Somebody recently noted that, what with all the bombing and killing and tyrannical madness going on in the world, how can we waste all this time talking about free software? Surely there's more important stuff to worry about?
Well, they’re absolutely right that there are bigger problems in the world. When I get a chance to do something more direct about it, I plan to. So far, it looks like voting is about it, though.
On the other hand, you can’t trivialize peacetime matters. Peace is more important than stopping war. It’s the thing we need to protect when we deal with the evils in the world.
Regrettably, peace usually works the soft and slow way, while war is swift and always seems like the simpler solution. Hence our constant error in trying to make wars to stop wars. It is always a mistake to try to stop the processes of peace just because war seems more urgent. Because peace is what actually stops wars.
Free software does, in my opinion, make significant strides forward in creating long-term peace for humanity. A web, constructed of free software now connects us all, enemies and friends alike—and people who used to be enemies are becoming friends. Or perhaps only their children are.
This is the real thing that those “evil internet chat rooms” are doing to our children: they are connecting them. They’re allowing people who wouldn’t talk to each other before the chance to do so in relative safety, unencumbered by distance. They’re allowing them to come to terms with each other on a personal, down-to-Earth level like nothing else can. It makes a difference when you know that the “foreigner” with the odd skin color and the funny-looking clothes has a name and a pet hamster named “Rodrigo”.
The thing breeding in those internet chat rooms is surely the power-mongerers of the world’s worst nightmare: it’s a new generation of people who are beginning to think of their race as “Human” and their nation as “Earth”. I’m not saying we’re there yet, but there is something happening. Something that happens through shared experiences and exchanged knowledge. Something personal that treaties and laws and propaganda ministers can’t get to. People are talking to each other.
There’s a forum on the internet that I have visited where Hindi and Muslim Kashmiris hurl insults at each other, pretty much incessantly. But they are talking to each other. I regularly converse with people from all over the English-speaking world, and also with a few people from Japan, Russia, Germany, France, Sweden, India, Italy, and Brazil (a Brazillian made some important contributions to a project I’m still working on, while my main collaborator is Swedish—so some of these relationships have been significant, productive experiences), not to mention Guam and Iceland.
It’s also largely on the internet that the knowledge of treachery and deceit in governments has been disseminated, because it’s a nearly unsuppressable press with few chokepoints that would-be tyrants can throttle. And when they do try, as they are trying, it is largely through free software that work-arounds are made.
Free software is also hard at work, leveling the economic playing field for developing economies trying to modernize, without finding themselves under the thrall of developed nations’ software corporations. It’s free software that’s showing that sophisticated technology needn’t be equated with powerful, centralized control, and that sharing doesn't have to forced by a command economy in order to work.
GNU/Linux is making affordable embedded devices (whether they are the OLPC laptops or just mobile phones) that can be deployed to more people in more remote locations, in order to empower those people with the ability to speak back and to solve their own problems in their own way on their own terms, using their own resources, instead of falling deeper and deeper into World Bank debt or some other form of debt-slavery imposed by developed-world power holders.
Happy, well-fed, well-educated, hopeful people do not become suicide bombers and neither do they elect fear-mongerers. So if you really want to stop the violence and bring back sanity, then the best way to do it is to do whatever it takes to make people in even the most far-away lands happy, well-fed, well-educated, and hopeful. It’s not just humanitarian and altruistic, it’s also enlightened self-interest. And you could make worse choices than free software as a means of furthering that goal.