With Stallman’s recent exit from the FSF, has the time come to put ideological correctness aside and just let Linux be Linux?
After Richard Stallman’s resignation from key positions in free software, many are suggesting that we have entered the post-Stallman age. It is still too early to understand what that might mean, if anything. Still, one question keeps reoccurring to me: without Stallman to constantly reinforce the habit, will the preference for the terms “GNU/Linux” and “free software” survive? And, either way, does the answer matter any more? Or will trends that have existed for over a decade simply continue, or maybe accelerate?
Before you start lecturing me on points I’ve known for twenty years, I know all the arguments in favor of GNU/Linux and free software. I even agree with most of them. Yes, how a subject is framed matters. Yes, without contributions from the GNU Project the free operating system known as Linux would not have happened, or at least would have been seriously delayed. You’re right, too, that Stallman’s preferred terms highlighted politics and philosophy. But all this is old history. I am not writing about the past, nor even what should be. I am wondering what might happen in the next few years.
I started my involvement with free software as an enthusiastic supporter of Stallman’s preferences. In 1999, the divide between open source and free software was still raw, and the division seemed one between crass capitalism and idealism. However, I started to shift my position after Linus Torvalds responded angrily to my question of whether programming excellence was more important than politics and philosophy. So far as Torvalds was concerned, quality programming was a means to the politics and philosophy. In other words, open source and free software could be seen as a different in emphasis, not in goals. I started seeing more similarities than differences in the supposedly divided camps, and began to refer to FLOSS or FOSS instead.
In the last decade, those similarities have become stronger than ever. Members of the free software camp, who used to shun the Linuxworld Expo, started showing up at open source conferences without a trace of embarrassment. The Free Software Foundation’s conference was named LibrePlanet. Even the FSF site has moved away the terminology, with the last reference to “GNU/Linux” being in a name of Hyperbola GNU/Linux a year ago. Probably, no conscious decision was ever made about terminology, and contributors to the site are simply reflecting common usage. The message remains unchanged in newer content like the Respects Your Freedom page, but the terminology is almost absent.
Why the change in terminology? Partly, perhaps, because open source has a much larger advertising budget. Outsiders who vaguely assume that free software refers to shareware have heard of open source, although they may be unsure of what it is. Another reason could be that people who have tried to work with Stallman, like the members of the Software Conservancy, are distancing themselves consciously or unconsciously from him.
However, the simplest reason may be that, like activists for other causes, long-time free software supporters grew sick of the constant emotional labor of explaining all the time. The case for the use of “GNU/ Linux” and “free software” may be convincing, but constantly making it soon becomes old. It can be especially galling when time you could spend on matters that are more interesting to your audience is taken up with the background issues.
Think about it. If you are hearing about FOSS for the first time, which is more likely to catch your attention: talking about privacy and having control over your computer, or an arcane matter of terminology? Learning how you can benefit, or hearing the jargon associated with a particular viewpoint? Nobody can accurately measure how many chances to interest people have been lost in the last three decades to a discussion of terminology, but it must be thousands, if not hundreds of thousands. However idealistic you may be, perpetual combat is exhausting, especially if you suspect you are missing tactical opportunities.
The jargon that identifies free software supporters will never entirely disappear. It is part of the name of too many distributions. In addition, it is a handy way to identify others of like mind, a secret handshake, so to speak. But now that Stallman has stepped down, where is a figure of comparable stature to advocate its continued use? Even FSF employees, present and past, do not seem to care much about continuing that part of Stallman’s legacy. At any rate, none of them have Stallman’s reputation to lend to a cause that was already fading. It seems likely that less attention will be paid in the future to framing and, perhaps, more to practical matters
The situation may not be just, depending on your views, but what is the alternative? The answer is to be like L’Académie française and struggle to police the language while the majority of people ignore you. Prescriptive language almost never wins out over descriptive. Anyway, free software has more pressing tasks than to continue looking back to noble but lost causes.