Free software and world peace

Short URL:


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.



AmyStephen's picture

it’s a new generation of people who are beginning to think of their race as “Human" and their nation as “Earth".

"Happy, well-fed, well-educated, hopeful people do not become suicide bombers and neither do they elect fear-mongerers."

Beautifully put, Terry, the connections I have been honored with world-wide are positive, as you describe. Thanks for sharing.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on


You have articulated well the expanding dialog via the Internet. I have been increasingly impressed by the attitude of cooperation extended by the Free Software communities. I am nearly overwhelmed when I compare the attitudes of huge proprietary system producers with that of any open source producer.

It took me about a month of being in the open source world to find and become involved with the community. There are of course some exceptions but in general I was made to feel welcome and quickly assimilated into the group. A complete reversal of the "allowed" looking over the fence at a knowledge base to being greeted personally and invited into the community.

I have, like you, have a global conversation that has torn down prejudices and misconceptions. This alone would have justified my move to open source.


Scott Carpenter's picture

It always bothers me when people only want to deal with one problem at a time. We can't do "X" until we solve "Y". Well, it might be that X helps us get to Y, right?

I try not to become too carelessly utopian about what computers and this networked world will do for us, but I do hope for the best, and I suspect that if we're given the time, new generations will grow up feeling more connected and part of a world community. And I think free software will be a necessary ingredient in this.

And I really should avoid incessantly quoting Rush lyrics, but this comes to mind: "Better the pride that resides / in a citizen of the world / than the pride that divides / when a colorful rag is unfurled."


Terry Hancock's picture

So you have that album too? ;-)

I don't think the internet (or any technology) will ever bring about a "utopia" (if by that we mean a perfect society where there are no problems), but I guess you could say I'm a "progressive": I think it's possible to make better societies (by which I mean societies that do a better job of serving more of the needs of more of their members), even if they won't be perfect (and I think that's a good enough goal for us mere mortals).

The truth is, as contributions towards a better world go, free software production gives you a lot of "bang for your buck": sure it's hard work designing software and writing code (though easier with free software than without), but once you've done it, it's out there and it has the potential to grow and be copied. Almost as good as a Von Neumann machine.

I like the idea of not having to solve the same problem over and over again (now if I can just figure out how to apply that to housework!).

Scott Carpenter's picture

I think I'm unrealistic and naive enough to still hope/dream about utopia, but more realistically, I should learn to focus on trying for improvements where possible. Maybe that's why I'm getting involved with free software more these days.

It's very late, so I'll go to the quote well again. This seems to me like a wise, gradual view:

"We are at the very beginning of time for the human race. It is not unreasonable that we grapple with problems. But there are tens of thousands of years in the future. Our responsibility is to do what we can, learn what we can, improve the solutions, and pass them on."

-- Richard Feynman


Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

Dear Terry,

I'm planning to translate this article to Turkish to be published on my blog ( ) and to be sent to some Free Software e-mail groups here in Turkey.

What I would like to ask: Is the question mark at the end of the last sentence of the first paragraph proper or is it a typo? I doubt both from the points of syntax and semantics.

My e-mail:
kdenizogut (at) gmail (dot) com


K. Deniz Ogut

Terry Hancock's picture

Hi Deniz, thanks for the interest.

Yes, that question mark is meant to be there, it's kind of colloqual, but "surely" is often used to mean something like "Don't you think...?" which makes the sentence a question.

Mauro Bieg's picture

Great article!

I really feel as of my race as “Human" and my nation as “Earth". See my avatar - The Blue Marble :-) Of course, I can't deny that I'm influenced by my culture, but aren't all human beings extremely similar, despite of 'different' cultures?

I hope so much that through computers and the internet, society will get improved, that our live (and that of future generations) will have a greater quality. Yes, it's a bit utopian. But if you haven't an utopia in mind, you can't help work towards it. Of course I'm conscious that we can never reach real utopia - nothing can ever be 'perfect', but everything can always get improved.

But as much as I hope, as much do I fear. Fear, that we'll miss chances to create a better world. The whole thing is so fragile. Think about all the people that are part of our global society. Think about all the things that influence their thinking. Think about all the emotions that can explode suddenly, if some fool says something wrong. And think about all the people that have only their-selves in mind, or maybe their-selves and some guys that happen to have the same blood, or the same nationality. But we can't ignore the fact that we all live on the same planet and that we all are men.

There will be problems until everybody is happy. So let's try and make everybody on this planet at least happier.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

Glad you added hopeful to the list of things that stop people being suicide bombers because merely being well fed and educated aren't enough.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

Because peace is what actually stops wars.

I strongly disagree. Peace doesn't stop wars. Victory stops wars. Chamberlain tried the "peaceful" solution with Hitler. It didn't work. It was the defeat of the Nazis and Japan that created peace in Europe and in Japan. Look at those two nations now; they're economic powerhouses and bastions of freedom in their corners of the world.

You define peace as surrender. I define peace as tryrannical regimes being removed.

Terry Hancock's picture

No I don't think I said anything about "surrender".

You're clearly trying to make this into some kind of political statement about foreign policy or the war in Iraq, but I didn't mention either (I do have a position on that, but this article has nothing to do with it one way or the other. Whether I supported continued engagement or a full-scale pull-out, would be completely orthogonal to the point made here).

