On 16 September 2010 I attended an unusually inspiring political and humanistic movement amid the half-deserted towers of Melbourne's sparsely populated but nature-poor Docklands. (Ed. Some small changes made on 22 Jan 2012 due to mistakes in transcription being picked up by a reader.)
On 16th September 2010 I attended the Free and Open Source Software and Gnu/Linux users' conference. I hadn't had as much fun and political stimulation since an Indymedia day more than a decade previously about making digital movies. The two days had in common their political themes of digital democracy. There was so much to listen to and such great speakers and interactions and I took so many notes that my rendering of and publishing of this article was hopelessly delayed. In the end I concentrated notes from the first talk, on Free and Open Software, by Ben Sturmfels, and have had to give up on the idea of reporting on the equally interesting and stimulating workshops that followed it. Notable among these was one run by Kathy Reid who gave a more prompt report on the Open Day events along with a better account of who was who.
Digital Democracy gives ordinary people global power with local roots
Victorian Free and Open Software (FOSS) and Gnu/Linux Users (Linux Users Victoria - LUV) are in a position to organise politically and all vocal participants on this day (they were a chatty lot) seemed to share an intense social concern and responsibility.
FOSS/LUV et al is a group of people (men mostly) who are keen to reach out and have a lot to offer. Many people would call them 'nerds', and they are endearingly conscious of this, dutifully engaging in group self-consciousness, when they talked about attracting new people.
"How do we get our nerds who dress badly and don't change their shirts or wash to behave in a more socially acceptable way?" " "Can we make rules to say that a person cannot attend a conference two days running in the same shirt?"
Perhaps I am a nerd too, but everyone there struck me as unusually well-socialised, with relatively sophisticated social concerns about preserving community values, freedom etc. and tuned into a bunch of indicators, wondering what they all lead to. And so keen to get involved. JP Sartre would have been very jealous. And, another concern, "How do we attract women to our cause?"
Software Freedom Day is an annual event in Victoria. Every schoolchild and public servant should attend. Last year it was held at the state library in Swanston Street, Melbourne.
Much of the rest of this article is adapted from a talk by Ben Sturmfels, a free software developer who writes computer programs and gets paid to do it. Sturmfels is based in Melbourne. He spoke about software freedom day activism as well as about what free software is.
What is proprietary software?
The proprietary software business model is based around a software developer, whether they're a company or an individual, producing some software and then licensing it under a restrictive license to the person who gets to use it. Those licenses tend to apply restrictions on what you can do with the software. These might be something like, 'You may only be able to use this in an educational setting' or 'You may only use this for 30 days' or you might even be able to use it as long as you don't say anything against the company that wrote it. There are software programs that have license like that.
Other restrictions they tend to place on software are that you may not actually study the code it contains to see what it's doing. You cannot actually see what it's doing under the surface. You are not supposed to look at what it's doing in your computer. You may have no idea of what it's actually doing, whether it's connecting to the internet, or accessing you files or communicating with somewhere else.
That's a little bit worrying because most computers are connected to the internet all the time and we keep everything of importance in our files.
This is not just a concern with regard to personal computers but also for companies and government data bases in departments, services and utilities, including hospitals and traffic lights.
There is another problem with not being able to see what the software does or to look at its code, and that is that you are usually forbidden to modify the software. If the software has a bug in it or doesn't do what you need it to do, you are not allowed to fix it yourself. You need to take it back to the person who made it and get them to fix it. That's fine, as long as that person is still around and wants to fix it and you can afford to pay what they ask.
It's one of those situations where monopolies tend to occur. So you often find that there is only one company that will fix you proprietary item and, if they won't fix it, or you cannot afford to pay them you have to throw it away.
(Ed.An example of this is proprietary movie-editing software on digital movie cameras. You buy the digital camcorder, struggle with compatibility on your proprietary computer, then, just as you become adept at using it, after days spent editing and reediting a movie, it develops a bug, such as losing the sound. You go on-line with the problem and have to register and buy an upgrade that costs a lot and probably won't work with your next camcorder.)
