Richard Stallman vs. Steve Jobs: No Jails Found
Steve Jobs died about three weeks ago, but the web is still very much buzzing about him. It’s hard to read tech news without running into literally dozens of stories about him, and in recent days much of it is fueled by the just released biography by Walter Isaacson.
However, I would like to go back to something Richard Stallman said about him within days of his death, and which caused a fair bit of ruckus in the Linux and FOSS communities. The reason I feel compelled to comment, albeit perhaps a bit late, is my history with the Free Software movement, and my former admiration for Richard Stallman.
For those who might not know Richard Stallman (often abbreviated as RMS) is the founder of the GNU Project, Free Software Foundation, and the architect of the GPL, the most popular Free Open Source Software license. He is considered a defacto founder and leader of the Free Software movement which advocates for freedom of software users to copy, share and modify the software they use.
RMS’ statement was the following:
“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.”
Given that Richard Stallman himself enjoys quite a cult following in certain circles there was no shortage of reactions in the blogosphere. His words were put under a microscope, every word analyzed, interpreted, and reinterpreted. While some saw it as distasteful, and out of touch others tried to point out how he didn’t really mean it like that or how he really meant something else. I found it interesting how much his fans acted like “fanboys” that they often accuse Steve Jobs fans of being, and reminds me of what I used to be like.
I believe it is good to be blunt and brutally honest sometimes, but I would say that his statements were lacking in tact. However, anyone who knows RMS in any capacity probably knows that he is easily out of touch with the world most of us live in, and so lacking in tact shouldn’t come as so much of a surprise. He’s immersed in his philosophy, which is his life’s work, and sees things quite differently. Ironically, he easily fits the description of the “crazy ones” that Apple itself is venerating.
The biggest problem here isn’t so much how insensitive RMS may have been, but the underlying philosophy that he promotes. What he said makes perfect sense if you buy into his philosophy. If you believe in what he says Steve Jobs and Bill Gates really are evil people, or at least do some very evil things. They take away the freedom of computer users world wide.
How do they do that? Well, they don’t provide the source code of their software, and offer their software under terms which restrict you from copying, sharing, and modifying said software freely. Mr. Stallman believes these to be the fundamental “freedoms” that any computer user is entitled to, and therefore sees anyone asking you to give them up to be trying to strip away your freedoms.
The problem with that, of course, is that they are asking for it. They are not ordering you to use their software and obey their rules, so whatever restrictions you end up with they are restrictions you chose to abide by. A “jail” which you chose to enter, and can choose to depart at any time is not much of a jail in my book.
This turns these supposed “freedoms” into nothing more than glorified entitlements. They rid computer users of the freedom and responsibility to choose for themselves, and the producers of software of the freedom and responsibility to choose the terms under which they are to offer their work. In other words, Richard Stallman wants to regulate the software market by dictating what people may or may not agree with, or what software providers may or may not offer.
This is why Richard Stallman is himself a peddler of restrictions that he so often accuses others of being. The difference is that he doesn’t care much for what you would choose personally. To him, choice has nothing to do with freedom, so he opts to choose for you what makes you free, and what makes you a slave.
This is the philosophy which fuels much of the distaste and hatred for companies like Apple, Microsoft, and their leaders though. The sentiments behind it also tend to fuel a lot of the irrational thinking about openness when it comes to software, and technology in general.
Apple is seen as the epitome of closed ecosystems and restrictions in computing, and this is seen as something bad despite the fact that so many people happily make a deliberate choice to play in these “walled gardens”, and don’t feel all that restricted in doing so.
I myself am an example, and I used to be a diehard advocate of Free Software myself. I actually felt much more free when I finally realized the flaws behind this philosophy than when I tried to live by it by “freeing” myself from the “slavery” of proprietary software and closed ecosystems. The result was spending years with software that I can’t use to make music effectively, and which I have to keep tinkering with to make it work the way I want to.
I won’t say I regret all of it as I was more of a tinkerer back then and learned a few things in the process, but I would say that making choices based on it being “wrong” to agree with certain restrictions was a really stupid way of choosing which software to use, and one that can really limit my productive potential.
Openness has nothing to do with freedom if you are free to choose between “open” or “closed”. It is merely a feature that may or may not be a part of a particular offering. It is also just one of the methods by which technology can be developed. Some people manage to do great things by putting the code out there and inviting contributions from people all over the world. Other times great software is built by a company of people held together by mutually beneficial contracts which stipulate following the vision of a single man, like Steve Jobs.
I know for a fact that the closed approach works in certain cases just as well as an open approach works in some cases. I myself am evidence, again, as are the millions of people out there using Apple products every day with ease. Clearly, openness for openness sake doesn’t make sense.
