Free Software - is it a political question?

Think, for a moment, about what the free software community looks like from the external gaze. "Bloody Communists" - I've never actually had a businessman say this to me when I've been explaining free software, but I'm sure they've thought it. I suppose the smarter ones might have thought "anarcho-syndicalists". Choosing to use free software may be simply economic, but contributing to any such project is surely a political statement.

So what is this statement? I'm not the person to write your statement, but I can offer mine.

My background is as a teacher. I spent years trying to get kids to use computers and think about what was going on around them. I had the constant frustrations of using software that I couldn't dismantle and rebuild when it failed. I had vague memories that it had not always been like this. While at university I was required to do some calculations about the maximum bit rate a human could process - and it struck me that my word-processor was demanding more. This realisation led to a slow journey from small deployments of free software, culminating the installation of a complete school network running Linux Terminal Server Project. It has also led to a complete change in my life - I'm no longer a teacher and earn my living substantially from free software, working mainly with the voluntary and education sectors.

I hold to the principle that the way to earn money from free software is from what you are doing, not from what you have done. This means training, consulting, coding, installation and support. It's a great life - though working for myself is a bit scary, as I can't rely on my historical practice of calling the management incompetent.

The only organisation that I work for that had ever thought about the implications of the software it was using is the Birmingham Friends of the Earth. I encounter charities and voluntary organisations on a daily basis - and they have a policy about buying fair-trade coffee, but haven't even thought about their software. Most of these organisations believe in co-operation and sharing, and yet don't have the expertise to apply it to their use of IT. So I try to educate them and show them the benefits, for both themselves and the wider community.

Experience tells me that the capitalist model is disastrous when applied to software development. Does that mean I believe that capitalism is disastrous in general? Let's just say that in my personal and business life I seem to enjoy myself the most when I'm functioning as an anarcho-syndicalist.


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