Another restriction of a lot of proprietary software normally are rules on whether you can share it or not. Normally the restriction goes, "You may not share this piece of software with anyone." Essentially what is being said is, "You can use it on you computer, but you can't give a copy to a friend who might like a copy." And you can't donate it to a school or something like that.
So, those are four restrictions that are normally placed on proprietary software.
Proprietary software is also described as 'non-free' software because you don't have the freedom to do these useful things.
What is Free Software?
Let's now contrast 'proprietary software' with 'free software', where the idea behind it is that you can do all of these things.
You can look at the software to see what it's doing. You can use it to do anything you want. You can modify it to suit your needs and you can also share it with other people.
It's probably important to point out that the expression, 'free software' can be confusing because we use 'free' for a number of things, including 'free of charge'. In this case, Ben explains, we mean 'free' as in 'freedom', 'free as a bird'.
Free Software Background
Richard Stallman began a movement. He worked in MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) Artificial Intelligence labs and found he was more and more restricted by the software he used. He had grown up in a software tech culture where sharing was just the way it was. The software didn't come with restrictions on it. Software was just software and if you were a programmer, you could modify it; or you could get someone else to modify it for you if you couldn't do it yourself.
More and more he began to see companies trying on this proprietary business model, trying to restrict what people could do with their software. This was around 1983. He started this project called the GNU project. You may have heard of it. The project was to build a free software operating system. Start from scratch and build it with these free software values built into it - the ability for people to use it for anything - to study or modify it to suit their needs and to share it and to share their modified software.
It took a little while and in 1985 he started a Free Software Foundation as a non-profit group to channel funds into the project and manage its direction.
After a few years they built a whole load of really useful free software, such as compilers and debuggers, terms which may mean little to you if you don't write software. Basically they are little pieces of all the operating system. They built most of the operating system, but they still had one part they needed and that was the kernel that coordinates all the programs your running, that tells them to take things in turn. They found that in the kernel Linux in around 1991.
It's come a long way since then but it's still pretty young in the scheme of things.
The situation we have now is the Gnu system or Gnu/Linux or just as Linux.
Some of the parts in free software are the best that's out there. The fastest, the most reliable, the cheapest often. Often, whilst free software means 'freedom' it's often free of charge as well. It is actually the envy of a lot of software companies now, this free software can be plugged into all kinds of things. For instance your own browser may be free software (e.g. Mozilla) and your on-line telephone. Things like that.
It's all really exciting at the moment. It's really starting to broaden its reach. The other aspect of that though is that, as it becomes more entrenched in the general culture, the values of the system start to be a little more in doubt. Without "Open" days like to day (celebrating the meaning of 'free software'), we tend to somehow lose some of these values.
For instance, some of the problems we see include where free software operating systems originally designed as such, these bugs creep in - the bugs being that they have non-free software elements, including such things as drivers for video cards, and plug-in things for Firefox and things like Adobe flashplayer and things like Skype, the telephony program.
This is kind of unfortunate because you have this free software and then non-free components have been added, actually devaluing the original philosophy of it.
So, that's just about my summary of free software in itself.
I would like to add that it's actually important that we talk about gnu-plus linux o gnu/linux as the name of the operating system, rather than just linux. There are a few reasons for this and some people have different reasons. The thing I think is most important is that the people who write the Linux kernel software don't tend to talk about freedom as an issue. They are actually agnostic to that. If they publicly stated their views, they are not really that concerned about freedom as a general issue.
By adding the word 'gnu' out the front, so GNU+Linux or gnu/Linux, we actually add the philosophy of gnu to this word, when we are spreading it around.
Whilst we are all free to do what we want, please consider using the terms gnu plus linux or gnu slash linux.
Free software Activism
Work on software patents gives one an interest in seeing how these sorts of things happen. One does not tend normally to think about it, but how did the Women's Rights movement happen and how did the Environmental movement happen? These have impacts on what we are trying to do because 'activism' is really just ... it's people wanting to see positive change in the world and actually stepping up and giving it a go. It's interesting to look at some of the techniques people have used to do this and to try to apply that to free software activism.
