Moving to Freedom, .Org

Free Software and ‘Politics,’ a Comment by Rufus Polson


A couple of Augusts ago, back in 2006, Keir Thomas wrote an article about switching his office computer from GNU/Linux to Windows and then a follow-up article about the resulting criticism after the post made the front page of Digg and LinuxToday.

Keir describes himself as an “open source” advocate and was a bit flummoxed at his treatment at the hands of the mob. I don’t remember the flavor of the original discussion (maybe I didn’t read through those comments), but I’m sure there were some of the knee-jerk flames you’d expect in response to this kind of admission, which aren’t especially helpful, alongside more useful comments that you also see in these conversations.

And I was particularly impressed by the thoughtfulness of one commenter, enough to save his response with the intention of writing about it here one day. Yesterday the note bubbled up to the top of my attention. You can read Mr. Thomas’s post for context, although the comment stands on its own:

Software Choice = Political Freedom

He takes the common position that practicality should trump politics and ideology. Then there was this by Rufus Polson:

I feel your pain and understand, in specific, your decision to switch. Well, more or less. But at the same time, I disagree with some of your related comments.

You note that in the “I switched” entry you made what you consider some profound conclusions—specifically, that Windows is profoundly dependent on MS Office and MS Office’s dominance of its field. Well, yes, but it’s hardly a new or profound observation. I’d say that basic realization and related ones about the .doc format lockin has been behind several large projects in the Free software world—OpenOffice, KOffice, Abiword and other bits of “Gnome Office”, their strenuous efforts to make solid “.doc” filters rather than just concentrate on their own file formats, the elaborate process of making Open Document a standard, Crossover Office (presumably there’s a reason they call it that rather than, say, Crossover Photoshop), and so on. So far not entirely successful efforts, but certainly efforts springing in good part from a stark realization of this problem.

Similarly the observation that “There are many who believe an individual’s choice of software should be driven by politics, rather than practicality.” Well, yes, very true, and again, one would have thought rather obvious.

But from there you enter territory where I must fundamentally disagree. First, you state that Richard Stallman introduced politics into computer science. This strikes me as distinctly misleading, based in a sense on a misunderstanding of what politics is. Politics is about the struggle between different interests. It’s happening around people whether they are willing to think about it, recognize it, sully their hands with trying to alter it, or not. When, for instance, a situation of de facto (but as yet not formally defined) open source begins to change into a more closed system because commercial interests begin concluding that they will make more money that way, even if it will negatively impact users, that is politics—the commercial interests are furthering their interests, the users’ interests are being affected. When Richard Stallman noticed that he wasn’t able to look at a printer driver because of this situation and consciously decided to do something about it, that was perhaps the first conscious application of political ideas to computer science, but a political situation was already unfolding, and politics had certainly been entwined in computer science since ENIAC.

Then you bring in the totalitarianism meme:

totalitarianism, wherein people are expected to act a certain way because it suits a certain belief system, regardless of whether it’s the best thing to do.”

This involves a misunderstanding that seems widespread among bloggers and internet commentators of all stripes. At the most basic level, here’s where you go wrong: Argument, condescension, verbal attack, even insult do not constitute force. Someone else’s free speech does not violate yours or your freedom of choice. You have a right to choose what you wish—but it is not totalitarian for someone to denounce your choice as stupid or even evil.

That statement needs unpacking in a few other ways. For instance, the word “best”. It’s thrown in there with the assumption that everyone will agree on the meaning of “best”, and that everyone should agree that what you mean by “best” is the most important consideration. Ironically, this means in short that you expect people to act a certain way because it suits a certain belief system. Sorry, but it’s just not the case that everyone else’s notions about the right thing to do are political, but yours are not.

I take it that by “best” you mean “most efficient for the immediate task at hand”. That seems to lots of people these days to be obviously the most important thing there could possibly be, and it’s absurd that “mere” politics could possibly trump this efficiency ethic. But it’s clearly not the case.

Let’s take an absurd example: Let’s say that there was a motor oil which was clearly superior to all other motor oils, but to make it required boiling babies alive. I’d say it would be quite reasonable for someone to expect you to act a certain way (NOT use that motor oil) because it suited their belief system (boiling babies alive is BAD) regardless of whether it was the best thing to do (in the sense that it was the most efficient choice). People might be expected to look down on someone for choosing that efficient motor oil.

Now that’s an absurd case, appealing directly to primal ethics. But say it appealed instead to the long-term general interest in a powerful way—say that motor oil didn’t require killing babies, but consistently doubled cancer death rates everywhere it was in common use and the government refused to ban it. Here we move into the realm of the political. The belief system involving immediate efficiency is pitted against the belief that everyone’s longer term good depends on giving up that immediate efficiency. Again, it might be quite reasonable for people to expect you to do just that, and look down on you if you did not.

The ethical, political and long-term-general-good arguments revolving around Free Software are much subtler than an immediate doubling of cancer death rates. There is indeed room for considerable debate about just what if any the benefits are. But many people find the arguments for its value in the long term and its ethical importance very persuasive—indeed, you do yourself. In short, immediate efficiency is not the only valid question, the only measure of the “best” thing to do. The ethical, political, and longer-term benefit issues of a question do have a value.

So if you decide to privilege immediate efficiency and someone else thinks some other facet, with maybe an ethical dimension, is more important in the case you faced, they’re going to think you made the wrong—even the ethically wrong—choice. And they may look down on you for doing so. They may perhaps be specifically wrong, but they’re not inherently wrong for even considering the importance of those other issues rather than focusing only on immediate efficiency. And the concept of judging people for the political or ethical dimensions of an action is not a totalitarian one—it is essential to have a functioning democracy. The point of a vigorous exchange of ideas in a democratic polity is precisely to make informed judgments among them, not to flabbily say I suppose everyone’s got a point.

You may be bugged that people have been judging you—but you’re out in the public view making statements which, whether you like it or not, have political and ethical implications. People are going to judge you. It’s reasonable to wish that they will do so civilly and with some degree of relevance and thought. But it’s wrong to say they shouldn’t do it at all.

—Rufus Polson, Response to “Software Choice = Political Freedom”

I really appreciate comments like this and am so glad there are people out there making such reasonable arguments and doing such a great service to the free software cause.