I recently happened upon an article1 that argued against the four freedoms as defined by the Free Software Foundation. I don’t actually want to link to the article—its tone is rather rude and unsavoury, and I do not want to end up in a kerfuffle—but I’ll include an obfuscated link at the end of the article for the sake of integrity.
The article—in spite of how much I disagree with its conclusions—inspired me to reflect on idealism and the inadequacy of things. Those are the things I want to write about in this article.
So instead of refuting all the points with arguments and counter-arguments, my article is going to work a little differently. I’m going to concede a lot of points and truths to the author. I’m also going to assume that they are ultimately wrong, even though I won’t make any arguments to the contrary. That’s simply not what I want to do in this article, and smarter people than I have already made a great case for the four freedoms. Rather, I want to follow the author’s arguments to where they lead, or to where they do not.
The four freedoms
The four freedoms of free software are four conditions that a program must meet before it can be considered free. They are—roughly—the freedoms to (1.) use, (2.) study, (3.) share, and (4.) improve the program. The assertion is that if any of these conditions is not met, the user is meaningfully and helplessly restricted in how they can exercise their personal liberties.
The aforementioned article views this a little differently, however. Specifically, I found its retorts on the first and second freedoms interesting.
The first freedom
The first freedom—in full—is “the freedom to run the program as you wish, for any purpose”. The retort goes a little like this, using generous paraphrasing:
The freedom to use the program for any purpose is a meaningless freedom. It is the programmer—and by extension, the program—that determines the parameters of the program’s purpose. If it is the program’s purpose to display image files, then try as you might, but it’s not going to send any e-mails. Furthermore, the “free” program might even contain purposes that you find undesirable whereas a “non-free” program might not.
There’s one very interesting thing about this retort. You see, the author doesn’t actually make any factual errors on the face of it. An image viewer cannot send e-mails, and some non-free programs exhibit less undesirable behaviours than their free counterparts. These things are true, but truths is all they are. Something is missing…
The second freedom
In the article, the author points towards one free program that they consider harmful or malicious, accusing it of containing a lot of anti-features. Furthermore, they emphasise the uselessness of the second freedom to study and change the program. Paraphrased:
Even supposing that you have the uncommon ability to read and write source code, this program is so thoroughly complex that you can’t meaningfully study or alter it. And supposing that you do manage to adjust the program, you would have to keep pace with upstream’s updates, which is such a labour-intensive, nigh-insurmountable task that you might end up wondering what use this freedom is to you if it’s practically impossible to make any use of it.
The author goes on to add that there exist other, better programs that achieve approximately the same thing as this malicious free program, but without the anti-features. To the author, the fact that the malicious program is free is a useless distinction—it’s malicious, after all—and they could not care one way or another whether the better program is free or not. They care that it’s better. What use is freedom if you have to suffer worse programs?
And, you know, the author is right—again. All the logic follows. But this is all very matter-of-fact. It’s stating the obvious. It’s repeating the way that things are, and concluding that that’s how it is. Which it is. And there may well be a lot to this state of affairs. But, well, that’s all it is. There’s nothing more to it than that which is, in fact, the case.
Am I losing you yet?
An intermission: the future is behind us
In some languages, when people use gestures to aid in speech, they gesture ahead of them to signal the past, and behind them to signal the future. If you’re like me, this may seem absurd. Surely the past is behind us and the future ahead of us. We move forward through time, don’t we? Ever onward.
But then you look at the English language, and it starts to make a modicum of sense. We use the words “before” and “behind/after” both in spatial and temporal contexts. If we imagine a straight narrow hallway containing me and a cat, and I am looking towards the cat, then we would say that the cat is standing before me. If we also imagine a straight line of time, and the cat jumps first, and I jump second, then we would also say that the cat jumped before I did.
The above graphic should make this idea a little clearer. In both the perspectives, I am looking at the before. As a matter of fact, in the temporal perspective, it’s the only perceivable direction. If the cat turns around in the hallway, it can see me. If the cat turns around in the timeline, it can see nothing—just the great uncertainty of the future that has not yet happened. It needs to wait until I jump in order to perceive it, by which time it’s looking towards the past—the before—again.
The future is necessarily behind us, after us.
Staring at one’s feet
Let’s create an analogy and stretch it beyond its limits. If we place the author on the aforementioned timeline, then I’m going to assert that the author is neither looking ahead towards the past to learn from history, nor turns their head to look behind to the future to imagine what it could look like. Rather, they are looking down, staring at their feet on the exact spot in time which they occupy.
There’s a Machiavellian immediacy to the author’s arguments—faced with a certain set of circumstances, it’s the author’s responsibility to choose what’s best at this moment in time. But the immediacy is also immensely short-sighted. The article contains no evaluation of the past—no lessons drawn from the past abuses of non-free software—and the article neither contains a coherent vision of the future. If not free software, then what?
Better software, the author responds.
