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Matt Barton [opinions]

The Knights of Free Software

fsmsh.com/1961 [ethics] [philosophy] [religion]

Lately, I've been thinking about what the free software movement is really about. Is it really just a bunch of guys who work with code, releasing it under a particular type of license? We seem to talk a great deal about "freedom" and insist that what separates free software from open source or proprietary is this philosophical, ethical, and legal insistence on total freedom for the user. All right; but is this all there is to it? Or should free software programmers and devotees start thinking about bigger issues, and making more serious contributions to society than just improving its code base? Should we "focus on coding" and just hope that society improves by osmosis? Personally, I find this outlook is becoming increasingly unsatisfying. I think this movement needs to expand its horizon and start exploring more direct ways to change the world we live in. I think the Free Software Movement must be about a life choice, not merely a software licensing choice.

What I'd like to do here is offer some possible steps towards a more total free software movement. What I have in mind specifically is some ethical standards and practices free software hackers could possibly set for themselves that set them radically apart from the rest of society. Many can say that the free software movement should be about more than the code of computers; it should be about a code of honor, akin to the chivalric code of Medieval knights, perhaps, but probably more similar to the code lived under by Franciscan monks. My contention is that by logically extending the principles of free software to other aspects of life, we end up with a much stronger movement.

Keep in mind that what I am proposing is definitely not for everyone. However, some hackers out there could in fact get some inspiration. I will refer to a hackers who want to follow this path "Knights of Free Software."

What would such a life look like from the outside? First off, it would be important to undertake a "vow of non-ownership." What I mean is that knights would not only refuse to own any proprietary software, but also to own any property whatsoever. He or she should accept only as much in the form of donations as absolutely necessary to survive and continue programming or enlightening others. Once these bare minimums of subsistence are reached, a knight should kindly refuse additional donations. All luxuries, such as fancy cars, expensive clothes, and the like should be avoided as well. Any "luxury" or "commodity" acquired out of some desire rather than merely to fulfill a necessity is a dangerous trap--a lure back into the closed, greedy society that true knights are committed to changing. Furthermore, many people will donate to such a worthy order if they are convinced of the sincerity of its followers.

Besides a vow of poverty and subsequent lifestyle, knights should also practice selflessness. What I mean by this is that these knights should not be concerned about pride and winning admiration, but rather about acting in all ways selflessly, with humility. A knight should act in such a way as to always benefit others, whether that be in the form of coding or informing others about the movement. This will be best achieved if they come together to elect experienced people to direct their activities. Many folks new to FS are confused about a number of important tenants of the movement, and may resist. For example, an apprentice knight (i.e., a "squire") might still find it "necessary" to use Internet Explorer or to continue to buy and own frivolous items. This behavior would conflict with the code, and these squires would need to understand that even though they still think such things are acceptable, for the sake of the movement, they will cease them as long as they wish to retain their knight status. The idea here is that once they realize they really don't "need" such things, it won't be a problem to continue avoiding them.

The final vow is to make every effort, whenever possible, to inform and challenge others who do not live in accordance to these principles. This should never be done in a violent or insulting way, but only in a helpful, informative and dialectical manner. For instance, if someone is seen using Internet Explorer, the knight should ask, "Why are you using that program?" and from there, very patiently, attempt to lead the person to the better way. This same tendency can be applied to other situations. For instance, if a person owns a gas-guzzling SUV, or is contemplating buying one, or is simply interested in acquiring wealth, the knight should engage in another round of questioning and debates (with an eye towards helping the person discover the truth). "Why do you desire to buy a vehicle that will drain your resources and destroy the environment you live in?" "Why do you desire more money than you need to survive?" With enough effort, the person can be shown that they are merely enslaved to their own foolish desire for wealth and envy, and if they really want to be free, they will learn to control these irrational impulses.

My contention is that if there were a movement that really embraced these principles, it would have a much greater impact on the world and society. People would eventually become impressed by the lifestyle of these Knights of Free Software and likely become much more sympathetic to the movement. Of course, these knights might also be exposed to much ridicule and hatred, but their cool reserve and compassion for even those who hate them will only boost them in the eyes of others.

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