free as in freedom

Posted by anya on February 7th, 2009 filed in Uncategorized

Yesterday, Kelly and I went to hear Richard Stallman speak. Stallman was one of the main guys behind the GNU, which came together with the Linux kernel to produce the world’s first free operating system. He has an interesting philosophy behind his technological pursuits, and argues that the only ethically permissible thing for people to do is to use technology that is free (‘free’, importantly, is not synonymous with open source). Freedom is defined in four ways:
1. Freedom to run a program as you wish
2. Freedom to modify a program
3. Freedom to copy and distribute modified versions of the program
4. Freedom to contribute to your community
So this, by extension, means the rejection of any proprietary software and gets into gray areas when it comes to certain software-as-service applications. It was interesting to listen to someone who had a particular understanding of ethics when it comes to technology, and specifically in relation to operating systems. Within Stallman’s talk, though, there were several inconsistencies, and although I think it would take a much more thorough understanding of the man’s philosophy to adequately critique it, I’ll just share some thoughts that came out of attending the talk:

It is interesting to employ a discourse of freedom when talking about technology. It is unclear, for example, why Stallman sees freedom from proprietary software as more important than freedom from, for example, print materials that are under copyright. To me, technology is but one medium, albeit one that is becoming more and more significant in the globalization of production. But again, even if Penguin Group were running GNU/Linux on its computers would not make its products any more ‘free’. I’m not sure whether using a free operating system is consistent with Stallman’s admitted support of business.

And does it matter for what purposes end products developed with free technology are used? For example, in the highly improbably circumstance that an arms manufacturer makes all of its technology free, does our relationship with that company change? If using free technology leads to the explicit and intended destruction of resources and people, does it matter? I guess this is a general ends vs. means question. If Stallman values so highly the ethical component of free technology, then he should potentially also think about the ethics behind what this technology is used for. This, however, is a much harder task, with lots of room for dispute. In fact, he criticizes open-source projects because their goal is to produce powerful, reliable, software (and is, in his view, lacking the ethical commitment to freedom; open source values the four freedoms only insofar that they lead to the end goal.) But he is much less willing to be critical of businesses that will likely only use free technology as a means to an end.

I also though about this in relation to political theorist Thoman Hobbes, who said that we all enter into an implicit contract with the state. In this contract, some of our rights are taken away in order to guarantee against, well, anarchy. So maybe when we buy a product we implicitly enter into a contract with the manufacturer that takes away certain rights to modify and distribute the product. In the same way that we cannot have absolute freedom in a state system, perhaps we cannot have absolute freedom in a system that allows private business to exist.

Andre recently wrote an insightful blog post about open-source software and usability. I think that this applies to Stallman’s talk somewhat, although I think that he would argue that this is irrelevant given that freedom is of more value than convenience (in my mind, this is interesting but not necessarily reflective of society). Moreover, the thinking is that the more users free technology attracts, the more user-friendly it will become (a la WordPress!).

In any case, I think that it’s overall a good thing that people like Stallman are out there, at least in the fact that he makes people stop and think about issues of ownership, responsibility, and freedom.

Stallman’s personal ad.
Tell me what you believe now.

One Response to “free as in freedom”

  1. Eddie Says:

    പ രത ന ധ കര ച ച ഞങ ങള പങ ക ട ത ത . ഗ ന /ല നക സ ല വ ദ യ ഭ യ സ സ ഫ റ റ വ യറ കള ഉപയ ഗ ച ച ള ള ഒര പര ശ ലന പദ ധത . ശ സ ത ര യമ യ ര ത യ ല തയ യ റ ക ക യ പര ശ ലന പ സ തകങ ങള , സ ഡ ,കള . ന ഉപയ ഗ ക ക ന ന ജ ക മ പ ര സ ച ല ഡ സ പ ല യ ടക സ മ ത സ സ ക ര ച ച എല ല ഒറ റ സ .ഡ .യ ല . സ .ഡ .യ പ സ തകവ ഫ ര . പക ഷ സ ക ള ല ഇത നടപ പ ല വര ത തണമ ങ ക ല ഓര ക ട ട യ ല ന ന ന ന ശ ച ത സ ഖ യ വര ഷ ത റ അവര ക ക നല കണ . കമ പ യ ട ടര അധ യ പകര ക ക ള ള പര ശ ന അവര നല ക . തമ ശ അതല ല. അവര തയ യ റ ക ക യ സ .ഡ . വ ന ഡ സ ല മ ത രമ വര ക ക ച യ യ . ( സ .ഡ .യ ല ഒര ഇന സ റ റ ളര ഉപയ ഗ ച ച ല പ രത യ ക interface വര .) ഇത ന ടയ ല ഐ.ട . സ ക ള തയ യ റ ക ക യ ജ ന യര ല നക സ എഡ യ ഉബ ണ ട വ കണ ട ഐ.ഐ.ട ക ക ര ( ? )അന ത വ ട ട . ജ ക മ പ ര സ ന ഐ.ട .@.സ ക ള പ ര ണ ണമ യ loataizclion (മലയ ളത ത ല ക ക ) നടത ത യ ണ പ ര മറ തലത ത ല ക ക ഉപയ ഗ ക ക ന നത എന നത കണ ടപ പ ഴ ണത . മ ത രമല ല എല ല ഒറ റ ക ടക ക ഴ ല ക ക യ IT@School Ubuntu.ഇത ക ക ച യ യ ന നത വ റ ബ ര ദവ ബ .എഡ ഉള ള ഹ സ ക ള അധ യ പകര ണ ന ന ( SITCs, MTs) വ വര അറ ഞ ഞപ പ ഴ ണ ക രളമ ഡല ഐ.സ .ട . വ ദ യ ഭ യ സ ക ണ ട ള ള മ ച ച എന ത ണ ന ന അവര ക ക മനസ സ ല യത .ഫ ര സ ഫ റ റ വ യറ ന അത ന റ ശര യ യ അര ഥത ത ല ക ണ മ പ ഴ ണ സ റ റ ള മ ന റ സ വപ ന യ ഥ ര ഥ യമ ക ന നത . അറ വ ന റ അത ര കള ല ല ത ത ആക ശ . വ ക ക പ ഡ യ ഈയ ട സമര പ രഖ യ പ ച ചത ഈ ആക ശത ത ന വ ണ ട യ ണ . സ റ റ ള മ ന റ ആദര ശമ ണ ഒരര ഥത ത ല വ ക ക പ ഡ യയ ട പ റവ ക ക ന ദ നവ . സ വതന ത രസ ഫ റ റ വ യറ ന റ ചര ത ര സ റ റ ള മ ന റ ജ വചര ത ര ക ട യ ണ . മ ത സ ബ ല ഗ ന നന ദ !

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