Where Did All the Idealism Go?

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Jul 13, 2011 GMT
Bruce Byfield

"You say the little efforts that I make will do no good; they never will prevail to tip the hovering scale where justice hangs in balance. I don’t think I ever thought they would, but I am prejudiced beyond debate in favor of my right to choose which side shall feel the stubborn ounces of my weight."

- Tommy Douglas

As a writer, I am more comfortable reporting the news than making the news. For that reason, I'm reluctant to encourage the discussion started by my article, "Tech Pundits Surrender: The Retreat from Free Software and Open Standards" about the use of proprietary software when it's convenient. At the same time, I can't help wondering when idealism became a dirty word in free and open source software (FOSS).

Understand, this comment is not directly aimed at my colleague Jason Perlow, whose article in favor of using proprietary software I was reacting to. Nor is it exactly a response to his response, "Why I'm smarter than an Open Source surrender monkey". Perlow and I have discussed our different attitudes, we've amiably agreed to disagree, and I enjoyed the humor in his reply. So in no sense am I pursuing a personal vendetta.

Nor am I advocating an impossible purity. Free software comfortably meets my needs these days -- so much so that my new workstation doesn't have Windows installed -- but in the past I've reviewed proprietary software and resorted to it when no free alternative was available.

Taking control of your own life

However, it is with a genuine sense of puzzlement that I read comments like David Schlesinger's.

"The position of open source advocates," Schlesinger writes, "is something like being a carpenter who won't buy tools from Garett-Wade (even though they're excellent tools) because he doesn't like the personal politics of one of the owners, preferring to buy inferior chisels from someone whose outlook better matches his own. And that's silly.

Silly? Well, maybe from one perspective. But I'd call it principled and responsible consumerism, and add a few words about how the carpenter was taking control of his own life.

I don't shop at Wal-Mart, although I live a kilometer away from one, because I don't like the company's anti-union practices and its tendency to destroy owner-operated businesses in small towns. In much the same way, I don't eat fast food, buy shoddy merchandise assembled in sweat shops, wear corporate logos or listen to a song because it's on everybody's music player. So far as I'm concerned, life's too short not to live it on my own terms as much as I can.

For precisely the same reason, I don't buy Microsoft or Apple products, because I object to their proprietary business practices. In fact, the whole point of FOSS has always seemed to me to provide an alternative to the products of such companies.

In my mind, to buy and use proprietary products, except in the utmost necessity is something to be ashamed about. And that's how I've felt the few times I've bought proprietary myself. It seems an undermining of FOSS' efforts to provide an alternative.

Then to do so cheerily, and to dismiss the idea of the alternative as silly -- well, that sounds uncannily like a repudiation of FOSS and all it stands for. Having spend twelve years working with FOSS and writing about it, and accepting a lower income as a fair exchange for writing about something I believe in, I'm not about to accept that I've wasted my time simply being eccentric or devoted to hopeless causes.

Not Judging by the Company

Sure, it's easy to dismiss FOSS, as Schlesinger does, by citing those he calls the "crazies" like Roy Schestowitz or those who rush to apologize for Richard Stallman when he shows himself to be fallible or callous.

However, a position exists independently of those who hold it. If I wanted to play the same game, I could discredit Schlesinger by emphasizing his obsessional hatred of free software in general and Stallman in particular -- he has, after all, devoted a website to these topics. But ad hominem attacks are not a valid refutation of a position, and to dwell on them would only obscure the fact that, for all his anti-FOSS outbursts, Schlesinger often has some worthwhile observations.

In the same way, mentioning the shortcomings of some FOSS supporters does nothing to disprove its principles. You can score some cheap debating points by playing to the crowd that way, and nothing more.

I admit that sometimes the antics of some FOSS supporters embarrass me. At times, I've called them on their excesses. Yet the fact that they are foolish doesn't make FOSS ideals foolish, or make me think that trying to lead a principled life is foolish.

