We Need to Save What Made Linux and FOSS Possible

If we take freedom and openness for granted, we'll lose both. That's already happening, and we need to fight back. The question is how.

I am haunted by this passage in a letter we got from reader Alan E. Davis (the full text is in our Letters section):

...the real reason for this letter comes from my realization—in seeking online help—that the Linux Documentation Project is dead, and that the Linuxprinting.org project—now taken over by open printing, I think, is far from functioning well. Linux has been transformed into containers, and embedded systems. These and other such projects were the heart and soul of the Free Software movement, and I do not want for them to be gone!

This is the kind of thing Bradley Kuhn (of the Software Freedom Conservancy) lamented in his talk at Freenode.live last year. So did Kyle Rankin in his talk at the same event (video, slides and later, an LJ article). In an earlier conversation on the same stage (it was a helluva show), Simon Phipps (of the Open Source Initiative) and I had our own lamentations.

We all said it has become too easy to take Linux and FOSS for granted, and the risks of doing that were dire. Some specifics:

  • We collaborate inside proprietary environments, such as Slack and Google Hangouts. Most of the chat and messaging systems in use today are also proprietary and closed. So are most video-conferencing systems and the codecs they use.
  • Many Linux and FOSS geeks today use Linux only professionally. Most of their personal work is on proprietary Apple and Microsoft gear. Many use Windows or macOS boxes in presentations about FOSS topics.
  • We're not modeling our values. Bradley sourced this line from Benjamin Mako Hill: "The use of nonfree tools sends an unacceptable message...'Software freedom is important for you as users', developers seem to say, 'but not for us'. Such behavior undermines the basic effectiveness of the strong ethical commitment at the heart of the free software movement."
  • We've allowed foundational ideas to collapse. We've gone along with complicating the web, no longer respecting the simplicities in HTTP and HTML, which allowed the web to work in the first place. For example, we hardly still design for what Bradley calls "progressive enhancement and graceful degradation". We see this failure in the web development world, which now depends almost utterly on JavaScript, most of which is proprietary and downloaded constantly on the fly to run in browsers.
  • We are also forgetting (or perhaps never learned) how a reciprocal license, such as the GPL, can keep a project alive and a community together. Simon blames SourceForge's failures on a decision to replace its original free (GPL-licensed) software base with a proprietary one. And now, even though we have Git, he says too many of us don't know the difference between Git and GitHub, or that GitHub runs proprietary JavaScript executed in our browsers.

There were signs this was coming in 2002, when I wrote "A Tale of Three Cultures". I'll unpack those a bit:

  • Geeks at the time were busy inventing the world's basic software building materials. They operated in a culture that valued freedom, openness and maximized usefulness to everybody and everything. They also had a strong sense that they were winning the fight for freedom and openness in software development and product design. In geek slang, they said they were at "GandhiCon 3". (The context is a Mohandas Gandhi one-liner: "First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you. Then you win.")
  • Hollywood as a label stood for all that is proprietary about business. I chose that label because the biggest public fight at the time was over copyright, and Hollywood was (and remains) the embodiment of copyright maximalism. Larry Lessig, who with Aaron Swartz and others had recently minted Creative Commons, characterized the fight as Silicon Valley vs. Hollywood, and Northern vs. Southern California.
  • Embedded developers were what I called "purely technical...pre-Net, pre-UNIX and maybe even pre-cultural", with concerns that were "utterly practical". In other words, not about free software, open source or Linux—beyond its utilitarian value. I wrote that after attending the Embedded Systems Conference that Rich Lehrbaum wrote about for Linux Journal, here. (That may be the only surviving record of the conference on the web.)

What I didn't see back then was that Hollywood and embedded would become pretty much the same thing: business as usual. That happened because it was too easy for too many developers to build proprietary and closed stuff, heads down, in utterly practical ways, usually for what amounted to embedded purposes, on top of Linux and FOSS foundations, with little respect for the virtues embodied in those foundations. And by now, we've built a lot of it. One might even argue that most of the Linux deployed in the world today is embedded inside proprietary and closed devices.

So the question is What should we do now?

From my notes, here are some things Bradley, Kyle, Simon and others said at Freenode.live. It's not all verbatim, but close enough:

  • "Having real-time chat is absolutely essential to the advancement of free software."
  • "We're the resistance now." "We need to create mass movement."
  • "Volunteer to write free and open code, to participate in communities."
  • "If you didn't live the history, learn from those who did."
  • "If you did learn from history, teach those who need to know it. Respectfully."
  • "Be patient. Remember that the tortoise won not only because it was patient, but because it ignored insult, ridicule and dismissal."
  • "Model your values. Use free software and hardware."
  • "Remember always how 'the rights to copy, share, modify, redistribute and improve software' are fundamental rights that matter to people."
  • "Work to convince developers that their software freedom matters."

That's all necessary, but not sufficient. We need something more. Something big.

I suggest we pick a fight. Because fights raise emotions and have goals.

I just ran a playoff between many different fights on many tabs in a browser. The winner—the last tab standing—is "The Era of General Purpose Computers Is Ending", by Michael Feldman in The Next Platform website. It's a sad bookend to the history of a losing fight that Cory Doctorow forecast in 2011 with "Lockdown: the coming war on general-purpose computing" and a year later in "The Coming Civil War over General Purpose Computing". Read all three.

I chose general-purpose computing as the winning fight—the one most worth having—because we wouldn't have Linux, free software or open source today if there weren't general-purpose computers to develop and use them on. General-purpose computing is the goose that laid all our golden eggs. The fight is to keep it alive.

Doc Searls is editor-in-chief of Linux Journal, where he has been on the masthead since 1996. He is also co-author of The Cluetrain Manifesto (Basic Books, 2000, 2010), author of The Intention Economy: When Customers Take Charge (Harvard Business Review Press, 2012), a fellow of the Center for Information Technology & Society (CITS) at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and an alumnus fellow of the Berkman Klien Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. He continues to run ProjectVRM, which he launched at the BKC in 2006, and is a co-founder and board member of its nonprofit spinoff, Customer Commons. Contact Doc through ljeditor@linuxjournal.com.

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