The philosophy and spirit of FOSS

My last two blogs dealt with issues that illustrate to me that some people have a functional disconnect with the philosophy, and spirit, of what I feel is really what the Free Software movement should be about. For many "freedom" seems merely to be mostly a slogan, not a guiding principle to consistently adhere to, and a reality to produce. Here's what I think many people are missing.

My blog 2 weeks ago, Faking the FOSS, and last week's Why Does KDE UseSlaves? (already a classic) both dealt with issues that I see as inconsistent and/or contradictory to the ideals of the free software movement. Thus, I'm talking philosophy here, what should (and shouldn't) to be done based on conformity to principles, and not what could be done just because you can do it.

Of course Richard M. Stallman (RMS) and the Free Sofware Foundation (FSF) are the lead advocates and philosophers of what "free software" is and isn't, and I'm not going to go over ground they cover. However, there are two points of distinction that I want to address and bring attention to, which formulated much of the essence of what I was raising in my last two blogs.

Free vs No Cost

I believe that when most people hear or see the term "free software" they reflexively think of not having to pay money to acquire or use it. They aren't thinking of "free" in the sense of beng unencumbered (per the GPL) for personal use and development. To these people it's mostly about the money. So, to avoid confusion with, and dilution of, the other philophical aspects of "free" software, I contend a better term to use when strictly speaking to the monetary nature of FOSS is "no cost" software.

There, of course, is "no cost" software which isn't FOSS, such as the shareware/freeware that has been around since the beginning of the PC era. The difference between it and FOSS is that it typically was proprietary software (usually neutered versions of commercial packages) which you can't get the source to, nor modify.

But for most users (versus developers and philosophical FOSS advocates) of "free software" what is most attractive about it is the no cost nature of it. And this now has become the driving attraction of some vertical system integrators out to make money by repackaging and selling of "free software." While they certainly have the right to do this, many don't adhere to the broader principles of what FOSS is all about.

Freedom vs Free From

The comments from last week's blog on KDE's use of "slave" highlighted to me that many people believe "I can do what I want, say what I want", disconnected from the affect their actions have on other people or the world. That's not the philosophy of "freedom" that's the ideology of "free from." Here's what I mean.

The philosophy/ideology of "freedom" promotes liberty, not just for yourself, but out of necessity others too (you can't be free by yourself). Thus, inherent in the concept of freedom are the characteristics and qualities of responsibility, accountability, sensitivity, rationality, and empathy.

A "free from" philosophy is focused on selfishness and unaccountability to others. You are "free from" caring about how what you say and do affects others, and "free from" being responsible for your actions consequences. You can be as irrational as you want, especially when you're sensibilities are pricked, and show little empathy to people who need help or are "different" than you. These qualities permeated the majority of last week's comments.

What is also clear is that tangible "things" like software will always be easier for people to use and understand than esoteric things, such as philosophy. Philosophy is hard and takes time to understand and work through, while anyone can use Firefox or without any knowledge or understanding of the working ideology and spirit underlying their creation. But for those of us who do believe in the spirit of "free software" as a movement, it is incumbent upon us to speak up when we see the contradictions and inconsistencies within it. As Martin Luther King said: "If you are right you cannot be too militant; if you are wrong you cannot be too conservative." (Translation: If you are right, speak up, if you are wrong, be quiet.)

The Free software movement is philosophically a social movement, not a technical one. Like other 'Rights' social movements (Civil, Women, Gay, etc) it employs various mechanisms and tactics, and ventures into various fields of social interaction (art, education, law, politics, etc) to achieve its goals, but its focus is not just to create "no cost" software, but a social order based on "free(dom) software."

No, the Free Software movement's purpose is to improve the conditions of human existence. Free software is just the major tool it employs to do this. This is what people should not lose sight of, and must be willing to adapt their thinking and behavior to be consistent with. It may not be easy, and at times it will get ugly, but we must not be afraid to push for it, for in the end we will all benefit.


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