It is really interesting to see how free software has been promoted in the past and how it has grown because no-one could deny the major success of this system and the free software movement because, from nothing twenty-eight years ago, we now have a fully free operating system, which is just incredible.
The Amazing Richard Stallman
The large corporations take decades to build these sort of things and the community and people stand all over the world and built this operating system. People often criticise the free software movement and people in it such as Richard Stallman, because he is incredibly intelligent and logical, which makes him a fantastic programmer, but people can sometimes find him a little bit abrasive because he's less tolerant of people who don't understand what he's talking about. He doesn't go for the social graces that maybe people are used to often when someone's explaining something that they don't understand. If you've attended one of his talks, people come away feeling really angry and frustrated about this whole thing because it criticised something they in themselves believed and didn't find him to be a ... Well, if you go on line and listen to one of his talks on you-tube, for instance, you may see what I mean. The question time is quite interesting and the short answers for questions. And I think about ... is that the right way to do it? Because you're putting people off who are just interested in learning about the project. And then I think, well, maybe it's not perfect, but it's certainly worked. Like he built this operating system. He's done it in a way that most of these social movements couldn't do. Like most of these social movements are based around changing people first and then changing the world, but, with free software, he's gone and changed the world underneath us all.
He's built this free software operating system. Now the world just has to catch up. That's not to say it's him on his own at all. Certainly not. There are a lot of other people involved.
We are at a point where some of these other movements are really quite interesting. We may be getting to a point where there is an educational phase in free software, because we have this mostly complete free software operating system now.
Ben described how he works as a software developer and in the course of that he does graphics, music and other things. He says that, although free software doesn't do everything and often does some things particularly poorly, it does everything I need. It plays most of the videos I want to watch now. The web and the multimedia sphere has flourished with developments in video formats being released and new browsers coming along. These are really exciting things.
He suggested that We're getting out of "this lock-in with the Adobe flashplayer and things like that," suggesting that Adobe flashplaye was mostly only used for video these days and that hardly anyone would bother using it fo animations now.
He has been using his free operating system every day for all his work and everything else he needs to do on the computer for about five years.
That indicated to him that we have reached a stage where we can use the operating system without much mucking around. He remarked that he had certainly spent quite a lot of his time mucking around with free software in the past, ut he feels now that most of it is so good that these times are now past.
The Ride to School program
Ben talked about the Ride to School Program, which is a group about healthy change for kids, getting them involved in healthy lifestyles, such as walking to school or riding a bike after school, and things like that. He said that this is the kind of the behaviour-change step he felt that the free software community were at.
The free software community are at the point where their activities are focused on bringing the notion of and availability of free software into the minds of the wide community.
A good start to this was open source and free open source software days like this one, where he was speaking.
He remarked on how interesting it is to see the things that people are making in cyberspace these days, such as 'hackerspaces' and 'Arduino' projects. The rise of such things where you can actually do things yourself, without needing to go and buy it from somewhere and use it for its one purpose then throw it away. You can actually make [cyber]things yourself.
It helps the free software movement for people to understand that they can do that with... their phone ... or they can change their little robot... Their mindset changes. They realise that everything isn't set in stone by proprietary software. With twenty years of proprietary software, they've got into this idea that everything is just as it is sold. No, don't touch it or it won't work anymore. And, make sure you get your virus updates from people who supply virus updates and everything will be okay.
The world really has changed beneath us. Education about free software will take a long time. It may be decades before the general populace understand some of these issues, but it's really about just being persistent and that's what activism is about. It's about having a long term view of these things.
Suggestions about activism.
One of the tricky things about free software we find in Australia is that most of the action that we see on the internet and in the news is in the U.S. and it feels a long way away. You can feel quite disconnected, even lonely, in software.
This was one of the reasons that Ben started a group in Melbourne, Australia to talk about free software. He said that they do some political things from time to time, but often it's just hanging around talking about some of these issues because it's actually nice to talk with another human being about it. Reading about it on the internet and watching videos isn't quite the same.
