Preaching to the non-converted: FOSS and political activism

Bruce Byfield of has a great editorial up about Why FOSS isn’t on activist agendas. Bruce points out that although FOSS enthusiasts are great at discussing their “shared values” within their own niche, they’re not very good at reaching out to the broader community—particularly folks over 40 who tend to be more active and influential in politics than the under 30 “techie” crowd:

Although the FOSS and activist communities frequently share ethical positions and social interests ranging from freedom of expression and cooperative organization to consumer rights, privacy, and anti-trust legislation, mostly the two groups remain unaware of each other. Why?

Bruce offers a variety of possibilities. For one thing, the young age of many FOSS advocates tends to deprive them of the perspective necessary to relate to the older crowd. For the 40+ community, FOSS just doesn’t seem relevant to larger social concerns, and the typical FOSS enthusiast isn’t able to offer the right parallels to drive the issue home. Worse, many FOSS advocates aren’t exactly open and tolerant of groups they deem “unworthy,” such as Christians or the Boy Scouts.

The solution seems to be trying to find common ground among these different groups—that is, which FOSS values can be more universally applied to society in general. Once we can filter these out, we can use them to talk about free software in a way that is more appealing to the groups in question.

One thought that kept running through my head while reading the article was the “FOSS” aspect. Do these observations really apply across the board, or should Bruce really limit himself to the “OS” groups? Richard Stallman and the Free Software Foundation have always been oriented towards promoting these broader, more culturally-significant values, and Stallman himself has frequently remarked that FS is only one small part of changes he’d like to see all across society. Obviously, the “OS” group is committed to “cleansing” the movement of these political and social aspirations to make them more “friendly” to greed-driven, psychopathic corporations. I can’t blame a 45 year old political activist for failing to get excited about “open source” software. After all, that movement is only about more efficient coding practices for the developer. “Free software”, on the other hand, is about making software more democratic and empowering for the user—values that any self-respecting liberal would gladly support.

On the other hand, I can’t emphasize how important it is for free software advocates to support their brethren who are not so much coders as proselytizers for the movement. There’s a tendency to undervalue folks whose talents lie in promoting the philosophy of the movement; we tend to privilege those who make more “direct” contributions via donating code. Furthermore, we tend to shy away from discussions about the political implications of the movement. (By the way, it’s not socialist, but far more akin to Anarchosyndicalism). What I’d love to see is more FS advocates reading Noam Chomsky and Larry Lessig alongside the latest PERL or APACHE manuals.

In short, what I’d like to see in the FS community is better support and recognition for the folks who work so hard to promote the movement—not just in the inner circles, but especially those who work with outside groups (particularly in education) to try to bridge some of these gaps Bruce mentions in his article. Take some time this week to explain why FS is important to you—not because it’s cheap or more efficient, but because you’re committed to doing your part to make the world a better place.


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