I got both more and less than I bargained for. At both the beginning and the end of the interview, Dr. Stallman correctly states that the two problems have fundamentally little in common, the free software movement being a fight against oppression, while the environmental crisis is more of a byproduct of doing things the easy way. As I listened, I realized that I was learning not so much as how to solve the environmental crisis, but more about how to develop an effective strategy to solve a global problem. And, as outlined in the interview, free software is a serious global issue.
Richard talks about many important issues – the importance of focus, not allowing short-term steps to distract from long-term goals, how to overcome social inertia, giving users access to tools to develop and control their world, and the fact that solving one crisis doesn’t solve them all. There are a few fascinating overlaps between computers and environmental issues that are discussed, but after spending an hour with Richard, talking about 25 his years of experience in the free software movement, I found them somewhat incidental. Here’s it is.
Mjo: Do you want something to drink?
Rms: Water is fine for me.
Mjo: So my wife got a job in
Rms: What kind of stuff? I couldn’t hear that.
Mjo: I work on different systems related to environmental problems, compliance, that sort of thing, it’s pretty interesting. And that’s how I got into the whole environmental movement.
Rms: So, are these programs custom software, proprietary software, or free software?
Mjo: They are a mix of all of them.
Rms: It’s a shame to use proprietary software. There’s nothing wrong with developing custom software, but it’s a shame to base it on proprietary software.
Mjo: I agree with you, it’s the way the systems were originally set up. So I am very interested in the relationship between computers and the environment. I have a blog of my own, and I write for some other blogs as well. So, I had a post on using ‘Linux’, and I didn’t use the proper terminology (GNU/Linux). I have educated myself since then, and I thought it would be nice after reading something about you on the Internet, I know that you have some environmental affiliations of some sort, and I thought it would be great if you could talk about them.
Rms: Well, my main area of activism is freedom for computer users. That’s not an environmental issue.
Mjo: You don’t think it is?
Rms: No. I think distinctions are useful and I don’t want to erase them. The issue of freedom for computer users is not an environmental issue. They are different issues, and both issues are important; I think it is a mistake to over-generalize them. Just because two issues are important doesn’t mean that they are similar.
Mjo: So, you don’t think the free software movement and the environmental movement share any commonalities?
Rms: That’s not what I said. I said that free software is not an environmental issue; it’s a freedom from domination issue. If you use a non-free a proprietary program, then you are under the power of the developers; that’s unjust. The proprietary software forbids the users to share, and they keep users helpless. So they are divided and helpless, and that’s wrong. The goal of the free software movement is to correct that rule, to put an end to that rule, that unjust practice.
Mjo: And it seems like you are doing a pretty good job of it.
Rms: Well, we have made a good start - it would be a mistake to say that we have all but won. We are not that close to victory, as you can see by the fact that you, for instance, use non-free software in the custom solutions that you develop. Most of your readers are using proprietary operating systems like Microsoft Windows or Mac OS, and probably most of them have never even heard of the idea that it is not just a question of choosing this product or that product - it's a question of their rights.
Mjo: I agree, I certainly had never heard of it, until I did start developing certain systems I was working on, and I did actually have to look into the free software GNU license to see what was involved.
Rms: Well, that’s good.
Mjo: Yes, so I had some exposure to it, and I read quite a bit before I met with you to familiarize myself with it.
Rms: So… there are people that when you are speaking to an audience that is interested in environmental issues, will try and cast whatever they want to talk about as an environmental issue, and I think that’s twisting things a little.
Mjo: You don’t think there’s any relationship between the two?
Rms: There’s a relationship in the sense that they both relate to ethics, justice, and how society should govern itself, which is a very broad area and includes lots of things. So I often cite the environmental movement as an analogy for the free software movement, just to show what kind of movement we are talking about. They are both movements to do something about a serious global problem, but the two problems are different problems. So, in a sense, environmental issues are a byproduct - it is very rare that anyone deliberately tries to poison the environment. That’s not generally the goal, it’s somebody who wants to do something, and the most efficient or cheapest way to do it is to poison the environment. And since he doesn’t give a damn, he does it that way. By contrast, the problem of proprietary software, the problem of software developers having power over computer users, is that they prefer it that way, as part of their business model. “Keep the users divided and helpless and that way we can make more money.”
