: Richard Stallman

‘dja ever pick a name out of the blue and google it just to see what the person’s story is and if they know any of the people you know? Me neither. But I did pick a fairly not unusual name out of the blue for a character in a story and then google it to see who owned it to make sure my fake person would never be confused with the real one. That sort of thing might put all kinds of intention and meaning into a story that isn’t actually there and should be avoided.

The name I chose for my character was Richard Stallman. Ooh boy. Hit the mother lode with this one: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Stallman.

The real Richard Stallman is one interesting character and I don’t mean as a protagonist in a story. I mean in real life where it’s not easy to be interesting. Wikipedia calls him an American software freedom activist. He’s spent much of his life promoting the idea of free software. He’s as opposite Bill Gates as you can get.

More specifically he believes software should be open source. Stallman objects to the term “open source.” What he believes software should be is “free software.” The differences are too subtle for my pea brain to fathom so I’ll be using the terms interchangeably here. My sincere apologies to Dr. Stallman.

But what does free software or open source mean for me and the Greeks? Basically if the software we bought or downloaded was the open source type we’d be able to muck around in the code, altering it to meet our own personal needs. Imagine custom designed software that’s actually designed by the customer.

On the one hand, licensing intellectual property (Stallman disagrees with the way we use that terminology as well by the way: http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/not-ipr.html) creates an economic incentive to develop software for the common man, resulting in the creation of such things as MicrosoftNation. As much as I hate MicrosoftNation,* its existence might be a good thing. Development and marketing of Windows led to millions of users getting on board with personal computers. Once the market exploded so did the economic viability of developing user-friendly email applications and Internet browsers which promoted the development of the Internet we all know and love today.

Most people have no problem with a world run by Microsoft and its proprietary rules. We’re not interested in altering our software. We don’t sew our own cloths, some of us don’t even do our own laundry. Why would we create our own software? I’ll tell you why. First off, yes, you don’t need to sew your own clothes, but you should at least take your store bought clothes to a tailor and have them adjusted to fit you. The reason most people dress like crap these days is because we follow the one size fits all model. Way back when there was no such thing as store bought clothing. Your clothes came from the someone who made them. Often the someone was a professional such as a seamstress or a tailor. These people still exist and for a nominal fee you can bring your clothing to them and have them resized to fit you.

Why would you do that? Why would you pay more money to look good as opposed to looking like a slob? If you have to ask, don’t bother reading the rest of this post.

The answer is: because you want to look good as opposed to looking like a slob. Clothing from the racks fits no one, even beautiful models, or maybe especially those Amazonian barfaholics.  The clothes don’t fit the models, nor do they fit you and me. The difference is the models have them tailored to fit them. Unfortunately we don’t, so we end up looking like slobs. If that’s your style, right on. But I’d rather buy fewer clothes and spend the money on getting what I do buy reshaped to fit my unique body.

That’s how I feel about software. Maybe you don’t need it to do anything other than what you bought it for. Heck, most of the software I buy does way more than what I need it for anyway. But once in a while don’t you wish you could muck around in the internals of an application? Like for instance to make it read files from upgraded versions you don’t want to upgrade to. Most people don’t realize that the snazzy new versions of app files aren’t always backwards compatible. When they share their files with others they force them to upgrade their software or use some other product that can open the files. These other products don’t give a rat’s backside for the wonderfulness of the originating software’s bells and whistles. It gets reformatted to glop. And that’s cool if you don’t mind looking like a slob. Right on.

Which brings us back to Microsoft and open sourcery. I whined and moaned about docx a year or so ago when I talked about openoffice, the open source application that can be used instead of Microsoft office products which are highly proprietary and ubiquitous as far as the civilians of MicrosoftNation are concerned. Why should I have to buy an upgraded version of Word because I get files from people who have bought the new version? Why should anybody? Why does Microsoft have to make sure we keep buying our upgrades? Because they’ll be poor if we don’t? How much money does Bill Gates need? I know a number of people that work or have worked for Microsoft. They all make, or made, extremely good money compared to the rest of my friends (Can you spell retirement in your thirties?). Are they going to starve? Is there truly a software developer out there that will be on the verge of poverty because we don’t buy the new Microsoft office every other year?

Richard Stallman is interesting because he’s a software developer just like Bill Gates. He’s just as smart and understands the subtleties of programming just as well as Gates. But he’s chosen a different lifestyle straight out of the annals of free love. He’s a bit of a crank, too. Gates might be one as well, but I don’t know because I haven’t googled his name to find out what he’s about. I imagine you won’t find the real Gates on the Internet like you find the real Stallman anyway. Gates is too much in the public eye, he’s too wealthy, and he’s pissed off too many people, some of whom are powerful and others who may be just plain angry about the upgrade problem. It’s best for Gates to not disclose many details about his life.  But that makes sense. Gates is all about keeping things close to the vest, Stallman is all about making everything transparent.

More interesting facts about Stallman: he’s a member of the Green Party. He’s a political activist in addition to this activism with the free software movement. He speaks a number of languages (I don’t mean Cobol and C++). He likes folk dancing. He’s a fan of science fiction. He’s written science fiction.

He’s a well rounded character. Bill Gates may be as well, but we don’t know, do we? His life is not open source.

Sue Lange

P.S. This is my last post for a while at this blog. I’m moving over to the Book View Café blog where I’ll be spouting off on the subject of Weird and Wonderful, which, by the way, Richard Stallman would be a worthy subject for.  I may be back once in a while with more opinion on technology and culture at Singularity Watch so keep an eye out.

And for heavens’s sake, hang in there!

Sue Lange

Sue Lange’s, novella of the Singularity, is available via Book View Café as an ebook in whatever format your little heart desires: http://www.bookviewcafe.com/index.php/Sue-Lange/Novellas/Novelettes/. If you’re a Kindle owner, get it at Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/We-Robots-novella-Singularity-ebook/dp/B003D7K0PC/.

* MicrosoftNation is not an actual entity and it is not a reference to Microsoft itself. It refers to the fact that 85 to 90% of personal computers run on Windows, which leads most people to believe that everyone’s computer runs on Windows when in fact everyone’s computer does not run on Windows. I could go on and on about why that is a problem, but I’ll leave that for another blog post.

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3 thoughts on “Tech Anarchist: Richard Stallman

  1. Free software is an ‘ideology’ above everything. Issues like user-friendliness hardly matter. I know men who have stuck to the free software movement since 1996. There was no or little GUI back then, still these men ‘believed’ in their ideology- the ideology of empowering the masses in the digital world. One document that makes all the difference between free software and open source is the GPL. I recommend every young software engineer to read this.

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