Open days like this one were where it is really at though, for building a community.
It is important to live according to your own values. There are a lot of people trying to push their values on to other people and it is really important that the audience understand that Ben was not telling them, "You must use a free software operating system for your work." That was a conclusion they needed to come in themself if they wished to, to be comfortable in themself. If that is the conclusion you come to, then you probably should go home and use a free software operating system, despite what your brother o your friend might say. You need to do whatever makes you happy. And that applies to everything - not just free software. You need to be confident in your own opinions to be happy.
Speaking at an event like this is the easy route - preaching to the choir.
But the really hard thing is to go and talk to other people where our views might conflict with theirs, but the good thing about having a whole lot of people is that people respond really well to people who they feel are the same as them and have similar opinions. We can each try to educate the people we mix best with, who are likely to trust our opinion.
You do, however sometimes need to step outside your comfort zone and talk to people who may initially disagree. Free software is actually a mindshift because it's just so heavily drummed into people the way proprietary software is. People use emotive words like "piracy" and "hacker" to make non-proprietary software seem really negative. I'm not saying that copyright infringement is a good thing. You should not infringe copyright.
Ben said that it's often really difficult to talk to close family and friends. Let them love you for who you are if they aren't receptive to your interest in open software.
Comments from the 'audience'
The 'audience' is highly participatory in this talk.
One comments that it is important to go and find a community where you can resonate and strengthen yourself.
Another audience member describes how his aunt and his mother were terrified of computers, having had a bad experience with one where their computer was set up in such a way that it took hours to even open their first program, but, at their request, he installed Linux and they were much happier with their system afterwards.
Another member of the audience asks Ben if he thinks in the long run there will be an innate technical advantage to open source software. He talks about how ten years ago Open Office was a little bit clunky, although it had most of the function present, but of course, now, there seems to be no reason whatsoever for a person to use proprietary software like Microsoft Office. He added that the early Gnu-ey interfaces fo Linux were not always very accessible, but today you can introduce complete novices to Linux and they will find that the work involved is actually less than in the proprietary operating system. It made him think that the speed of improvement in opensource software is faster than the speed of improvement in proprietary software. He said that this led him to hypothesize that there is actually a technical inevitability... that there is something in the way that opensource does things that means that you actually cannot lose in the long run.
Another member of the audience responds by saying that this is probably true in relation to specific versions like mysql. He had read a book which suggested the idea might be true.
Ben introduced the idea that an important kind of activism is to donate you own time to promote a cause. Another thing that could be extremely beneficial was if you had a good job and enough money to do the things you need to do, giving financial support to some sort of activism is often one of the best things you can possibly do. There are a lot of people around helping who lack funds to do these sorts of things.
The Free Software Foundation
Ben gave the example of the Free Software Foundation as worthy of peoples' consideration if they were interested in donating money. He said that those assembled heard about them all the time. They had done so many campaigns that free software movement people were aware of and they were in the news and provided speakers who came round the world to talk to people. People might be surprised to hear that there are only have about ten people in their office - a tiny little non-profit group.
He was telling us this to give us an idea of how much they did without very many financial resources.
"One of the best things, if you so chose, would be to become a member and give some money to them. That would actually be very beneficial. Likewise giving money to any other free software project."
Keep positive because we have this fantastic free software operating system out there and we just need to tell people about it.
More remarks from the audience.
Richard Stillman has made people very aware of the fact that all Linuxes are not equally free.
"A lot of social movements like free software are somewhat of a journey. So people might start dabbling in free software and using maybe Ubuntu or something that's very user-friendly and accessible. That's fine. It's good. But it's also good to have people at the other end, like Richard Stallman, who are pushing towards an entirely free software. We need to recognise the value at both ends of the spectrum."
A response it that Richard Stallman's attitude is admirable. He even refuses to use some websites because they contain non-free code.
"I work for an organisation and he wouldn't do the renewal on the website ... It's interesting particularly because he recognises that it asks your computer to download software and run it off your computer...."
"And he says, 'No, I don't want your free software running on my computer..."
"No, no, actually...I admired that!"
