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Software Should Be Free, But Nice Guys Should Finish First, Too

On the eve of the release of the fifth iteration of the Debian Linux -- er, GNU/Linux -- release, a bit of noise erupted that got me thinking about the whole question of why, when it comes to the ethics of software development, polite manners tend to get short shrift.

On the eve of the release of the fifth iteration of the Debian Linux -- er, GNU/Linux -- release, a bit of noise erupted that got me thinking about the whole question of why, when it comes to the ethics of software development, polite manners tend to get short shrift.

The exact nature of the debate isn't the main issue, but rather a response to it:


The Debian 5 [voting] controversy invited criticism from several key figures in the Linux development community, including kernel developer and Linux Foundation CTO Ted Ts'o. In a personal blog entry [which also is worth reading -- sy], Ts'o criticized the Debian project and argued that the extreme and uncompromising language in the organization's social contract is counterproductive. He suggests that placing such extreme emphasis on software freedom above all else is like idolatry and erodes principles that he thinks are more important, such as civility and fair treatment of other people.

This is, in the space of a couple of sentences, almost the entire sum total of the reason why there are still plenty of people who twitch when they hear words like open source, GPL, free software, information wants to be free, or any of the other magic buzzwords we all know. The attitude.

It's not because these ideas have no validity. Each of these things can be argued on their own merits. It's because for so long such ideas have been associated with stentorian, rigid, knee-jerk, my-way-or-no-way-at-all rhetoric and posturing.

One of the common arguments I have heard bandied around is that insular communities -- e.g., the kernel developers' mailing lists -- are by their very nature only for the thick-skinned. Those who cannot take the criticism do not deserve to be doling it out, and those who have not paid the requisite dues have a strike against them because more often than not they have nothing to contribute to the conversation.

This all sounds good when you're not the one who asks what sounds like a reasonable question and gets bombarded with a torrent of negative waves. For a long time this was the stigma that went with the Linux community vis-a-vis newcomers: if you didn't have the inclination to DIY, then don't do it at all. It's gotten far better as of late for newbies, thank goodness.

I won't argue that there is just as much politics, infighting, and petty bickering in open source as there is anywhere else. In fact, there's probably far more of it to be seen because the whole process is generally pretty transparent. But that, in turn, means if you're a stiff-necked thistlehead in such a context, it's going to be a matter of public record and not just private gossip.

What's more, the underlying attitude isn't limited to Linux or open source. I suspect it's a by-product of any situation where there's an Inner and Outer Circle. Meaning people owe it to themselves to recognize that sentiment when it breeds and do what they can to keep it at bay. If you don't want to have your time wasted with stupid questions, that's one thing -- but how far is it from there to thinking all questions are stupid, especially the ones that challenge your preconceptions about how things could be done? How far is it from there to thinking that anything that gets in your way of being both Free and Right is dangerous, even if it isn't really blocking either of those things?

Being civil and fair isn't an alternative to being "right." Being civil and fair is the first proper step toward finding what's right. As Ted put it, "I consider people to be more important than computers, hardware, or software." Especially since without the first of those things you don't get any of the rest.

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