Mjo: You’re talking about the Microsoft’s, the big vendors…
Rms: Big and small. This isn’t an issue of monopoly. To have a choice between proprietary programs is only to be able to choose your master. That’s not freedom. And it’s not really about the size of the companies involved either. It’s about what practice they there are engaged in.
The free software movement believes there are four essential freedoms that users of software should have. The four essential freedoms are:
Freedom 0 - The freedom to run the program as you wish.
Freedom 1 - The freedom to study the source code and change it, so the program does what you wish.
Freedom 2 - The freedom to help your neighbor, which is the freedom to distribute copies to others.
Freedom 3 - The freedom to contribute to your community, which is the freedom to distribute your modified program.
All four of these are freedoms, not requirements, so you are not required to do any of these things. You have the freedom; you can do what you wish. It does not mean you are required to do anything. If you don’t have these freedoms that means that the users are kept divided and helpless, unable to share with each other, unable to take control of the software. With free software, the users both individually and collectively have control. You are free to take control of your copy. You can do this personally as a programmer if you are a programmer or if you want to learn some programming; but you can also persuade or pay someone else to do it for you, so you don’t have to be a programmer to use this freedom. The freedom to publish your modified version means that we can work together to control the software. So the users have control individually (if they choose to exercise it, because exercising it takes work), and the users collectively also control the software. So you might choose to exercise your personal direct control, but you can also decide to only excise it when it’s important. You might decide a program is good enough, so you leave it to others. You decide how much you participate in the collective decision making. This is a kind of democracy.
Free software is democratically developed software, proprietary software is a dictatorship.
To understand what these four freedoms mean and why they are important, think of recipes. People who cook are accustomed to cooking recipes freely, whenever they wish; well that’s freedom zero. They are also accustomed to studying the recipes and thinking about them and changing them; that’s freedom one. They also are accustomed to handing out copies of the recipes -- that’s freedom two -- and they are also are accustomed to handing out copies of their modified versions of their recipes (if they want to take the trouble, that is more work). Well that’s freedom three. It’s the same four freedoms, and that should be no surprise, because the programs and the recipes are both works of knowledge, meaning they are used for jobs, to do the tasks in your life. With proprietary programs, you don’t control them, they control you. And if you are not free to share them, then you can’t be a member of the community of cooperation. So people must have these four freedoms for recipes, and also for software.
Thus, the free software movement is a movement against unjust power. We started out, I started the movement in 1983, and all I did in 1983 was to announce a plan. What I started in January 1984 was the development of a complete software system that would be free. The idea was to escape from the subjugating software by switching to free software, but we would have to develop it first. There was hardly any free software in June 1983; today, because of the free software movement, there is a wide range of free software. There are operating systems, there are developers, and no software developer has power over you.
We are building a new kind continent in cyberspace, the free world. It was impossible to be free in the old world, because every program had a lord. So the only way to be free was to escape, to migrate to a free world, which we had to build first. And because it’s a virtual continent, there’s room for everyone - everyone can move to this free virtual world to take advantage of this freedom. And there are no indigenous peoples in cyberspace, the only indigenous people were the old software sharing community, of which I was part… so the result is… unlike in the
Mjo: Do you think that the free software movement might be… I’m trying to make the connection between sustainable development and free software.
Rms: Well, sustainable development definitely has a connection with free software.
Mjo: How so?
Rms: Well, the use of proprietary software is not development at all, it’s just colonization. Proprietary software developers are essentially colonial lords in cyberspace; they try to establish their dominion over users’ computers, and thus over their users and their computers. And you could never trust them, because they could be putting malicious features in your software. Both Windows and Mac OS both contain malicious features designed to restrict the users, and they are increasing them.
Mjo: I agree, don’t you think its getting it’s getting worse and worse, particularly in the last few years?
Rms: Much worse, because they have gained so much power than they are using it to gain more power.
Mjo: Do you think that their power is threatened by the free software movement?
Rms: They can see that they are threatened, that their dominion is threatened, but at the same time although they can see it, it hasn’t yet taken over most of their dominion.