So far as I'm concerned, the effort to live up to my ideals in my daily life is part of what makes life worth living. Ideals may not be everything (obviously food, shelter, and affection come first) but they are high on my priority list.

Besides, looking at history, I can't recall many people who chose convenience over principles leaving much of a mark. I mean, who do you remember -- the merchants and CEOs, or the reformers and activists? To paraphrase George Orwell, I'm not the sort who gets all starry-eyed whenever the name of FOSS is evoked, but when I know what side I'm on when it counts.

And if that makes some people call me silly or strident -- well, I've been called far worse. I can live with their opinion of me because doing my best to live up to my principles lets me live more comfortably with myself.


  • oss vs free

    Well it's not surprising 'foss' lacks idealism - open source, as applied to software, was a term specifically created to remove the idealism - actually the 'free' - from free software. Free was apparently a term that was too loaded for 'the land of the free'! It would be hilarious if it wasn't so tragic ...

    If people wanna use a mac because they find them easier to use, then good for them - however I don't see how that has anything to do with free software. At most it just demonstrates they've just been free-loading all this time if they claim to have ever been a 'foss advocate'.

    And people complaining that tools don't exist on free platforms should be complaining to the tool vendors who aren't supporting them, not the free software hackers who actually have lives to live that don't exclusively revolve around pleasing the free-loaders who seem to want everything for nothing.

    Free software only takes your time - but given that all software takes time anyway, the difference is even smaller. Actually given that mature free software tends to stay the same over time, it reduces overall retraining costs as they are not continually upgrading the interface for marketing reasons (or if they do, you can choose not to use it).

    Much of the work I do is still using the same tools I used 15 years ago, and they haven't changed too much if at all (visibly). An editor, a web browser, a terminal.
  • Idealism

    I believe the strong idealism is still there. I also perceive a greater acceptance of Linux, BSD and open-source software. This is true even for the corporates.
  • Of the linux faithful.

    I still love linux and the like, but it is just the greedy commercial companies are trying to destroy open source by hook or crook. Jack Tramiel said busniess is war. So it is.....
  • It went away with my patience

    I am an ardent believer in Linux BSD and FOSS in general.

    While I Pushed and Pushed FOSS from the mid 90's forward, I have come to recognize and fully appreciate one thing the NaySayers repeated time after time.

    "But I need to do ... with my computer. Is there an app for that?"

    I have found that without a responsible reliable form of funding, most geeks will give up on a project after say 3 or 4 years. If it is cool enough to another geek with skills it may continue on. Otherwise it goes away into obscurity. I have stuff to do and I NEED STRONG TOOLS rather than ones that mostly do what is needed.

    While we ponder the good, bad and ugly of FOSS, keep in mind that it took hardware that was standardized on a single platform. It took the power of FUD, delivered first as a way to control use of DR DOS, to move the populace to sticking with Microsoft. Were it not for the desire to expand market share computer would still occupy large refrigerated rooms or be handmade in garages.

    It has taken about 30 years to get to where we are with 2 or 3 computers in many of our homes. I took the growth of a really big company with ruthless tactics selling proprietary software to bring computers to the point we can buy one for $300 that does it all.

    We developed FOSS to escape the limits of such, but I doubt we would exist were it not for FUD and the resulting uniformity.

    Were it not for this uniformity in the OS, it is unlikely that computers would have become pervasive.

    We exist because we needed to fight that uniformity, but without it we would not have arisen as we did.

    Say thank you to Microsoft as you hack away at it's feet trying to bring it down.
  • Re: Are programmers allowed to eat?

    (There really should be a FOSS 101 page for these sorts of questions. However, I'll answer them)

    "I appreciate people who are willing to live by their principles, especially during times when it's difficult to do so. Still, I can't help but wondering if your position allows programmers to make a living?"

    There are thousands of employed FOSS programmers. Volunteerism is still very much a part of FOSS, but it's not the whole story.

