Philosophy Tech

Free as in Freedom

[Free as in Freedom (cover)]I started reading the book Free as in Freedom (2002), by Sam Williams last night, based on a tip from The book’s subtitle reads, “Richard Stallman’s Crusade for Free Software”, and the book is a biography of Stallman’s Life.

Stallman is a software-genius-turned-political-activist, responsible for the creation of the GNU Project and the Free Software Foundation. His main tenet is that software should be free: free for the users of the software to use it, understand it, improve it, and share it. The “free” adjective does not refer to the monetary value of the software. It refers to liberty.

In this document, Stallman describes how he arrived at his philosophy:

When I started working at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab in 1971, I became part of a software-sharing community that had existed for many years. Sharing of software was not limited to our particular community; it is as old as computers, just as sharing of recipes is as old as cooking. But we did it more than most.

The AI Lab used a timesharing operating system called ITS (the Incompatible Timesharing System) that the lab’s staff hackers had designed and written in assembler language for the Digital PDP-10, one of the large computers of the era. As a member of this community, an AI lab staff system hacker, my job was to improve this system.

We did not call our software “free software”, because that term did not yet exist; but that is what it was. Whenever people from another university or a company wanted to port and use a program, we gladly let them. If you saw someone using an unfamiliar and interesting program, you could always ask to see the source code, so that you could read it, change it, or cannibalize parts of it to make a new program.

But outside of his lab, a dark practice of Non Disclosure Agreements and proprietary code was beginning. Stallman made the choice to re-create this community of resource sharing by creating the concept of free software, and he has worked towards building a computing environment of free software tools. These are known as the GNU Tools and have culminated in the GNU/Linux Operating System.

The thing that has struck me most about this history of free computing is the following passage from Chapter 4 of the biography:

Members of the tight-knit group called themselves “hackers”. Over time, they extended the “hacker” description to Stallman as well. In the process of doing so, they inculcated Stallman in the ethical traditions of the “hacker ethic”. To be a hacker meant more than just writing programs, Stallman learned. It meant writing the best possible programs. It meant sitting at a terminal for 36 hours straight if that’s what it took to write the best possible programs. Most importantly, it meant having access to the best possible machines and the most useful information at all times. Hackers spoke openly about changing the world through software, and Stallman learned the instinctual hacker disdain for any obstacle that prevented a hacker from fulfilling this noble cause. Chief among these obstacles were poor software, academic bureaucracy, and selfish behavior. [Emphasis mine.]

Changing the world through software. That idea really speaks to me. I guess I never considered it before, but Stallman and his supporters have certainly done that. I’m discovering my heroes, and they’re turning out to be the great hackers.

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