Opinion: Ask Not What Linux Can Do for You
May 18, 2009
Linux maven Carla Schroder reminds us of the core values behind Free Software.
Thanks to Canonical and its success with popularizing Ubuntu Linux, there has been an astonishing influx of new Linux users. This is one of those good news -- bad news scenarios; the growth is wonderful, but it also brings a growth in user demands, and a carryover of bad habits from the closed, proprietary software world. The core values of Free Software, which is not the same as Open Source software, are Richard Stallman's famous Four Freedoms:
- The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).
- The freedom to study how the program works, and adapt it to your needs (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 improve the program, and release your improvements to the public, so that the whole community benefits (freedom 3). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
Contrast that with Free Software. By its nature Free Software is ethical: it is completely open, nothing is hidden, there are no sneaky backdoors, spyware, rootkits, or any of the other vile crimes-that-are-not-punished perpetrated by commercial software vendors. Nobody goes to jail for exposing flaws or talking about how the technology works. There are no EULAs or NDAs. There is little closed-door plotting; most discussions are out in the open for anyone to see, or even participate in. That is why people like me get so impatient with the demands to make Linux more friendly to closed-source proprietary software-- it is fundamentally opposed to what Free Software is all about. It's like saying that a little toxic waste in the water is OK, a little more air pollution isn't a problem because it's 90% pure, and only zealots and purists want 100%.
So, what?So what does this mean at a pragmatic level? First of all, it means understanding the different between "pragmatic" and "expedient." "Pragmatic" is defined as "concerned with practical consequences". Free Software is completely pragmatic because it is based on a thorough understanding of consequences. "Expedient" is defined as "immediately advantageous without regard for ethics or consistent principle." Expedience drives poor decisions such as buying hardware without first researching how well it is supported in Linux, and then complaining about how it won't work and Linux sucks. Expedience is renewing an agreement with a proprietary software vendor who treats customers like dirt, because researching the alternatives requires a bit of effort. Expedience is jumping on the "Linux is cool and free" bandwagon without having any idea of what it's about, and then getting mad when it's different from Mac and Windows.
Linux and Free Software make some demands on users. We are expected to build some skills and acquire some knowledge, and participate in the community because taking without giving is not ethical. A growing user community should mean a growing pool of contributors, rather than a growing number of demands and complaints.
What do you get in return? More control of your own computing infrastructure, knowledge, being part of something that matters, and for me the best part is that "I built something worthwhile today" feeling.LinuxPlanet.