Mjo: But it’s going in that direction.
Rms: We hope, but you can’t predict the future, and underestimating the enemy is a recipe for losing. So it would be a terrible mistake to take for granted that freedom will win.
Mjo: But you must feel pretty good about it…
Rms: I don’t really know whether we are going to win, because that depends on you and your readers. But the point is that the use of subjugating software is not development, because that is a technology that the local community is not allowed to understand, repair, adapt or extend, it’s not really under the control of the people that live in that world. While free software is under the control of the local people anywhere in the world, and everyone is using it. So the use of free software is development, because people are using technology than they can control. Only free software constitutes development, everything else is colonization. You got to have the control over the software you are using or you are being colonized, so yes, when we get to the question of sustainable development, free software is relevant, directly relevant, to the extent that the development involves computer technology.
You will find people who are into single issue politics who make their issues out to be the be all and end all of life and they say that solving this problem will miraculously make all of life wonderful. But I’m not going to make that mistake. Free software is a vital issue for people who use computers, but there are lots of vital issues in freedom that aren’t particularly related to computers. And there are other kinds of issues such as protecting the environment, which are different kinds of issues, which are also important, and they sometimes relate to computers but not always. So we shouldn’t over simplify the world. This is not a matter of one question.
Mjo: Yes, and you don’t think that’s solving the proprietary software problems, or the environmental problems, will make life wonderful for everyone.
Rms: No I don’t. The world has a lot of issues in it and solving one social problem doesn’t automatically solve all the others. So I don’t want to say that, if we switch to free software, that will make all of life wonderful, but it will eliminate one form of evil subjugation that it going on.
Mjo: You are surprisingly low key about it, you’re very equanimous. Did you get my analogy about the coffee makers?
Rms: No I don’t remember it.
Mjo: One of the questions that I thought would be interest was the relationship between the linking of free software and hardware. It seems that the free software movement thinks that is not a good idea… I’m talking about the tivoization of software.
Rms: Oh right, well that stops you from controlling the software.
Mjo: Yes, and I agree and I think that might be some pretty heavy environmental repercussions from that happening. Say you have a washing machine, and there’s a circuit board in there, and there’s a program that runs the software to wash the clothes. But, you don’t know what the software is…
Rms: Yeah, it’s proprietary.
Mjo: Right, so if it was free software, maybe some guy could figure out a way to get the clothes washed the cheapest, using the least amount of energy or water. Well, that would be great because you could upload it into your washer, and the world could save a billion gallons of water.
Rms: You’re right, on the other hand he could also find a way to wash the clothes that would make them dirtier, but he likes it better for some other reason. I think people should be in control, but we also need environmental regulations. Regulations to stop people from polluting, and laws restricting what we can do, are important. However, you can’t expect that placing people totally under the power of large businesses is a solution to the problem of pollution. In fact, it would likely increase pollution, for businesses very systemically try to sabotage environmental regulations. And they can afford to employ lots of clever people figuring out how to do so.
Mjo: Do you see things getting any better or worse?
Rms: I can’t predict the future. But it is part of a general political problem, which is the sickness of democracy, government of the people by the cronies for the corporations. And I don’t know how to solve that problem. If I did, I would be implementing a solution. I would be the savoir of the world.
Mjo: Well, you are saving the world in your own way.
Rms: I’m saving the world from one problem, but if I knew how to correct this bigger problem, I would. But, I don’t know how any better than anyone else knows how.
Mjo: Do you ever see commonalities between your work and the climate change problems? You are a member of the green party – I mean, are you a member of the green party?
Rms: I don’t how exactly you define member. But I have sent them money, and would like to send them money again; I need to find their address. I moved too many times and they have lost track of me.
Mjo: I wish my alma mater would do that, they keep finding me! Do you look for a lot of commonalities, solving a lot of problems at once?
Rms: No, no. I haven't been able to think of any way to solve the problem of the sickness of democracy, let alone solve that together with another problem. It would be a huge effort. It's a power structure which is very powerful and defends its power. It's hard to see what to do about it.
