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Preaching the Libre Software Gospel

Posted by donp On October - 21 - 20112 COMMENTS

Perhaps the Libre Software Community should take heed to the old joke about the two preachers who both preached from the subject, “You’re Going to Hell”.  The same message draws different reactions.  The difference lies in the tone of the preacher.  Libre software advocates should pay attention to the tone of their message.  It is true that many people simply buy various devices based on functionality and not based on what they may be free to do.  But libre software advocates need to craft a solid message with a tone that inspires people to accomplish greater things.

The joke goes something like this.  A church calls a preacher, who preaches every Sunday morning on the same message.  The message is, “You’re Going to Hell!”.  The church starts losing members.  Eventually, the church dismisses the pastor, and calls another.  The old preacher heard the church had started growing again, and decided to visit.  He heard the new pastor preaching from his very same subject, “You’re Going to Hell”.  Yet, people were stirred up.  People were coming forward and joining the church.  The old pastor asked one of the deacons, who responded, “Well, when you preached it, you sounded like you wanted us to go to Hell.”

Look, I know from personal experience what it is like to be caught up in software licensing hell.  And I won’t get into the printer torture I experienced, which, funny enough, is one of the key issues that gave the Free Software movement its impetus.  I also know that device manufacturers should recognize the right – the freedom – of their customers to use a device in ways they did not anticipate.  I believe that is crucial to a given person’s experience.  But we cannot run around sounding like we want “the people” to actually go to software hell.  We want to liberate, not berate.

The challenges of digital freedom are real.  And it’s an even greater challenge to inspire people, who think they are doing well just to figure out a new device, to see beyond the limitations of what the manufacturers and software developers say that device can do.  The notion that anyone should be free to use the gadget they own however they wish is not important to some people because they themselves will never dare to tinker with their own device.  How do you inspire people to care about the freedom of others, when they themselves do not care about their own freedom?  I hear so many people who say they don’t care whether they can modify their device.  Well, that’s exactly the problem.

There are other issues as well.  Apart from the likes of Google, “big box” software development houses generally do not grow from the roots of libre software.  Clearly, that is possible.  Generally, however, libre software leads to entrepreneurships and small enterprises.  This is an important issue for many people, especially those do-it-yourself types who are big fans of Emerson’s “Self Reliance”.  It’s also important to those who enjoy wide competition and local services.  When I researched the commercial landscape a couple years ago – companies built around libre software – the vast vast majority were small enterprises, run by one person or a small team.

Libre software promotes, rather than stifles, competition among developers.  If you don’t believe me, just look at how competitive the various GNU/Linux distros, not to mention the desktop projects – are.  If you don’t think they are competitive, just ask anywhere which distro or application project is the best in its class.  If someone has an idea, almost immediately other projects sprout up to offer an alternative vision, or at least built for an alternate desktop foundation.  All of this just underscores the (sometimes not so) healthy competition among developers.  The software patent wars are how the other developers “compete”.  To me it’s “stiff-arming”, not competition, but hey…

Again, all these are important issues.  But I think we can – and should – tackle them differently than some have.  Not that it isn’t fun – in a sophomoric kind of way – to poke fun at Apple and Microsoft.  Not that it isn’t fun to come up with cranky slogans that bash the hell out of “those” people.  But there is a way that liberates rather than punishes, a way that inspires rather than bores, a way that builds rather than destroys.  I am not saying we should water down the problems.  The consequences of end users losing control of devices they own should disturb anyone who has ever used a shovel for something other than digging a hole.

I am saying we don’t have to resort to negativity and name calling.  In fact, if we resort to name calling, we’re in trouble already. I know.  It’s really tempting at times.  But we must never resort to name calling.  Instead, we should encourage people to live, think and be free.  We should connect digital freedom more closely with freedom of speech.   We should encourage people to take control, to be in charge, and to speak up for themselves.  We should shout out our freedom from silly viruses.  Not that we are free from attacks, but that viruses are, in fact, a moot point for us.

We should show them the advantage of editing an INI file over searching through a registry.  We should show them the advantage of helping a neighbor with libre software, vs violating licensing agreements with non-libre software.  We should show examples of how, maybe even with a little help, we were able to solve a problem that could not have been so easily solved using non-libre software.

With good solid examples that underline the core message of libre software we can build up, liberate and inspire people.  And, if we list examples that underline our core message on project websites and in news articles about our projects, we will be both, marketing our products and preaching the libre software gospel at one and the same time.

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2 Responses to “Preaching the Libre Software Gospel”

  1. [...] when he wrote this blog item today, it is certainly one that deserves a read by everyone, whehter or not you are a free software [...]

  2. [...] Don Parris, author of "Penguin in the Pew," outlines the challenges that today's free/libre software movement faces and contends that the core message of free/libre software should serve to build up, liberate and inspire people.  Linux Read the full post on LXer… [...]