Sunday, November 26, 2006

Not True For Everyone: Free Software and me

In my previous post, I described how configurability is something that techies love and cherish, and how they hate to be unable to get at the workings of a device. Given this, it's no surprise that many of us loathe most software with a fiery vengeance. Your average piece of commercial software is a "binary blob" - a string of ones and zeroes with no meaning to anyone but the computer. That represents a hideous restriction on the techie's ability to tinker with the thing.

Worse, it's a restriction that (in the strictest sense) is unnecessary. By publishing their source code, companies could solve this problem in an instant (they'd probably go out of business, but that's another issue). In fact, until about 30 years ago, that was precisely what usually happened with software. It wasn't until the late 60s, when Bill Gates sent out his infamous Open Letter to Hobbyists, that the concept of Intellectual Property really started to have an effect on software geeks.

Hard-core techies have begun to fight back. The first one to really go for the throat in this battle of cultures was a guy called Richard Stallman. In appearance and in habits he's pretty much the archetype of a techie, so it's no surprise that he should also have this drive to customise. After hitting a barrier with "closed-source" software on a printer (see here for details), Stallman struck back by creating a software license called the GPL that explicitly protected key freedoms for the user:

* The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).
* The freedom to study how the program works, and adapt it to your needs (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
* The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
* The freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements to the public, so that the whole community benefits (freedom 3). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

It has taken a long time to happen, but the GPL and its kindred "Free Software" licenses (that's free as in freedom, not free as in beer - you can usually make money selling Free Software) have started to make an impression. Maybe you've heard of Firefox? How about Apache, the most popular web server in the world? Even if you're not a geek, you might well have heard of Linux, the ultimate techie operating system. These are becoming ever more widespread. And techies the world over are rejoicing.

The Dangers of Evangelism

In fact, many of them are in some ways rejoicing too much. It's become a characteristic of the techie stereotype: we waffle on about Linux to people who aren't the least bit interested. It doesn't do any good to anyone, and it creates extremely poor Quality in our interactions with these people. Why don't we keep our powder dry, saving our spiel for those times when it can actually have an effect?

The answer is simple: we expect other people to think like us. It's intrinsically hard for human beings to realise that other people do not have the same balance of motivations as we do. In this case, techies assume that other people will have the same urge to proactively improve the Quality of their environment, the same drive to tinker with machines until their behaviour matches our desires - and the same frustration when we're artificially shut off from those opportunities.

If you possess those qualities, Free Software will be an inherently interesting concept for you. But, if you don't, the beauty of this concept will simply not exist for you. "Free Software is wonderful" is not a statement that contains any truth for most people. When we evangelise to these people, we're burning up valuable time, energy - and Quality.

This is a general feature of evangelism. For example, Christians who truly feel the joy of Jesus's presence inside them naturally assume that the motivations that give Quality to this relationship apply to everyone. They don't. Not everyone feels the need to subsume themselves in the Holy Spirit, and many people (myself included) are rather disturbed by the idea and its effects.

The same goes for lovers of sports, politics and alternative therapies. When we evangelise without casting an eye towards this issue of Quality, we become bores.

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