Mjo: I think I know what you are going to say, but one of the other things I thought of was some of these new technologies that have come out, new software that has come, are you familiar with virtualization?
Rms: I’m not completely sure what you mean by that.
Mjo: That where you have a server running some applications, then you write the whole thing out to a binary file, and you host that file on another computer to emulate that system in its entirety.
Rms: I think I know what you are saying; you are talking about a virtual machine.
Mjo: That’s right.
Rms: Well virtual machines are not really new, I used a virtual machine in 1969. I don’t see that they raise any specific new issue regarding free software.
Mjo: The driver I am thinking of is that that a lot of platforms for virtualization are proprietary.
Rms: But there is a free one (Xen), and just like any other kind of software: for the sake of your freedom and others', you shouldn't use non-free software.
Mjo: Even if you could cut your power bill by 80 percent?
Rms: You shouldn’t use non-free software, and it’s ridiculous to assume that this job can only be done by non-free software. It may be the case today, that a particular job may have only non-free software to do it, but if you use that non-free software you are securing the establishment of an unjust power structure. So what you should do is, if you wanted to make your computer do that particular thing, is to support the development of free software to do it.
Mjo: And do you think we have time to do that?
Rms: What do you mean time to do that? How long does it take? You’re being silly.
Mjo: Well for you, it might not take very long…
Rms: I know, but how much time does it take? I'm not going to be the one that is doing it because I have other work -- I'm focusing more on these issues of freedom, not on writing software -- but there are lots of other people writing free software.
And what's the desperate hurry? Whatever we do [with computers], if we have to wait a few years to do it and keep our freedom, then we can wait a few years.
And, as you said, there already is free software for virtual machines, so maybe it is just lacking some feature that would be nice. Well, that's an even smaller job - you just need to add that feature.
People are really adept at making excuses, usually based on short term desires, for using non-free software. Well, I won't accept those short term goals as a reason to give up our freedom. It's much harder to get your freedom back once you give it up.
Mjo: And do you think people have fallen into that habit?
Rms: I don't know. I don't follow such things so this is just speculation. Maybe there's something that makes it somewhat easier to set up, and so they typically set it up the easy way. So, they buy more machines because that’s not very expensive really anymore, and even it means more electricity too, because that’s not very expensive right now either. So they have got two ways to avoid that: one is to put several servers on a single computer, or they can have these several different computers running virtual as machines, all in one [physical] computer. So maybe they find the first approach a little complicated and the second one is easy; well, I’m not against it, but it’s a mistake to say it is immediately necessary to save electricity or whatever and people have to use non-free software.
Even assuming that there weren't free software to implement it - and there is, in fact they can implement that method using free software, but just imagine that the free software didn't exist - then it would still be invalid to conclude that this savings could only be achieved by using non-free software. You would just have to run several different servers on one machine.
Mjo: Well, you’re right, actually.
Rms: So this shows how people take flimsy invalid excuses and stretch them to excuse doing what they want to be doing (because it's the usual way or whatever). It's a common practice when using non-free software, and that's our biggest obstacle: social inertia.
So how do we overcome social inertia?
Well the first step is to recognize it, and to show how is not valid. People want to give into social inertia because it's easy. But they don't want to say, "I want to do the wrong thing because it’s easier for me to do the wrong thing." So they exaggerate - they say doing the right thing is simply impossible. Impossible they say. Intolerable. It's always a matter of exaggeration, often several steps of exaggeration in series. So whenever I hear that, I start pointing out why it’s fallacious.
Mjo: I agree, in fact I think you did an excellent job refuting virtualization but isn’t it true that one of the things people often say about free software is exactly this - one of the biggest things is that the free software program doesn’t exist, or it’s not near the level of the proprietary program?
Rms: No they don’t often say that. Well, they say that but it isn’t usually true. You will find people who do thousands of things with their computer and if they find one thing that they occasionally do which has no free implementation they will say ‘Oh, free software is unusable’. It’s another form of exaggeration.
Mjo: That is inspiring. It does make a lot of sense that people make a lot of excuses for doing what they want. It’s been going on for quite some time, and I imagine it will continue to some degree.
