Freedom, Community & Sustainability

The gnu and the lion, a high tech tale

October 17, 2011 -- William
Last modified on October 2016

This is a story that does not start with “once upon a time” and does not end with “and they lived happily ever after”. This story is about the concrete jungle, it's about the wild world we live in. This is a story about the ugly things that happen behind the scenes while the show must go on.


It begun when personal computers were not a consumer product and a bunch of geeks were trying to sell them and become rich. It was a fight between science and business, between knowledge and power, between the right thing to do against the perspective of unprecedented profit. (A brief introduction to the early history of computer software).


If you haven't watched “The pirates of Silicon Valley” you might not know what it was like to be a geek back in the 70's and how it came to be that some of them ended up being the predators in the high tech field. It is in half way between a documentary and a fiction, taking real events and dramatizing them.


Amidst the giants like Apple, Microsoft, IBM or Xerox, there was a programmer that chose freedom instead of entering the fight for profit. He decided to write software and give away the source code for free. The idea was to allow other programmers to read it and improve it, thus forming a community with shared goals. He was defending science and knowledge sharing, refusing to use his knowledge to manipulate and control those who did not have it. He created the Free Software Movement and the GNU operating system. This man, Richard Stallman, probably hoped that Free Software and GNU would be a no-brainer to the technology industry and people would break the chains of proprietary software to join freedom. Today, GNU/Linux operating systems are still far behind and represent maybe 1% of the OS market.


I imagine that, for Stallman, advocating software freedom may be a bit like trying to convince cows to rebel against butchers or, better said, pushing gnus to fight lions. It seems like almost 30 years of fight for freedom hardened his heart with rancour rather than freed him with the peace of mind of knowing he is doing the right thing. (The human tragedy behind Free Software).


In his personal website, RMS made a quite bitter statement (although we should give him credit for being transparent and not mincing his words) about the death of Steve Jobs. The full text is:


“Steve Jobs, the pioneer of the computer as a jail made cool, designed to sever fools from their freedom, has died.
As Chicago Mayor Harold Washington said of the corrupt former Mayor Daley, "I'm not glad he's dead, but I'm glad he's gone." Nobody deserves to have to die - not Jobs, not Mr. Bill, not even people guilty of bigger evils than theirs. But we all deserve the end of Jobs' malign influence on people's computing.
Unfortunately, that influence continues despite his absence. We can only hope his successors, as they attempt to carry on his legacy, will be less effective.”


We know Apple don't like GNU/Linux for being an OS that share many of the advantages of UNIX-like systems... for free (Why Mac and Linux have no virus?). We also know Stallman don't like Apple for being a company that do everything to keep their computers closed. If you have ever tried to install a GNU/Linux OS on a Mac you know what I'm talking about. In any case, out of context, Stallman's bluntness is misplaced and misunderstood. As I said before, this is a sad story. I wish Jobs was still with us and I wish Stallman could find strength in being a wee bit more conciliatory, especially under the circumstances.

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