Free tanks for everyone! Good gas mileage

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I'm guessing many FSM readers will recognize the title reference, if like me you're a fan of Neal Stephenson's work. If you're not a fan, then... er... how could you not be?! I'm kidding. I realize tastes differ, but to me, Stephenson is essential geek reading.

His essay, In the Beginning was the Command Line, has been around for several years now. It's showing some age in areas, but it reads as well today as it did back in 1999. It's filled with interesting ideas and thoughts about technology and culture, including free software. For example, you don't have to read very far in to the essay to find a great analogy between operating systems and car dealerships.

Stephenson describes a crossroads with four dealerships. Microsoft is the biggest and sells station wagons. Apple sells more attractive Euro-styled sedans. BeOS sells fully operational Batmobiles. (Did I mention the essay shows some signs of age?) The Batmobiles are cheaper than anything else on the market...

With one exception, that is: Linux, which is right next door, and which is not a business at all. It's a bunch of RVs, yurts, tepees, and geodesic domes set up in a field and organized by consensus. The people who live there are making tanks. These are not old-fashioned, cast-iron Soviet tanks; these are more like the M1 tanks of the U.S. Army, made of space-age materials and jammed with sophisticated technology from one end to the other. But they are better than Army tanks. They've been modified in such a way that they never, ever break down, are light and maneuverable enough to use on ordinary streets, and use no more fuel than a subcompact car. These tanks are being cranked out, on the spot, at a terrific pace, and a vast number of them are lined up along the edge of the road with keys in the ignition. Anyone who wants can simply climb into one and drive it away for free..

And this seems just as true today, seven years later. It continually amazes me, what we're doing here. We're making free tanks! Well, so far I'm just promoting and slowly figuring out how to use the tanks, but still: we're making free tanks! And why shouldn't they be free? They're made of ones and zeros. Really, just a big number. How can a number be owned?

Along with operating systems, we have some killer free applications. I'm starting to use the GIMP, with some trepidation. Looking at all of its menus and options and palettes and etcetera, it seems I'm sitting at the nexus of the graphics universe, with vast reserves of power at my fingertips. And it's free! Even if I feel like Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer when confronted with its mysteries, there are spell books out there to help me with the proper incantations.

For example, a while back I found a tutorial for downgrading transparent 24-bit PNGs to make PNGs that display correctly in IE6. Rote repetition of the steps gradually led to a better understanding of how the program works. Just this weekend I found another tutorial that showed me how to fix red eye in pictures. It really is like magic.

Stephenson writes:

The group giving away the free tanks only stays alive because it is staffed by volunteers, who are lined up at the edge of the street with bullhorns, trying to draw customers' attention to this incredible situation..

And that's what I want to do: get on a bullhorn and spread the word. "You don't need to spend $500 on Photoshop! Get the GIMP for free!"

I'm also just putting my first productive GNU/Linux machine to work, an older box that will be used for web browsing and spreadsheets. While tinkering around with it this weekend, I felt a little giddy. Partly because it's just so cool what you can get for free, as in free beer, but more because of what it represents in freedom. Even if I'm temporarily taking backward steps in productivity because I don't know GNU/Linux very well, I'm moving to freedom, and that's something I've been wanting to do for a long time.

(It's not all flower parades and being greeted as a liberator, to be sure. Getting it to work on my machine--Wintermute--has caused me some bafflement and frustration, of which there'll be more to say about it here at FSM or at the home planet.)

I get carried away with this idea of free software because it's so liberating and full of promise. That everyone can share in the benefits of our cumulative knowledge for zero marginal cost. Once you have a computer, you can use and enjoy all the information in the world without taking away from anyone else's use and enjoyment. And it just seems right that it should be this way. We shouldn't restrict things that cost nothing to copy. I've fallen under the influence of Eben Moglen with this way of looking at it. He made a big impression on me with a speech he gave that's based on his dotCommunist Manifesto. Here's one of the key parts:

The great moral question of the twenty-first century is: If all knowledge, all culture, all art, all useful information, can be costlessly given to everyone at the same price that it is given to anyone--if everyone can have everything, everywhere, all the time, why is it ever moral to exclude anyone from anything?. If you could make lamb chops in endless numbers by the mere pressing of a button, there would be no moral argument for hunger ever, anywhere.. I see no system of moral philosophy generated by the economy of the past that could evolve a principle to explain the moral legitimacy of denial in the presence of infinite profusion..

Comparing the distribution of food to the sharing of knowledge and cultural works seems to me exactly right, because information, knowledge, and culture is food for our soul.

Is there anyone that would deny someone the lamb chop, if it cost nothing to copy?

To me, after we've satisfied our more basic needs, and along with love and long walks in the woods, the experience of learning and sharing culture makes life worth living. We can't replicate food or shelter at no cost today, but we can copy the ones and zeros that represent who we are and what we have discovered and achieved. Why should we deny the higher passions, if we wouldn't deny the lower?

An immediate objection from many reasonable people is that we wouldn't have the quantity and quality of intellectual production today if not for the incentive of monopoly over the right to copy the work. Slightly less reasonable people might argue some intrinsic right to control the product of intellectual work.

It is reasonable and proper to ask questions about possible changes to our current system, and to try to understand how these changes in the rules will affect current and future producers, but if we take it as a moral imperative to allow the copying of information and knowledge, it becomes easier to accept disruptive change.