Rms: Well I can’t predict the future but what interests me is how we can influence it. We can influence it by not getting so much packaging, putting bricks in our toilet, and we can influence it by rejecting proprietary software. And, in that way, we will gain freedom for ourselves, and freedom for everyone who uses computers. And computers are becoming more important.
Mjo: So is really what is required is for people to stand up in board room meetings, and start talking about free software?
Rms: Yes, they need to start discussing these issues of freedom instead of these other issues. People have to recognize that software is not a mere tool that is unimportant as long as it gets a particular job done. You have to recognize that the problems that relate to computing come from the fact that somebody has power that nobody should have.
Mjo: I do think that people recognize that at some level, even people that are in a totally Microsoft shop, they do recognize that at some level.
Rms: I don't know how you can make a generalization about so many people. What I find is that many people have never even considered that there might be a political issue about the licensing of software. They just take it for granted. They say, "We need these products" - they say they need them; they don't recognize that they could do things another way. "These are the licenses, and we accept these licenses, but we don't care, we only care how much we pay and what the software does." This is the perspective of a person that doesn't appreciate freedom.
Now, maybe they appreciate freedom in other areas of life, I can't say, but in that area of life [computing] they are paying no attention.
Mjo: Isn’t there also a question of fear as well?
Rms: Oh I don’t know. There may be. It takes work; you have to learn something new. But you can.
Mjo: It takes risk too, if you are a business you have to take risk too.
Rms: No, lots of people use free software, it’s not a risk. You are taking a risk by using non-free software; you have no idea what they are going to demand of you with the next version.
Mjo: That's true, and it’s getting worse.
Rms: Right, so the real risk is from being under the power of somebody else that wants to use that power to make money, and will use it against you to make money. And with free software, nobody has that kind of power. Now you will still need people to maintain your shop and you will still need programmers to have changes made, but instead of relying upon one particular entity, you simply rely on society around you. It’s much better. With free software, if you want something changed, you can decide which programmer to hire, and there are lots of them.
Mjo: Yes, ultimately it’s probably much safer, don’t you think?
Rms: Absolutely. In fact many non-free programs contain back doors. Actually Microsoft Windows contains a back door, although many people don’t call it that. If you are using the most recent version of Windows, then Microsoft more or less knows you are, and when you ask for an upgrade they can give you an upgrade designed just for you. And it could do whatever they wanted to do.
Mjo: Is that a risk that other countries have recognized?
Mjo: And isn’t this then a big driver for them to ditch Microsoft?
Rms: Right, the question is on back doors that are used by terrorist organizations. A few years ago in
Lots of non-free programs have malicious features. Because the developer has power, the developer can think “Aha, if I put in this malicious feature the users will be helpless. They may grumble, but they won’t go to the actual trouble of not using my program because that will be hard, that will be work. So they will just accept it, and now I can abuse them.” Temptation is there for lots of non-free software developers, because they have the power to put in a malicious feature; you can’t take them out. With free software that temptation doesn’t exist; it’s as ludicrous as trying to walk into a bank with a banana and rob the bank. I mean, you wouldn’t think they would give you any money, they would just laugh. So, there’s no temptation. Where guns give people that temptation because they could be used as real weapons, bananas don’t. It’s a real temptation, and many of them give in. There are probably others who don’t give in, but we don’t know who they are. We can never be sure.
Mjo: Do you think
Rms: Well actually I don’t know if that is true, because the extent to which people recognize that varies from country to country. There are countries where people are very sensitive to the threat, to their national security, to using proprietary software, and there are other countries that hardly pay attention, perhaps because they are so thoroughly under the thumb of the
Mjo: Actually, there was a big article in the New York Times today about the oil, and how they are going to take over all the oil firms, nationalize them.
Rms: Well, good for them. But they had to fight to reclaim control over their own national state affiliated oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela SA (PDVSA). The
Mjo: So you really are talking about a war, a virtual war here.
Rms: It is like a war tactic, yes. Microsoft’s willingness to do these things, to put in back doors in on behalf of the
Mjo: This oil example is a good one, particularly for
Rms: Even in
Rms: I really don’t know. Maybe you could detect the influence of Microsoft. It may partly be people who know how to do things with Windows, and thus their expertise is valuable. With free software they would be starting from zero - that doesn’t mean they couldn’t learn it, but they would have to be starting over again and they would lose their advantage.
