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Changing the world, one bit at a time – the free software column

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Back in the day, Richard Stallman once said: “the only reason we have a wholly free operating system is because of the movement that said we want an operating system that is wholly free, not 90 per cent free. If you don’t have freedom as a principle, you can never see a reason not to make an exception. There are constantly going to be times when for one reason or another there’s some practical convenience in making an exception.”

The idea of free software, as conceived by Stallman, wasn’t entirely original or new. Stallman was not the first to give away software, or to be committed to the idea that software should be free; but Stallman, GNU and the GPL brought a narrative to the concept of free software, and gave it a unifying story and a purpose that took it beyond its academic origins. Like most ideas and movements that make a difference, free software began on the fringes – and to the uninitiated, was a shockingly unrealistic idea.

Stallman’s narrative helped to define the meaning of free software for those who already practised it, and gave those that followed a set of tools and values against which they could measure their own relationship to their work, whether they agreed with his ideas or not.

Writing free software was fun and upturned many conventional assumptions about the whys and wherefores of the way people work. People liked to contribute to free software projects, not just for financial or selfish reasons. Free software was written against the backcloth of a ‘movement’ defined by words like ‘freedom’, underpinned by definitions, a tangible philosophy and a licensing framework. The slightly crazed idea of setting out to write a wholly free operating system from scratch captured the imagination of the coders such as those who later wrote the Linux kernel and put together the early GNU/ Linux distributions in their spare time.

Against the odds, GNU and the Linux kernel hackers turned free software and ‘open source’ into the serious proposition free software later became for the world of commerce. The GPL and the Four Freedoms gave a context for the movement, and its guiding principle was the Hacker Ethic, inherited from the hackers of the Tech Model Railroad Club, TMRC, (also known as The Midnight Requisitioning Committee), at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the Fifties and Sixties, who later became the mainstays of MIT’s AI Lab under the enlightened leadership of Professor Marvin Minsky and John McCarthy, the inventor of Lisp.

Steven Levy’s book, Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution, tells the classic story of the evolution of the hacker ethic, from the layout tables of the TMRC to the hacker subculture at MIT. “These people”, he later remarked, “weren’t antisocial weirdos, but rather fascinating people who were onto something big. They were artists, explorers, adventurers. They were doing things that couldn’t be done on a computer, and that’s what excited me.”

“It was there that I stumbled across the source of all computer controversy,” Levy later recounted. “Underneath their (model railroad) layout was a labyrinth of connectors and cables that allowed them to control their trains. These people were the first to call themselves ‘hackers’ in the technological sense.” There was a code of honour among these hackers from which Levy derived his classic interpretation of what later became known as The Hacker Ethic:

• Access to computers – and anything which might teach you something about the way the world works – should be unlimited and total. Always yield to the Hands-on Imperative!

• All information should be free.

• Mistrust authority – promote decentralisation. • Hackers should be judged by their hacking, not bogus criteria such as degrees, age, race
or position.

• You can create art and beauty on a computer. • Computers can change your life for the better.

It was the members of MIT’s Tech Model Railroad Club who defined a hack as “a project undertaken or a product built not solely to fulfil some constructive goal, but with some wild pleasure taken in mere involvement.” Programming may never again be as interesting and adventurous as it was in the days when the prototypical hackers of the TMRC were developing the first computer games, the first music software, the first display hacks, and new and more inventive ways of stealing time on the machine in the hours after dark, but their legacy lives on in the free software movement and software development communities such as the Debian project, which haven’t forgotten their origins and purpose.

The informality of free software, and its ability to allow participants to find their own level, encourages participation. Everybody has the right to contribute to the best of their ability, and make a difference, and everybody has the right to withdraw their labour. All too often in the world of work, this right is sacrificed to the necessity of knowing your place and keeping to the timetable. Anybody can contribute to a free software project. At one extreme, free software projects abound with high-achievers. At the other end, those who have made a mess of their academic careers, or have developed enthusiasms far removed from their working lives and academic opportunities, are able to dip into the code and make a difference in an atmosphere that is ultimately democratic.

Some of these assumptions have changed in latter years as free and open source software has gained success. Most of the pioneers and kernel hackers who worked for nothing or in their spare time are now employed by corporations or others with a vested interest in what they are doing. Most of them are very well paid for what they would have been doing anyway.

But, however ‘successful’ the software becomes, its integrity and purpose is anchored in its hacker roots and the ideals of the Free Software Foundation, Debian and others, and their determination to keep the software honest.

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