    "My question would be, Are there some (any?) proprietary business practices that you wouldn't object to? or is it just the "practices" of Microsoft, Apple and the like?"

    I would prefer dealing with FOSS companies. Failing that, companies that support open standards. Failing that, proprietary companies that show some ethics.

    "Would it be immoral for me to write a program and then to sell it without providing the source code?"

    I'm not the keeper of your conscience. You have to decide that for yourself.

    "This statement seems to condemn *all* proprietary products, and it's this kind of extremism that gives me problems."

    You're reading it out of context.

    "Would you be ashamed to buy a proprietary product from me? I'm a nice guy. Honest."

    I don't really care if you're a nice guy. I'd want to know what your business practices are. (see above).

  • Are programmers allowed to eat?

    I appreciate people who are willing to live by their principles, especially during times when it's difficult to do so. Still, I can't help but wondering if your position allows programmers to make a living?

    "I don't buy Microsoft or Apple products, because I object to their proprietary business practices."

    My question would be, Are there some (any?) proprietary business practices that you wouldn't object to? or is it just the "practices" of Microsoft, Apple and the like? Would it be immoral for me to write a program and then to sell it without providing the source code?

    "[T]o buy and use proprietary products... is something to be ashamed about."

    This statement seems to condemn *all* proprietary products, and it's this kind of extremism that gives me problems. Would you be ashamed to buy a proprietary product from me? I'm a nice guy. Honest.

    I like FOSS products and use them all the time. Every computer at my house runs Linux. One of them also has a Windows VM that gets fired up for specific products. I have great appreciation for FOSS. But here's the thing...

    I write programs to make money. That's how I feed my family. I'm not sure how I could take care of myself and my family if I only traded in FOSS tools. *Some* people make money with FOSS, but I just haven't figure out how.
  • Consumers dominate the chatosphere

    Consumers dominate the chat with their strident and inane sharing of the latest online experiences and gossip. Online life is breeding a whole new brand of blind consumerism, starting with $1,000 just to use a disposable smartphone for 12 months, and following on with apps that replicate stuff the consumer already owns, could create or is available free elsewhere.

    Meanwhile, there are plenty of creators around. Many of them are welded to ideologically sound purchasing or product choice.
  • Excellent post

    Great post. I think idealism is what is missing more and more in free and open source software community and the world in general. I often have the feeling that corporations with help from goverments are trying hard to make us think less and less about what is wrong and what is right as long as we buy more and more. In world like this they don't want us to think if business politics of some companies are close to unethical. And that's exactly what we should be thinking more. Because if we use products from some companies that do unethical things we in essence are also accessory to this. And I guess some people don't even want to admit this and go the easy way of buying shinny new things instead of going the hard way and think about it and take part in the responsibility to make the world a better and more ethical place.
  • The Characters speak of your Character

    I broadly think that this is as succinct an explanation I can give for why I have noticed and followed your pieces since the days of the woefully missed Maximum Linux periodical. The strength of your articles comes from the strength of your character. You've mused in past of why it is the articles that you simply write that get traffic over the ones you carefully research. I propose that they are an easier set of articles to polish and reflect your thoughts.
    Having said that you often get a response even if you don't know it for each individual article of people, including myself, stating that if they could put in words how they felt about FOSS or the situations you address in FOSS then the article would have come out very similar to yours. You exemplify the many coders and IT people who quietly but stubbornly progress something they feel to be correct for themselves and their fellow despite the other tools offered to weigh them down.
    I, perhaps ironically, have a box of hardware in front of me that has on the side the three words Free, Fast and Easy. The allure of that spirited (as in Beer) offering seems to have dulled the idealist calling of Free, Difficult and Worth it. The freedom of words on the wind (Yes that's speech) is still there within the throngs of the new recruits to Linux and Free Software. They probably are just putting their heads down to work so that the final shouts all having been said will be done by those who have pulled their principles up to the high level of their ideals.
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