1028 Words on Free Software

The promise of free software is a near-future utopia, built on democratized technology. This future is just and it is beautiful, full of opportunity and fulfillment for everyone everywhere. We can create the things we dream about when we let our minds wander into the places they want to. We can be with the people we want and need to be, when we want and need to.

This is currently possible with the technology we have today, but it’s availability is limited by the reality of the world we live in – the injustice, the inequity, the inequality. Technology runs the world, but it does not serve the interests of most of us. In order to create a better world, our technology must be transparent, accountable, trustworthy. It must be just. It must be free.

The job of the free software movement is to demonstrate that this world is possible by living its values now: justice, equity, equality. We build them into our technology, and we build technology that make it possible for these values to exist in the world.

At the Free Software Foundation, we liked to say that we used all free software because it was important to show that we could. You can do anything with free software, so we did everything with it. We demonstrated the importance of unions for tech workers and non-profit workers by having one. We organized collectively and protected our rights for the sake of ourselves and one another. We had non-negotiable salaries, based on responsibility level and position. That didn’t mean we worked in an office free from the systemic problems that plague workplaces everywhere, but we were able to think about them differently.

Things were this way because of Richard Stallman – but I view his influence on these things as negative rather than positive. He was a cause that forced these outcomes, rather than being supportive of the desires and needs of others. Rather than indulge in gossip or stories, I would like to jump to the idea that he was supposed to have been deplatformed in October 2019. In resigning from his position as president of the FSF, he certainly lost some of his ability to reach audiences. However, Richard still gives talks. The FSF continues to use his image and rhetoric in their own messaging and materials. They gave him time to speak at their annual conference in 2020. He maintains leadership in the GNU project and otherwise within the FSF sphere. The people who empowered him for so many years are still in charge.

Richard, and the continued respect and space he is given, is not the only problem. It represents a bigger problem. Sexism and racism (among others) run rampant in the community. This happens because of bad actors and, more significantly, by the complacency of organizations, projects, and individuals afraid of losing contributors, respect, or funding. In a sector that has so much money and so many resources, women are still being paid less than men; we deny people opportunities to learn and grow in the name of immediate results; people who aren’t men, who aren’t white, are abused and harassed; people are mentally and emotionally taken advantage of, and we are coerced into burn out and giving up our lives for these companies and projects and we are paid for tolerating all of this by being told we’re doing a good job or making a difference.

But we’re not making a difference. We’re perpetuating the worst of the status quo that we should be fighting against. We must not continue. We cannot. We need to live our ideals as they are, and take the natural next steps in their evolution. We cannot have a world of just technology when we live in a world of exclusion; we cannot have free software if we continue to allow, tolerate, and laud the worst of us. I’ve been in and around free software for seventeen years. Nearly every part of it I’ve participated in has members and leadership that benefit from allowing and encouraging the continuation of maleficence and systemic oppression.

We must purge ourselves of these things – of sexism, racism, injustice, and the people who continue and enable it. There is no space to argue over whether a comment was transphobic – if it hurt a trans person then it is transphobic and it is unacceptable. Racism is a global problem and we must be anti-racist or we are complicit. Sexism is present and all men benefit from it, even if they don’t want to. These are free software issues. These are things that plague software, and these are things software reinforces within our societies.

If a technology is exclusionary, it does not work. If a community is exclusionary, it must be fixed or thrown away. There is no middle ground here. There is no compromise. Without doing this, without taking the hard, painful steps to actually live the promise of user freedom and everything it requires and entails, our work is pointless and free software will fail.

I don’t think it’s too late for there to be a radical change – the radical change – that allows us to create the utopia we want to see in the world. We must do that by acknowledging that just technology leads to a just society, and that a just society allows us to make just technology. We must do that by living within the principles that guide this future now.

I don’t know what will happen if things don’t change soon. I recently saw someone comment that change doesn’t happens unless one person is willing to sacrifice everything to make that change, to lead and inspire others to play small parts. This is unreasonable to ask of or expect from someone. I’ve been burning myself out to meet other people’s expectations for seventeen years, and I can’t keep doing it. Of course I am not alone, and I am not the only one working on and occupied by these problems. More people must step up, not just for my sake, but for the sake of all of us, the work free software needs to do, and the future I dream about.