Leaning Towards Freedom - InformationWeek
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10/1/2009
11:17 AM
Serdar Yegulalp
Serdar Yegulalp
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Leaning Towards Freedom

The advocates of free software -- not just open source, but free as in freedom -- talk about the use of computers as a basic human right. It probably is. But I see freedom as a direction to lean into, rather than a specific path or goal to be obtained.

The advocates of free software -- not just open source, but free as in freedom -- talk about the use of computers as a basic human right. It probably is. But I see freedom as a direction to lean into, rather than a specific path or goal to be obtained.

Some of this thinking was sparked by Matt Asay's column about how free-software advocates are taking entirely the wrong tack when marketing open source:

... we're not talking about essential human rights here. We're talking about getting work done with software.

Precisely. Most anybody reading this will know that. So why do the free-software folks conflate the two, talking about the use of software as if it were a basic human right? Because in their eyes, it is, and that's the end of it.

As best as I can parse it, the thinking goes like this: The age we live in is so completely dominated by technology that to talk about freedom-in-the-abstract without also talking about software freedom and information freedom makes no sense. Too much of the way we live our lives and the way our lives are run are bound up in this stuff for us not to take it seriously. It's too easy to take any freedom for granted, including the freedom to run what programs you want on whatever hardware you want.

Thing is, this is pretty spot-on for the most part. The problem I have is two things: how this is acted out, and how it's used as an absolute must-have-right-now instead of a general trend or direction.

I don't mean that advocating for Linux as a desktop OS is a bad idea (it's not) -- but that too much energy and attention is put on the ideals rather than pragmatic solutions. If the majority of people are on Windows right now, then you have to work with that and not against it -- by deploying free software that runs across platforms, Windows included. And you also have to develop a free platform that's arguably better than Windows in every respect, not just on price.

This is a lot harder than anyone seems to realize, and the few that get it have narrowed their focus. They are trying to deliver apps that help people get specific jobs done -- a browser here, a mail client there. Enough of those apps together creates an environment where you have freedom as a natural by-product of what you're doing.

That's real freedom, in my mind: when you have all the best tools for the job available to you, and can use them as you see fit.

A lot of that, I'm finding, is subjective. Many such tools I use in my world are open source. A few are not. I can live with that. Some people choose not to live with it, and insist on a more open selection of tools.

Sure, it would be great if all our tools were like that. But I'm content to have open source and software freedom as a relative direction rather than an absolute goal.

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