A stiff neck
“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses” is a quote misattributed to Henry Ford of automobile fame. It’s often used to emphasise that people don’t actually know what they want, but I like it more as a metaphor for the blindness towards the future and an inability to imagine. People don’t know what could be, so when prompted about a better future, their response is effectively “like the status quo, but better”.
This sentiment is echoed in Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (2009). The book talks about “the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it”. “It is easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism”, Fisher attributes to Fredric Jameson and Slavoj Žižek.
In this sense, I think that horses and capitalism are analogous to non-free software. There exists a time before all these things, and there exists a time after them. But because our backs are turned to the future, we can’t see it—we must imagine it.
This strikes at the heart of why the author inspired me to write this article. To me, the author demonstrates a rigid, stubborn incapability of turning their head and imagining a future that isn’t just the present, but better. The author tackles an ideology—a way of imagining a different, better future—without ever lifting their head from staring at their feet.
And that’s fascinating.
Painting in the mind’s eye
Now, suppose I could visit the author and (gently!) turn their head to face the future. Without intending to come across as insulting, I’m not entirely certain that the author would see anything other than a void. Of course, seeing a void is entirely reasonable—when we turn our eyes to the future, we’re trying to see something that does not exist.
Looking at the future, therefore, is an exercise in creativity. The void is a potentially blank canvas on which one can paint. And like painting, it’s easiest to paint something you’re currently looking at, harder to paint something from memory, and hardest to paint something you’ve never before seen. And frankly, it’s really uncomfortable to twist your neck to look behind you.
But sometimes, even simply lifting one’s head feels like a struggle. Because the past isn’t any different from the future in one important aspect—it is not immediately perceptible. We can look at the present by opening our eyes, but we need either artefacts or imagination to paint the past. The fewer artefacts or memories we have, the harder it becomes to perceive the past.
La langue anglaise
If you’re reading this, chances are you’re invested in software freedom, and you don’t exactly struggle to see the common vision of a future with free software. But I want to nonetheless try to demonstrate how difficult it is to see something that does not yet exist, and how difficult it is to remember that the past exists when considering a change to the status quo. Furthermore, I want to demonstrate why someone might be hostile to our painting of the future even if they were able to see it.
This article is written in English. English, of course, is the common international language. Everybody—or at least everybody with an interest in interacting with the globe—speaks it. Surely. And what a boon this language is to the world. We can all talk to each other and understand each other, and the language is rich and flexible and– why are you looking at the Wikipedia page on English orthography? Why are you looking at the Wikipedia page on the British Empire?
You see, the English language isn’t exactly great, and comes with a lot of disadvantages. Its spelling is atrocious, the vocabulary is bigger than it has any right being, it unfairly gives native speakers an advantage, it unfairly gives countries that use the English language as an official language extra cultural influence, and some people might deservedly have some opinions on using the language of their oppressors.
Now, suppose we could imagine any future at all. Would we like to keep English as the common tongue? Well, there surely are some disadvantages to doing this. All of modern engineering—modern life—is built on top of English, so we’d have to convert all of that. It would also inevitably make art and resources from this time period less accessible. And, you know, people would have to learn a different language. Who has time for that? We’ve already settled on English, so we might as well ride it out.
These are all arguments from the status quo, however. If we equate English to non-free software, and a better auxiliary language to free software, then these arguments are the equivalent of saying that you really just want to do X, and the non-free program is simply better at doing X. Besides, you’re already using this non-free program, and it would be a hassle to switch. This line of thought is incapable of imagining a better future, and dismissive of morality. The morality of the matter was never even addressed (although I realise that I am writing my own strawman here!).
Furthermore, the arguments were entirely dismissive of the past. I take great joy in the knowledge that English is today’s lingua franca, meaning “French language” in Latin. Latin and French were, of course, the common tongues in their respective time periods. The time of the French language wasn’t even that long ago—barely over a century ago! So we’ve obviously switched languages at least twice before, and the world hasn’t at all ended, but it still seems so unthinkable to imagine a future without English.
It is easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to the English language.
Here’s the frustrating thing—you don’t even need to be able to see the future nor participate in its creation to be sympathetic to the idea that change might be desirable, or to acknowledge that a problem exists. It is entirely feasible to say that non-free software isn’t a great status quo even if you still depend on it. The least that can be asked of you is to not stand in the way of progress, and the most that can be asked is that you participate in bringing about change, but none of these are necessary for a simple act of solidarity.
So too it goes with many other things. There are a great many undesirable status quos in the world, and I don’t have the energy or capacity to look over my shoulder to imagine potential better futures for all of them, and I most certainly don’t have the capacity to participate in effecting change for all of them, but I do my bit where I can. And more importantly, I try not to get in the way.
If the wheels of time err ever on the side of progress, then one day we’ll live in a post-proprietary world. And if the wheels keep churning as they do, the people of the future will see the free software advocates of today as regressive thinkers that were at least moderately better than what came before, but worse than what came after.
In the meantime, I’m still not sure what to do about people who are staring at their feet, but at least I slightly understand where they’re coming from and where they’re headed—destination status quo.
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