A few days ago, I had an epiphany. I, like many of my readers, have spent a good portion of my life advocating for libre software. There has always been a particular glow to the idealistic concept of information flowing through society, and to the possibility of adaptation to a particular context. Unfortunately, as most advocates and critics alike have come to learn, a good portion of libre software is known to few beyond the developer, and modifications to suit a particular need are not nearly as common as advocates would have one believe.
What, then, is the allure of libre software? Is it the simple possibility of these theoretical ideals? Why should we use, develop, or recommend libre software over the alternative proprietary platforms that my have more features? “The development model,” claim some, “is collaboration based, and ensures no malignancies will enter into the codebase.” However, only some libre software is developed this way. Many projects are quite unforgiving to new contributors, and most projects never pique the interest of anyone at all for contributions. Because of this, malignancies cannot necessarily be avoided. When nobody is interested in or capable of (without a fork) making changes, the hypothetical options available to prevent intentional dysfunctions dissolve in practicality.
“There are other benefits,” advocates say. “The developers actually care about the work they do, so it is better written, and more help is available.” Some projects contain almost artfully-written code. These examples are frequently studied by new programmers and taught in universities for their quality. Unfortunately, resulting from the fact that an ideology can’t use a keyboard, this isn’t true for all libre software. “Spaghetti code” would be a complement for a good chunk of the libre code one could find online. Developers of libre software also tend to be more approachable, but again, this is only true in some cases. Plenty of libre software is unmaintained.
Finally, we get to a discussion on “freedom”. This particular word was enough to segment the community into the free software community and the open source community. No matter what the reader’s opinions are on the subject, it does bring up many valid points. All libre software gives its users permission to give away or sell copies to others. For those that know how to program, libre software does indeed provide the opportunity for modifications to be made. Consequently, it ensures that those modifications can be sold or distributed.
There are a few flaws to this paradigm, though. People who do not know how to program and have no capacity to learn do not have the freedom to make changes. The need to hire someone to do one’s work is not freedom. Other than having a wider choice on developers to hire, it might as well be proprietary software. Yes, libre software allows redistribution without cost, but so does freeware and shareware. Libre software still appears to be much more free than freeware or shareware, though. Why?
I have been dealing with this question recently, and it has been incredibly frustrating. Why should I advocate for libre software? Am I trying to impose something that works well for me onto others and insist that it will work well for them too? What advantage is libre software to people who will never learn programming? Why would I never advocate for proprietary software?
Then it hit me. Like a freight train. My epiphany. I would never advocate for proprietary software because it’s a product. I don’t endorse products; I fight for ideas. That was it.
Libre software is not a product. It’s an idea.
Why had I never seen it before? Products are marketed and pitched to consumers in hopes that they will buy them. Ideas are excitedly shared with others by those who create them, and propagated by anyone who is interested. Libre software gives as much freedom as does an idea. Just as not every individual can make modifications to software, not every individual can implement every idea. In fact, most are specific to particular people, groups, or situations. But ideas are intrinsically free, and no amount of marketing or packaging can change that.
All of the aforementioned benefits cited in libre software packages can be traced to their identity as ideas. People tend to stand behind their ideas, which is why libre software is usually so well supported. Ideas can be built upon and improved by others, hence the high quality of some libre software and the general absence of “anti-features”. The goal of a product is to be used in as many places as possible. The goal of an idea is to be as useful as possible. Their forms are sometimes so similar that it becomes difficult to distinguish between the two. Ideas naturally lend themselves to be duplicated, reused, and adapted for a particular purpose. Products are sold to meet a need.
This general idea can be used to gain a new perspective on how libre software should be viewed. Basing one’s infrastructure on ideas instead of products helps to focus the effort on what is really important. Products can be discontinued forever with the flip of a manufacturer’s wrist. Ideas are eternal. They can be used, duplicated, adapted, and discarded at the leisure of the individual. There is no need for any given software package, free or proprietary. There is a great need, though, for the functions said software performs. While products have certainly put dents in human civilization, only ideas have reshaped the word. In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, “It is a lesson which all history teaches wise men, to put trust in ideas, and not in circumstances.”
As I’m sure you know, a blog entitled “A High School Student’s Views on Software Freedom” can’t possibly last forever. In a few days, that title will become irrelevant as I enter the freshman class at the University of Minnesota to study neuroscience and physics. As a result, I am shutting down this blog for good. I’m always up for discussion, so feel free to comment or contact me on my website, and I’ll be sure to get in touch. Until then, enjoy life, make waves, let those ideas flow, and continue to abide the other side of the divide.