The virtues of a closed approach generally boil down to what is meant by the saying that “too many cooks spoil the soup”. Sometimes this is evidently true, and Linux itself is filled with examples. Insisting on inclusion and openness often results in trying to integrate together ideas that don’t necessarily go together. Just look at the state of Linux audio subsystems, or the war between GStreamer and Xine, or the inconsistent user experience between KDE and GNOME apps.
Sometimes controlling everything end-to-end is the best way to ensure that everything works well together, and that the user experience is consistent and cohesive. Steve Jobs effectively approached his work as an artist and an architect. As he said, Apple was in the business of building the whole “widget”. He would design the whole package and offer it up to you for such price at such terms, and you can take it or leave it. Many people took it, so apparently what they created does something right!
Finally, defenders of Richard Stallman would often point out to other reasons why Steve Jobs really was evil or did evil things, and I would like to set the record straight about those as well.
This is where I don’t defend Apple, and find it unfortunate that Steve Jobs believed in the backwards ideas that fuel the patents war. I can understand the desire to be credited for something you came up with first (although each such innovation tends to build on innovations by others), and even the desire to ensure customers don’t confuse the products of others with those of your own, but it is literally impossible to steal an idea.
You can own an idea while it is a part of your own brain, because you own your body, but the moment you relay it to someone else you’ve made a separate copy that now resides in the brain of another. The only reasonable way you have of controlling what the other person does with it is through a contract, but once you release a device like the iPad to the masses, ideas that people form in their heads by looking at the device are their own.
That said, attempts to control ideas through the patent system and patent litigation is not something unique to Apple alone. So long as the patents system exists pretty much all corporations will be one way or another compelled to take advantage of it. The problem here isn’t any one corporation, but the system that enables this distortion to continue.
The use of sweatshop workers
This argument is often used to make Apple appear evil, yet most tech companies rely on cheap asian labor. In fact, a lot of those computers used by Free Software advocates themselves probably contain parts which were made this way. Putting Apple on a pedestal of evil over this is then quite disingenuous.
Secondly, as sad and cruel as this reality may be, the alternative these workers have to their grueling work is probably starvation. As bad as they may be these jobs keep these people alive, and provide for their families. This is why there is seldom a shortage of people willingly applying for these jobs, and being happy to get them when they do, if only because the alternative is worse.
This is still not a good situation though, but the problem is again far deeper than any specific corporation and their manufacturing policies. It has to do with the system that forcefully distributes value the way it wouldn’t be if they stayed out of it. Over-regulate local business while under regulating the major corporations.
Again, how exactly is someone like Steve Jobs responsible for backwards politics that even many of the Free Software advocates themselves are indirectly supporting? If it ever became a law, Free Software itself would be one of those stifling regulations that fuel these kinds of distortions.
Balanced view of Steve Jobs
I think the best view to take of Steve Jobs and his legacy probably wouldn’t involve any kind of an extreme. If you think he was an angel that blessed the world with his innovative technology you would be wrong. If you think he was the devil that fooled computer users into slavery on the backs of sweatshop labor you would be wrong too.
Why do people so easily miss the subtleties, and why do we have to view things in such stark contrasts?
I think he was a visionary that had a talent for recognizing and propping up some good ideas that turned out world changing. Not everything he propped up was his own invention, for sure, but good ideas that never see the light of day aren’t worth much. A scientist, an engineer and a business person are all crucial to the process of changing the world to the better.
If I had to pick the biggest positive impact he had on the world it would be the humanization of technology, making it accessible to the masses. Even if you never used an Apple product you were probably affected by their influence. Even Linux desktop environments like GNOME and Unity seem hugely inspired by Apple. We could argue that someone had to do it, and if Steve Jobs or Apple didn’t, someone would. The fact is, Steve did it, and most others followed.
On the other hand, he was also an asshole to a lot of people around him, sometimes dishonest and irrational, and standing by a few rather backwards ideas (like the patents system).
The point, however, is that the so called “closed garden” approach to building technological devices was not one of those bad ideas, and that he did have a lot of positive to offer.
How does Richard Stallman stack up to that? With a fundamentally flawed philosophy fueling his work all that’s really left is his spearheading of Free Software as a development model, and software itself that this model spawned, as an alternative choice. Having more choices is a great thing, but that’s what they are: choices. Freedom is about making them, not about proclaiming one choice as more right for everyone than the other, which is the step too far that he takes.
In that sense, there’s actually something Steve Jobs and Richard Stallman have in common. They both contributed a model that spearheaded the development of great new choices, however starkly different they may be.
I just wish Stallman inspired “making great things” that demonstrate the virtues of his model a little more than criticizing what others are doing. This could be the biggest reason why Apple is everywhere while Free Software purists make up only a marginal niche.
Luckily, Stallman is still alive.