"He's certainly consistent!"
Murmurs of approval.
"It's worthwhile pointing out that that's one activism technique. Polarising the debate and saying, 'This is okay. No, this is not okay. And here is the line...."
"He's a great role model."
"But, the phones I've been convinced by some friends to buy, in my pocket. It's not running free software. What do I do. What rights do I have with that software on this device that I supposedly own?
I recently upgraded from a phone that's seven years old - obviously there were no free software operating phones at that time - to an android phone. But, because I see myself moving along that continuum, I'm now running an operating system that's a whole lot more free than it used to be. I'm not there yet, ut so long as I only move forward, I consider that progress."
Another voice: "There are some areas that have an enormous way to go before satisfying free software. The graphics design area is a blatant example because, as somebody studying graphics design, it's virtually impossible to use things like Gimp, things like Photoshop and Adobe products are set in the course as a compulsory tool and the problem with something like Gimp is the Pantone proprietary colouf scheme is just something you've got to have for professional work and there is progress that some people want to see towards an open colour scheme ..."
"That's a separate issue," says someone else. "I think that's ... I don't consider Richard Stallman an extremist. But I believe he has actually missed a political tool. If you are going to expound a philosophy and you say, okay I'm willing to make a concession and that concession you make is essentially, [to say that] yes, the other side does have a valid point. [...]
"You say in 20 or 30 years down the track there's going to be a shift, but I reckon that if there is going to be a fundamental shift, it's going to catch everyone off-guard..."
"I guess that because there is the software out there that the change is already en route. I mean, we are not trying to play catch-up with building the infrastructure. The infrastructure is already there."
"There does need to be more support available so that people can ring up and ask for help with problems. As slowly the business model grows. Not quite viable yet."
"I really appreciated your point that, unlike other social justice movements, we're in the interesting position that we don't have to anymore convince people to build this stuff. There's already a huge amount of people building this stuff, particularly to improve it. So we can say, 'Here's something really useful and here's why it has been built."
"I think I would like to modify [what you have said] a little bit because I think we still need to convince corporations that it's a good idea... and professionals ..."
"Yes, we are no longer in a position where no-one is doing this..."
"Yes, we are trying to move everyone toward it. There's a whole lot of people already there and so, let's go join those people."
"Another thing is that if someone doesn't want to give money another way you can help is get onto mailing lists and answer peoples' questions..."
"Yes, that's extremely helpful."
"I see a lot of people with proprietary software be surprised that the support with free software is actually better than what's available with proprietary software ... people transitioning from having to call Microsoft and realising the forums for open source are actually providing better support in a lot of cases than paid support."
"It's important that non-technical people go out and tell people about the software as well. Because it's not just about developing the software, it's about people knowing it exists out there, to work from the software and knowing how it fits a particular need."
"I think there is scope to promote free software to other people who are interested in the [same] values, like the Environmental Movement and other Social Justice movements as well, cause in many ways it fits quite nicely with the values that people hold with those movements."
"Often they're going to make that jump quite easily."
"Yes. And it is quite an easy jump to make depending on the kind of software that you need to run. Promoting the values as well as the technical stuff. And it also helps to disperse the stereotype of the geeky Linux guy, which I admit I held until I got to know the community better." (Girl linux user speaking)
Editorial comment: We need Open Source Automobile software
Does it exist? Remember when every third male and some females tinkered with their own cars, stripped them down, greased them, replaced parts, tuned them ... all in the back yard? Aside from the fact that backyards are going extinct due to artificially induced population pressure, cars have become so proprietorially automated, that no-one who doesn't have $20,000 of brand-specialised electronic service equipment can fix them. Where we should be maintaining and improving old cars, built to last, we are fast being forced to commute in small automated plastic bubbles with rapid built-in obsolescence that hold us to ransom with their tuning, parts and service because we don't have the right or the equipment to fix them ourselves.
This is an industry and a social situation where opensource software is sorely needed.
Hack Melbourne, an enthusiastic group of hardware hobbyists and/or software programmers in Melbourne, Australia.