When it comes to the social impact of technology, there are few people quite as passionate about the subject as Dr Richard Stallman. As founder of the Free Software Foundation, Stallman has for at least the last three decades been the most prominent advocate for 'free software'.[acp footnote]Stallman is also the creator of the GNU project and operating system, which today makes up a key part of what is commonly referred to as 'Linux' software. He stresses that it should be called GNU/Linux for greater accuracy.[/acp] As he reminds us throughout his book, the 'free' in free software refers to freedom rather than any monetary value. He defines the four key characteristics of free software as follows:
A program is free software if the program's users have the four essential freedoms:
The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).
The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others (freedom 3). By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.[acp footnote]?What Is Free Software? - GNU Project - Free Software Foundation?, accessed 24 August 2013, https://www.gnu.org/philosophy/free-sw.html.[/acp]
Understanding the above is crucial, for it serves as the foundation of Stallman's approach to software and society. The latter in particular is what sets Stallman apart from many others, for he believes that the free software ideal is a social movement that must be fought for at every turn.
The antisocial spirit feeds on itself, because the more we see that other people will not help us, the more it seems futile to help them. Thus society decays into a jungle.[acp footnote]Richard M. Stallman, Free Software, Free Society: Selected Essays of Richard M. Stallman, 2nd ed. (Boston, MA USA: GNU Press, 2002), http://www.gnu.org/doc/fsfs-ii-2.pdf, 56.[/acp]
Reading his thoughts on the subject, one finds an often uncompromising and idealistic attitude that sees the fight for free software as an ongoing battle for human liberty.
As a programmer himself, Stallman shares with us his own early experiences at MIT and how restrictive proprietary software helped to shape his views:
Later Xerox gave the AI Lab a newer, faster printer, one of the first laser printers. It was driven by proprietary software that ran in a separate dedicated computer, so we couldn?t add any of our favorite features. We could arrange to send a notification when a print job was sent to the dedicated computer, but not when the job was actually printed (and the delay was usually considerable). There was no way to find out when the job was actually printed; you could only guess. And no one was informed when there was a paper jam, so the printer often went for an hour without being fixed.
The system programmers at the AI Lab were capable of fixing such problems, probably as capable as the original authors of the program. Xerox was uninterested in fixing them, and chose to prevent us, so we were forced to accept the problems. They were never fixed.[acp footnote]Stallman, Free Software, Free Society, 49.[/acp]
Later interesting essays touch on the importance of free software in schools, why science must push copyright aside, the problems with DRM and why he prefers the term 'free software' instead of 'open source'.
As well as arguing for the many benefits of free software in all of these areas, he suggests that the use of offering discounted proprietary software to schools is a strategy to get users hooked on such software from an early age.
What schools should refuse to do is teach dependence. Those corporations offer free samples to schools for the same reason tobacco companies distribute free cigarettes to minors: to get children addicted. They will not give discounts to these students once they?ve grown up and graduated.[acp footnote]Stallman, Free Software, Free Society, 57.[/acp]
Though companies such as Microsoft, Apple and Google would no doubt vehemently oppose being compared to tobacco companies, there is little doubt that the software that we use from an early age is that which we are most likely to keep on using into adulthood.
He frequently also touches on the security implications of using proprietary hardware and software. Since such technology takes control out of the hands of the user and uses hidden code, we can never be certain of what it is doing without our knowledge - whether this be tracking or using back-doors for malicious intent. All such users effectively have to place blind faith in the provider and be willing to cede control.
As well as discussing the importance of copyleft licenses, His essays touch on other critical aspects of technology, arguing for instance that current patent laws make it far too easy for vague software patents to be approved.[acp footnote]?What Is Copyleft? - GNU Project - Free Software Foundation?, accessed 24 August 2013, https://www.gnu.org/copyleft/.[/acp] Such bad patents seemingly approved by people with little understanding of the technology then in turn stifle software development and technological progress.
The increasing use of SaaS (software as a service) also comes in for heavy criticism, with Stallman arguing that this is even worse than proprietary software executed on a user's own computer, since all activity is taking place on and under the control of someone else's server.
Stallman's strongest critics might no doubt dismiss his views as the ramblings of a techno-hippie, but to do so would be grossly unfair. Whether you are a passionate believer in free or proprietary software, Stallman's well articulated views as a technology philosopher deserve attention. While one might disagree with him on the size of technology's wider social impact- that there is an an effect would be hard to argue against.
As technology continues to creep further and further into every corner of our lives, essentially becoming a mainstay of our identity, it would not be too much of a stretch to argue that its characteristics will in turn shape the future society and identity that we ultimately end up with.
Regular and signed physical copies of Free Software Free Society can be purchased from the Free Software Foundation's online shop, with a free PDF also available.[acp footnote]Kindle copies for the Amazon "Swindle" (as Stallman calls it) are unavailable due to his opposition against its DRM technology.[/acp]
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