Is it time for the Free Software Foundation to consider some new directions for the free software movement in the post-Stallman era?
Whether you think Richard M. Stallman is a creep who got what he deserved or a great man toppled by petty spite, one thing is certain: free software will never be the same without him. For better or worse, for the first time the movement does not have one man’s vision influencing goals. As a result, an unprecedented opportunity exists for self-evaluation.
Of course free software in general and the Free Software Foundation in particular may not want to take the opportunity. Yet the suddenness of Stallman’s resignations makes at least one long-neglected issue impossible to ignore: how are the current leaders of free software to be replaced? Or do they need to be replaced at all? After all, much of the work of the FSF is already done by its executive director.
Free software may not have any choice except change if it is going to survive. The last decade has seen an erosion of FSF authority that, if allowed to last another decade, might very well reduce free software to a private club that is ignored by others. The FSF needs badly to publicize its efforts, to cultivate the relations it had with journalists in the first years of the millennium, and to make common cause where possible — yes, even with those who prefer the term “open source” to “free software.”
Some reactionaries worry that the changes might mean abandoning free software to a spooky conspiracy by social justice warriors opposed to the meritocracy that built free software. Knowing activists who might fit the SJW label, I personally doubt that any of them are that organized. However, you have to search long and hard for any call for affirmative action or any other bugbear of the right. In fact, I’m not sure you could find one. The critiques are about the flaws in meritocracy. If listened to, the critiques might actually led to a truer meritocracy. Or does anyone believe that no improvement is possible? Apparently, the reactionaries have never stopped to think that people could support free software but think differently from them.
Anyway, diversity opens up the possibility of more contributors to free software projects. And how many projects would turn down additional help? If some newcomers are not coders, help with documentation and technical help is still an important contribution. Given the cultural times, it also seems inevitable. The only thing that is surprising is that free software survived the calls for changes as long as it did. Now, though, it’s time to join the twenty-first century.
Reaching Out With Free Software
While diversity is desirable for many of us, it is not enough by itself. The harder thinking must be about long term directions. Aside from a few new directions like the Respect Your Freedom certification for hardware, in recent years, free software has shown a tendency to stagnate and look inwards. Old jokes about world domination have given way to … nothing. Some efforts have been made to recruit young programmers, but without a long term goal, retention becomes more difficult.
Personally, I’m in favor of the plans that Peter Brown/ the former executive director of the FSF, made in 2007. A former member of the staff for The New Internationalist, Brown advocated efforts to make free software a cause that cuts across political positions, like recycling or buying free trade coffee, which are things that the FSF already does.
“It’s not part of our agenda,” Brown admitted, “but here we are following the guidance of the community that we are now part of, and we now believe that recycling is a good thing. So in that sense we can look to a future where organizations who care about these issues can add free software as a natural ethical service that they can expect of themselves.”
Since free software can keep old hardware working longer, he said, it fits well with the existing recycling ethos.
“Our job is to raise free software as an ethical issue. And we can go forward from there. Whether they choose a community distribution like Ubuntu or a commercial one like Red Hat will be up to them. But just raising the issue is the key. It’s like recycling: you don’t have to give them a hotline on how to proceed. That’s something they do locally, through their own networks.”
Brown proposed focusing on a few groups in each area: several schools, businesses, and activist groups, to which different advantages of free software would be pitched, and, when necessary, specialized help. In this way, free software would gradually gain public support and awareness.
Unfortunately, not much came of this proposal. A few years later, Brown moved on from the FSF, and his ideas were not picked up by anyone else.
However, now that free software has a chance to rethink, perhaps something similar to Brown’s proposal is worth considering. It would give the movement a sense of purpose it has lacked in recent years, and a way to stay relevant. All it would take is some imagination and co-ordination of effort. The question, though, is whether the will exists in free software to embrace change.
Bruce Byfield has been involved in FOSS since 1999. He has published over
2000 articles, and is the writer of “Designing with LibreOffice,” which
is available as a free download at