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The Free Software Column – Inside the code

It is in the nature of things that ideas which upset the status quo or challenge the prevailing orthodoxies are watered down to make them more acceptable, which is why the free software movement is an essential part of the landscape

Richard stallman once told an audience: “Unlike some of you, I am not an open source developer, I am an activist in the free software movement.” Free software has a different set of values to open source. All free software can be described as ‘open source’, and most open source software can be described as ‘free software’ – which is why the two movements are often treated as one, but free software claims to be more than that.

Free software is a world-changing idea, and is both appealing and threatening to the prevailing orthodoxies. It is in the nature of things that ideas which upset the status quo or challenge the prevailing orthodoxies are watered down to make them more acceptable.

The ideas that stir change are rendered safe or abandoned, and the language and symbols of rebellion are adopted as just another marketing tool. The iconic symbols of rebellious youth, from James Dean to Johnny Rotten, are swallowed up and regurgitated as useful tools for the sale of jeans or the marketing of butter.

Che Guevara is recycled as a T-shirt icon, and his image has been used to sell everything from Olivetti computers to Jean Paul Gautier sunglasses. And free software has been renegotiated as open source; and open source as open core, or open edge. Open source has become a useful buzzword to entice developers and produce better software. But the idea of free software lives on.

The role of free software is not to make ‘better software’ or to make things easy for business, although these may be useful side effects. The intent of free software is make the code that runs our lives as transparent and accessible as the workings of a steam engine or a car. In the words of Lawrence Lessig, code “is the technology that makes computers run. Whether inscribed in software or burned in hardware, it is the collection of instructions, first written in words, that directs the functionality of machines. These machines – computers – increasingly define and control our life. They determine how phones connect, and what runs on TV. They decide whether video can be streamed across a broadband link to a computer. They control what a computer reports back to its manufacturer. These machines run us. Code runs these machines.

“What control should we have over this code? What understanding? What freedom should there be to match the control it enables? What power?”
Copyleft and free software are an attempt to reconcile this problem, and to make the code that runs our lives accessible to anyone who wants “to take that control, and modify it as he or she sees fit…”

Software may be an unlikely medium for social change, and an inauspicious starting point. However, during the last couple of decades, the free software movement has proved as effective as many conventional social movements with regard to rallying diverse individuals from many different communities to a common cause, and shining a light on one small but important corner of our lives.