Mjo: Yes, but I think this might be a big environmental issue. If computer systems control a lot of the resources that are in demand such as oil, then maybe not directly, but you could get a software vendor to essentially control the resource, through the computer system. Isn’t that true?
Rms: Yes and no. You wouldn’t find that happening in normal circumstances, because when you did that to a business, the business would get very angry at you. However, in unusual circumstances, such as the Venezuelan petroleum stoppage, then yes, they bring out these weapons. Yeah, it’s sort of like other weapons; in peacetime, the weapons are not being used, it’s only when it comes to a crisis, then somebody starts a war.
Mjo: And if we have a resource crisis, and there is a bunch of them going on all over the world…
Rms: You might find that happening. Countries might be attacking each other though their computer systems, through Windows for instance. But interestingly in
Mjo: I thought they moved to free software?
Rms: Well yes, the ministers decided to that they wanted to move to free software, but a lot of the professors in universities decided that they have no wish to ever move. They are using gratis unauthorized copies of Windows, and Microsoft can’t do anything to stop them, so as far as they are concerned, they feel safe.
Mjo: I don’t see the safety there.
Rms: Well, they haven’t exactly thought of it in terms of national security.
Mjo: Oh I see. They are kind of asleep.
Rms: Right, that’s a better way to put it. So they just think “I don’t want to change. I’m teaching the students how to use Windows; I know what to teach them. Why change?” The students in many cases want to move to free software - I gave a speech at the
Mjo: Do you find that younger people in general would like to move to free software? I know you don’t like to talk in generalities.
Rms: Well they may be… I don’t’ know. I mean it may be a large fraction; I have not attempted to measure this however. I can tell you specific examples that I have heard, but to draw broad conclusions is hard.
Mjo: I was wondering if younger people might embrace the freedom, they might embrace the freedom more than an old geezer like me.
Rms: Some yes and some no. People react differently, people have different attitudes. There are people who look at the question in purely selfish terms, how they can make more money.
Mjo: Very interesting. Well what can ‘Joe User’ do to support free software?
Rms: When you buy a computer make sure that you choose hardware that fully supports free software.
Mjo: Isn’t that most computers?
Rms: It depends, there are a few areas in which that is not so. For instance many wireless devices do not work with free software. Many graphic accelerators don’t work with free software. There is a project to change that, to develop drivers for nVidia cards; maybe in a year they will have it working. But anyway, pay attention to the choice of hardware. And there are some pages in fsf.org that list the hardware that works with free software.
And then, install the free software on it. Get rid of non-free software. Defenestrate your computer. There are two ways to defenestrate your computer: you can throw Windows out of the computer, or the computer out the window.
Mjo: And by free software, do you recommend installing GNU with the Linux kernel?
Rms: That’s one, that’s the most common free operating system, but there are others. And ethically speaking the important thing is not which free software you are using, the point is to escape from proprietary software.
Mjo: Well, I have to say it is very inspiring listening to you. You have a powerful argument,
Rms: Every area in which we eliminate corporate domination may help put an end to corporate domination, which tends to be bad for the environment in general. I won’t say that that’s a very direct connection, and I won’t say that that putting an end to proprietary software will automatically fix the problem of extreme capitalism. But it can help.
Mjo: Can you think of any instance where implementing a free software solution could directly help the environment?
Rms: Directly, no. It’s not that common that your choice of software directly effects the environment, directly affects the amount of pollution or waste that you produce. Pollution is produced by processes.
Mjo: Is there anything else Richard?
Rms: Well there are a few websites that people should be aware of. There’s badvista.org, which explains why people should not use
Wow, that was as amazing as it was long. Despite his articulate refusal to create parallels between environmental activism and the free software movement I believe Stallman strikes the heart of the biggest challenge of the climate crisis: how to get people to do the right thing instead of the easy thing?
For instance...why change the way we develop buildings or drive our cars when we can purchase the cheapest, perhaps totally unqualified or even detrimental, offsets we can find and pretend we're no longer contributing to a problem?
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