You know what they say about coming face to face with your heroes. It’s all true; at least in this case.
As a die-hard ultra-liberal by persuasion and a software engineer by trade, it stands to reason that my ideologies lie somewhere in the free software movement. Imagine my delight when I discovered that none other than the movement’s founder, Dr Richard Stallman, was coming to give a lecture to the people of Leeds.
Dr Stallman’s lecture title was “For a Free Digital Society” and the subject matter was about protecting our freedom in a world where things like surveillance and restrictions on ownership of content are easy for governments and megacorps to implement. Great: so far, so good. Those are things I’m worried about too and I’m looking forward to some solutions…
Except what comes out of Dr Stallman’s mouth doesn’t sound like well-reasoned answers to difficult political questions. It sounds like opinionated, poorly-researched, accusatory diatribe.
He begins by convincing us he’s a member of the tinfoil hat brigade (I don’t have a cellular phone because they’re tracking me!) He’s right, of course, but his argument comes across simply as “freedom beats convenience in all cases” with no room for manoeuvrability. One wonders how he got to the UK to deliver this lecture without first giving his fingerprints to the US government in exchange for a passport.
He goes on to attack those of us who make a living from commercial software or SaaS platforms, saying our employers are pure evil and working for them is unethical. His solution to how people should continue making a living is “almost all software development is for individual customers so work for a company that does this.”
I personally believe in software freedom and I’m aware of the questionable practices of commercial software developers but I see my job as a necessary evil in the pre-free world we live in and I like to think I’m making a difference from the inside.
I also respect the rights of other people to hold opposing economic views to me without resorting to tarring them all with the same brush; something Dr Stallman has no trouble doing.
Later, he concludes that, since the music publishing industry is corrupt and restricting freedom, everyone should start breaking their country’s copyright laws instead of challenging them democratically.
The really frustrating thing about all this is that I concur with most, if not all, of Dr Stallman’s fears about restriction of freedom — having read sensible reasoned arguments in the past — but a whole cross-section of his audience (I discover from talking to them afterwards) had not done so and left the lecture completely jaded by the ideas due to Dr Stallman’s “Batshit Messiah” persona.
Dr Stallman is not representative of the movement he created, thankfully, and I’d encourage anyone who attended his lecture to take the time to read more reasonable literature on the subject by the FSF and also wider-reaching groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Liberty.