It doesn't matter whether the US stays in Iraq or against, the constant fighting of war will never solve any conflict. (Well, unless you, like Hitler, consider extermination a "solution").

What actually stops wars is when people stop wanting to fight.

When does that happen? It happens when they no longer perceive fighting as the only way to solve their immediate problems.

So long as we continue to allow the living conditions of people around the world to decline and ignore the basic needs of other human beings, we are creating constantly increasing tensions that will eventually lead to war of some kind. So if we stop thinking about "peacetime concerns" during war, we'll only prolong the wars and/or cause new ones to spring up.

That's why it's always a silly argument to say we should stop being concerned about free software (or the economy, or health care, or food production, or the environment, etc) just because there are wars and injustice in the world. Making the world a safer place for the people in it is fighting injustice.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

I can't help myself, but I must point out that Europe is not a country anymore than North America is one.

Removing the base for war should stop war just as effectively as attacking a country far away. If noone follows a tyrant, there is no reason to go to war removing one, since the tyranny will never occur. If nobody had followed Hitler or the military leaders surrounding emperor Hirohito, there would be no need to overthrow them.

Enlightenment and education is the best war-stopper. That includes education of the US public, IMHO. Statements like yours make it all to evident, if I may be frank.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

Happy, well-fed, well-educated, hopeful people do not become suicide bombers and neither do they elect fear-mongerers.

But look at us in the US. The description is not so far off. Still we have elected fear-mongers. There seems to be an underlying fear always waiting to be released in the majority of people that I have ever known.

Still I share some of your optimism that time can heal some of this.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

I'll just put the first definition from Webster's online dictionary although there are many others.

1. the normal, nonwarring condition of a nation, group of nations, or the world.

Terry Hancock's picture

Defining peace as "the absence of war" is naive and shallow. That's like defining "success" as "the absence of failure".

Peace is the maintenance of a productive process that fulfills people's basic needs and resolves residual conflicts without the need for violence.

War is the absence of peace. It's when the system that drives peace breaks down, leaving only the primitive pre-civilization mechanisms to resolve conflict. Hence the violence.

War is always a failure, essentially by definition.

Terry Hancock's picture

Fair point, but both are probably legit: "monger" is both a noun meaning "A trader; a dealer" (archaic but pretty neutral) and a verb meaning "To deal in; to make merchandise of; to traffic in; -- used chiefly of discreditable traffic" (GCIDE). Hence it makes a bit more sense to use "mongerer" as a pejorative.

atlantia's picture
Submitted by atlantia on

Using FOSS to solve world problems .... No that would never work ... people don't change just because they have access to new information ... Like 'Voice of America' - just a radio show - had nothing to do with the demise of the Berlin Wall ....

Hmmm, wonder if we spent 1 billion dollars each day dropping Negroponte's notebooks full of low tech water distillation, crop growing techniques, logical social discourse, travel guides , maps, vehicle manuals and, of course, comics on those same impoverished areas - seems like we could teach some people how to fish too somewhere along the way.

And then ask them to write some comments here - meaningful dialogue would probably be a bad idea too - soon they would be questioning our methodology or maybe, just maybe showing us a new and different way.

Terry Hancock's picture

I intentionally avoided specifically endorsing a particular technology or project. That's because such calls are always controversial, and in the end it doesn't matter that much: ultimately "the market" (or "natural selection") will decide that.

But I think the most important aspect of programs like the OLPC is that it provides a meaningful tool for people in developing countries to act on their own. Too often, development programs are based on the flawed assumption that people in developed nations always know what's best for people in developing nations.

The OLPC has been criticized on just those grounds, but I think such criticisms miss the point that the OLPC is a very general-purpose tool. Though much of the promotional copy for OLPC goes on about it as a means for "education" (which can be regarded negatively as spoon-feeding developed world values to the developing world), they are, as general purpose computers, equally capable of communicating developing world ideas back to the developed world (what I clumsily described as "speaking back" above) and of course, for citizens of developing nations to speak to each other.

Consider the place we'll be when the first OLPC-owning kid from a developing nation starts a free software project at Sourceforge (or another community site). We're still educated to think of the developing world as a burden to be born by the developed world (they used to call this idea the "white man's burden"—a less politically correct but more honest label). But minds are assets, not burdens. And tools that amplify the power of those minds enhance those assets.

Of course, naysayers will argue that most kids won't be able to take advantage of these tools. But that's true in the developed world, too. But let's just imagine what happens if just 0.1% of the people receiving OLPC laptops explore their new capabilities and learn how to develop them. If OLPC actually hits their 100 million unit goal, that's 100,000 new developers!

And remember, these are kids whose first computer experience will be a GNU/Linux system, based on free software. It's hard for me to imagine any outcome where this does not result in enormous new production and innovation. We're not used to imagining that kind of thing coming from the developing world, but things like OLPC will make it possible.

I find that a really inspiring idea.

Author information

Terry Hancock's picture


Terry Hancock is co-owner and technical officer of Anansi Spaceworks. Currently he is working on a free-culture animated series project about space development, called Lunatics as well helping out with the Morevna Project.