Benjamin Mako Hill, commenting on that same quote from Moglen, wrote:

Free access to information is essential because the alternative is unethical and unacceptable. Replacing a system built on the unjust restriction of knowledge may not--and probably will not--be easy or smooth and that doesn't matter. Migrating away from other unjust systems of the past--slavery, child labor, exploitation of all sorts [3]--is not always, or often, easy and smooth. Sacrifices are made.. Where sustainable solutions for the production of knowledge are not obvious, we--as producers and consumers--have a moral responsibility to be creative and to create them.. [3] I don't intend to imply that child labor or slavery and copyright are moral equivalents. I'm simply stating that their abolition was a moral imperative in the face of strong and highly ingrained economic considerations..

It's scary to move out in new directions. Those with the most at stake in the current spoils system are protesting loudly right now. They're working to protect their positions. It might even be in my own best interest to maintain the existing system exactly as it is today. But working for free software has brought out my youthful idealism again, and I want to work for something that can help make the world a better place. Along with others who feel this way, I think we have something more powerful going for us than financial self-interest. We still have to earn our daily bread, but as Benjamin wrote, we need to be creative in finding new ways to do this.

With free software, we're fortunate to already have many examples of working models in support of this ideology and method of production. I personally think the same will go for free culture in the form of music and literature, but it is less certain how we'll get there. In any case, let's stay on the bullhorn and continue to draw attention to this incredible situation.

At the home planet

I gently recycled the Moglen and Mako Hill quotes from this post at Coming up this week I'm planning on writing more about the Stephenson essay and about my feeble efforts to get Fedora running on Wintermute.


Reusable with this attribution (including hyperlinks), and please note if modifications are made: Copyright © Scott Carpenter, 2006. Originally published in Free Software Magazine. Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License (CC-BY-SA-2.5).



AmyStephen's picture

"Really, just a big number. How can a number be owned?" lol! That was *sweet*, Scott! It is, indeed, scary to move into new directions. And, as we let go of from where we came, we wonder how solid the ground is beneath us as we move forward. It sounds so good - but, can we make a living, too? What a journey. I am so glad to be involved. Thanks, Scott for this great read!

Terry Hancock's picture

Credit card numbers, bank account numbers, user identifications. Keys are merely physical embodiments of numbers. Real estate property lines are just a series of vectors, which are also numbers. All of your bank balances are just numbers. A lot of things we own are really just information.

Ownership and numbers are both abstract concepts.

As such, the rules are subject to change, but I don't think it makes sense to reject the whole concept.

Scott Carpenter's picture

Well, it may have been kind of a flip comment, but I'd still make the distinction between public and private numbers. If someone publishes with the intention of something being read/used, then it falls more in to the public number thing.

And the property lines may be vectors, but the property is "real."

Now, I know that I give my account numbers to people with the intention of them being used, but I hope we can make that distinction between that and other forms of speech. :-)

Scott Carpenter's picture

Thanks, Amy. Yes, the making a living thing is what we have to worry about today. It's fun to imagine a Star Trek future where people don't have to work and can choose any kind of interesting work/hobby they really would like to do.

I believe to a degree the idea that anyone can do today what they want to do, but it also seems disingenuous, given differences in opportunities, skills, and intelligence.

But technology is improving ever faster, and while it creates new problems, it appears to solve many others. It's conceivable that in the future we will reach some kind of post-scarcity society, and only after getting much closer to it will more people see that weird things like free software were essential steps in that direction. And while the transition may be rocky, it will ultimately be a good thing. (And now that I have a daughter, I'm more concerned about the long term. :-)

Just like I'd guess the first agriculture pioneers might have appeared to be doing some weird things as opposed to the long-established hunting and gathering system, we're doing something similarly fundamental in human history as the invention of agriculture. (Now wouldn't *that* invention be a good one to establish perpetual ownership of for you and your descendants? Of course, maybe we're getting back to that with things like Monsanto's biotech patents.)


AmyStephen's picture

"It's fun to imagine a Star Trek future where people don't have to work and can choose any kind of interesting work/hobby they really would like to do."

Scott - In a sense, that is what I tell my children as they are starting to think about their futures (one in college next year - eeek!). Find what you love and pursue it! You don't have to force yourself to find time to do what you love to do and, as a result, you *are* going to get good at it and should be able to make a reasonable living for your family. So, I think your idea is probably not as "Star Trekian" as you might think.

I believe you are right about our transition period; it is difficult to see where we are heading and how everyone's needs will be taken care of. I worry about volunteers being ultimately taken advantage of if greed and collusion are allowed to take control. That is where community is going to be an important watch dog.

You have a good mind, Scott, and I enjoy and learn from your perspectives. Thanks much!

Author information

Scott Carpenter's picture


Scott Carpenter has been lurking around the fringe of the free software movement since 1998 and in 2006 started a more concentrated effort to "move to freedom." (Chronicled at the Moving to Freedom blog:

He has worked as a professional software developer/analyst since 1997, currently in enterprise application integration.

(Views expressed here and at are strictly his own and do not represent those of his employer. Nor of miscellaneous associates including friends and family. Nor of his dog. It's possible they're representative of his cats' opinions, but unlikely. Void where prohibited. Local sales tax applies.)