It’s Not About the Software

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.

Published in: on August 27, 2011 at 5:44 pm  Comments (13)  


  1. Very nice argument and I believe you are completely correct! You’ve put into words what I have been thinking for years now.
    It’s the idea of humanity, the greater good, access for all!
    Mark Shuttleworth says it best with his naming of Ubuntu: Humanity, I am because we are!
    These ideas are what make LibreSoftware superior for me. It’s why I never say Open Source, and why I could never embrace the “Apple Walled Garden” and Apple idea of exclusivity and status symbol.

    Good luck to you as enter University and good luck in your life. You will do well because your heart is in the right place.

  2. Excellent analysis! I believe libre software is a fertile ground to the universal idea of commonwealth of the human being.

  3. I like the opposition you highlight between ideas and consumer products. Maybe the defining feature of the world we’re living in now is that capitalism seems to want to turn everything into a product: people in the music industry often refer to music as “product” rather than “art”, workers are seen as not as rights bearing people but simply another commodity to be bought on the global market, etc. Free software resists being understood as simply a product. But instead of an idea, I prefer to think of free software as a political movement. (Even though most computer programmers seem to have an allergic reaction to the word “political,” the word is generally seen as having a positive connotation in the Humanities.) Stallman certainly seems to understand free software as a political movement (hence his use of the word “activism”), and the fact that the heart of the free software movement is really a legal license (the gpl) suggests that what we’re engaged in is not simply the free exchange of ideas, but the political struggle to create and maintain the very space in which the free exchange (perhaps “cooperative collaboration”?) of ideas is possible (as opposed to the for-profit exchange of products in the marketplace).

  4. I would like to take this further. All software consist of ideas and that people who act elsewise are the problem.

    BTW: user/developer freedom, not software freedom. Software freedom will lead to a robot apocalypse.

  5. As an ex-programer, I see “libre” as the freedom to use my hardware as I see fit and not being locked into a large corporation’s business plan. I am able to choose from a variety of desktop configurations and programs to have my systems do what I want them to do in the way I like to work with them. I can even nurse along older hardware that still serves my needs, including a 12 yr. old Compaq laptop, with one of the smaller distros.

    I came to linux after u$ obsoleted my computer and its software (W98, a POS that I had come to terms with), forcing me to purchase XP in order to maintain my productivity. I vowed that it would be my last u$ purchase. Once I had XP installed, I started my Linux learning experience in the dual boot mode. My only use for XP now is to view some proprietary file formats that Linux software and my mature DVD player can’t open. I don’t care for Window$ any more but overall, it is a matter of what I am used to than anything else…and why would I want to enslave myself to Redmond’s whims again? I roll my own desktops and have no need for lap/nettops or smartphonies (they are too damned small for “mature” eyes to see, designed by and for adolescents). What a trog, right?

    My programming experience, all in Pascal, is pretty obsolete and mostly forgotten now and my attention span has deteriorated to the point that learning the newer languages is beyond me.I am grateful to the developers of “libre” software who protect my freedom and I make what financial contributions I can, providing what feedback I can and trying to help others in the forums when I don’t need the help myself.

  6. […] It’s Not About the Software 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. […]

  7. 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.

    uhm, you are missesing the fact that for non-free software, there is no choice at all as to who to hire, it is the author and no one else, which means not only that i can’t negotiate a good price to get the work done, but in many cases i can’t negotiate at all because the author does not care to fix a problem for a single user.

    and even as a non-programmer, i can take advantage of others peoples fixes. in many cases the chance is that i don’t need to hire anyone to fix my problem, i just need to ask around to find out if someone else already fixed the problem and then use that.

    for non-free software such fixes just don’t exist.

    greetings, eMBee.

  8. btw: why close your blog? just rename it 🙂

    • I’m closing it mainly because the title doesn’t apply anymore, but also because I feel I’ve exhausted my opinions on free software. Sure, I could repeat myself, but that’s no fun for you to read or for me to write. All I’ve published in the last year is the release announcement for WriteType, which I can easily publish elsewhere. If I do end up starting a new blog, it won’t be free software themed. I will continue to stay active in the free software community, but I think I’m done writing about it for a while.

  9. It’s correct, it isn’t about the software in and of itself.

    But it isn’t about ‘ideas’ either (someone just watched V for Vendetta again or something?).

    It’s about freedom – of people. It’s about the freedom of people to use and share – but without the freedom to refuse those rights to other people. And increasingly it’s about the freedom of citizens to interact with their own government and take part in their own country’s future.

    It’s definitely not about ideas, although it is based on one: `freedom’.

    I also think you’re discounting the worth of being able to pay anybody to work on the software if you are unable to yourself – this is a very very important and extremely valuable feature of free software.

    And at the end of the day, the physical software is still important – you need this to perform the work and implement the ideas. This is why free software is so much more valuable, no single entity can take it away from everyone else. Given how much it costs to make good software, being able to avoid the waste is economically important as well.

  10. To me, open source is more coherent with social democratic values than other software licenses. This is why I use it. (Well, that and the fact that Debian Etch liked my hardware.)

  11. I really enjoyed this analysis. As a university student myself, I’m trying to migrate people to GNU/Linux(and other free software programs on windows, for dual booters) for the last three years, and the one thing I find is that people dont want to understand something ‘philosophical’. I always use the term Free & Libre software instead of open source because it describes the spirit. I’m surely going to quote your analysis in the line of seminars I plan to arrange in the local schools.
    And yes, best of luck for physics 😀

  12. If you have a new blog; I am very interested. Please let me know!


    (You are amazing by the way!)

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