The Powerless Ones

By | 2011/10/12

“They were Gods once, but their worshippers either died out or were converted to the worship of other Gods. They wail and flutter around the edges of reality without substance or even thought. All they have is need.”

(“The Hidden City”, David Eddings.)

I’m not much of a David Eddings fan these days. These days I pretty much maintain that the only truly good book of his that I’ve ever read was “The Losers”. That being said, he does have a knack for turning a good phrase from time to time, and the “Powerless Ones” mentioned in “The Hidden City” constantly springs to mind when I think of people such as Richard Stallman.

Now, if you’re not a big IT geek, you may not have heard that much of Richard Stallman. Richard was instrumental in the development of the Free Software Foundation, and the GNU Project. (GNU, in this sense, is one of those self-recursive acronyms so loved in some IT circles – in this case, it stands for GNU’s Not Unix.)

Richard Stallman is a relic of a bygone age. He believes and espouses the notion that all software should be free (“free as in speech”, not “free as in beer”, as the FSF so bluntly puts it). To quote the FSF directly:

Free software is a matter of the users’ freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software. More precisely, it means that the program’s users have the four essential freedoms:

  • The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).
  • The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish (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 distribute copies of your modified versions to others (freedom 3). By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

A program is free software if users have all of these freedoms. Thus, you should be free to redistribute copies, either with or without modifications, either gratis or charging a fee for distribution, to anyone anywhere. Being free to do these things means (among other things) that you do not have to ask or pay for permission to do so.

Some time ago, Richard Stallman did some good things. He developed tools which were added into Linux distributions (“It’s GNU/Linux!”, you’ll hear some people cry fervently), and has undoubtedly contributed to the sum total of computer science endeavours. Any business using free or open source software* is using software that likely owes part of its existence to the advocacy efforts of Stallman.

But, like The Powerless Ones, we don’t have to assume that having once said and done things of import, everything Stallman says and does today is still of import.

It came as no surprise, for instance, when on the death of Steve Jobs, Stallman said:

Steve Jobs, the pioneer of the computer as a jail made cool, designed to sever fools from their freedom, has died.

As Chicago Mayor Harold Washington said of the corrupt former Mayor Daley, “I’m not glad he’s dead, but I’m glad he’s gone.” Nobody deserves to have to die – not Jobs, not Mr. Bill, not even people guilty of bigger evils than theirs. But we all deserve the end of Jobs’ malign influence on people’s computing.

Unfortunately, that influence continues despite his absence. We can only hope his successors, as they attempt to carry on his legacy, will be less effective.

That “malign influence”? That’s the bit where Apple builds products that aren’t designed from the ground up to allow the end-user to hack, tinker and play. In fact, many of Apple’s products are explicitly designed to discourage this. They don’t, for instance, allow you to officially root (hack) an iPhone, iPod Touch or iPad.

But, as I pointed out in “Apple Won. Get with the programme“, we’ve moved beyond that point in computing where everything should be done to ensure that geeks get 100% satisfaction:

I think Apple almost inherently offends a lot of overclockers because it creates a much more closed in system. That closed in system means they can’t tweak components, performance, etc., to their hearts’ desire: from the most basic (theming the OS) through to the most complex (hacking it to run on any hardware), Apple sacrifice non-consumer extensibility at the expense of making it more accessible to an increasing number of consumers. Nothing demonstrated this more than iOS – be it on the iPad or iPhone, or even the iPod Touch. Both for the consumers, and for the overclockers.

Stallman views the world still from the early computer-era perspective. He wants to get in and tinker. He wants to experiment. He wants to change. He wants to share what he’s changed with others. All of which are admirable things, but that’s not the evolutionary path that technology takes. Technology becomes simpler, it becomes easier, it becomes more reliable.

The sad thing is, in his demand to change, he’s remaining remarkably stagnant, and wants to force that stagnation on all of us.

Stallman tends to come out swinging against a lot of different technologies these days, often in a highly amusing way. For instance, he’s dead set against Facebook, and has on his main page:

Facebook’s face recognition demonstrates a threat to everyone’s privacy. I therefore ask people not to put photos of me on Facebook; you can do likewise.

Yet, a Google search for “Richard Stallman” images yields over 280,000 results. OK, not all of those results are going to be photos of him, but the initially returned results are. His face is already “out there”. His increasingly histrionic appearing proclamations of security and privacy fail to take into account the changing political and personal landscape out there – there are new privacy boundaries for users in the digital age, and all the screaming into the void that he wants to do will achieve nought, save creating the impression that he goes to bed wearing a copper-mesh hat.

Stallman really could use reading and digesting the contents of Danah Boyd’s “Making Sense of Privacy and Publicity“. (I suggest you do, too.)

Would it alter his perception one iota?


A philosophy lecturer once said (and may have been paraphrasing someone else) “old ideas don’t die out. It’s just the people who hold them do.”

The notion of a world full of only free software – where everyone is a programmer and can tinker and play with their software as much as they want, where they can hack on any device they own and achieve anything they want (e.g., making their TV display a binary clock in the upper-left corner, or having their iOS device announce the time on the hour – whatever thing you can think of, really) is past. It was a pioneering notion, but it doesn’t fit with the consumer-centric development of technologies, and it doesn’t matter how much Stallman continues to shout into the ether, it won’t come back, either.

Is this a bad thing? The millions of iOS device owners wouldn’t agree. Nor, for that matter, would the millions of Android users who have never nor will ever ‘root’ their phone. Nor would the vast majority of computer users, who do not use open source operating systems.

That’s not to say that free and open source software no longer have a part to play. A realist can look at the nature of IT now and be content that it has a strong and healthy mix of both proprietary software and open source/free software. Which model is best? Both! Neither! Or rather, “both, together!” Without going too spiritual, they’re yin and yang to each other – both complimenting each other and symbiotically forming a complete ecosystem that helps power society.

Technology use shifts over time, and Stallman has tried to stay the tide. And so he “wail[s] and flutters around the edges of reality without substance or even thought”.

Please, pay the powerless one no heed – his time has past.

* Open source and free software groups, while they share some similar ideals, don’t actually fully mesh. That’s beyond the scope of what I’m writing about today, though.