Preaching to the non-converted: FOSS and political activism

Preaching to the non-converted: FOSS and political activism

Bruce Byfield of has a great editorial up about Why FOSS isn’t on activist agendas. Bruce points out that although FOSS enthusiasts are great at discussing their “shared values” within their own niche, they’re not very good at reaching out to the broader community—particularly folks over 40 who tend to be more active and influential in politics than the under 30 “techie” crowd:

Although the FOSS and activist communities frequently share ethical positions and social interests ranging from freedom of expression and cooperative organization to consumer rights, privacy, and anti-trust legislation, mostly the two groups remain unaware of each other. Why?

Bruce offers a variety of possibilities. For one thing, the young age of many FOSS advocates tends to deprive them of the perspective necessary to relate to the older crowd. For the 40+ community, FOSS just doesn’t seem relevant to larger social concerns, and the typical FOSS enthusiast isn’t able to offer the right parallels to drive the issue home. Worse, many FOSS advocates aren’t exactly open and tolerant of groups they deem “unworthy,” such as Christians or the Boy Scouts.

The solution seems to be trying to find common ground among these different groups—that is, which FOSS values can be more universally applied to society in general. Once we can filter these out, we can use them to talk about free software in a way that is more appealing to the groups in question.

One thought that kept running through my head while reading the article was the “FOSS” aspect. Do these observations really apply across the board, or should Bruce really limit himself to the “OS” groups? Richard Stallman and the Free Software Foundation have always been oriented towards promoting these broader, more culturally-significant values, and Stallman himself has frequently remarked that FS is only one small part of changes he’d like to see all across society. Obviously, the “OS” group is committed to “cleansing” the movement of these political and social aspirations to make them more “friendly” to greed-driven, psychopathic corporations. I can’t blame a 45 year old political activist for failing to get excited about “open source” software. After all, that movement is only about more efficient coding practices for the developer. “Free software”, on the other hand, is about making software more democratic and empowering for the user—values that any self-respecting liberal would gladly support.

On the other hand, I can’t emphasize how important it is for free software advocates to support their brethren who are not so much coders as proselytizers for the movement. There’s a tendency to undervalue folks whose talents lie in promoting the philosophy of the movement; we tend to privilege those who make more “direct” contributions via donating code. Furthermore, we tend to shy away from discussions about the political implications of the movement. (By the way, it’s not socialist, but far more akin to Anarchosyndicalism). What I’d love to see is more FS advocates reading Noam Chomsky and Larry Lessig alongside the latest PERL or APACHE manuals.

In short, what I’d like to see in the FS community is better support and recognition for the folks who work so hard to promote the movement—not just in the inner circles, but especially those who work with outside groups (particularly in education) to try to bridge some of these gaps Bruce mentions in his article. Take some time this week to explain why FS is important to you—not because it’s cheap or more efficient, but because you’re committed to doing your part to make the world a better place.



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

I do active evangelism for Free software. However, I don't "shove my belief down their throats". I only evangelise when my friends and peers enquire about my policy of "only Free Software". My policy is:

  1. I do not and will not use Non-Free software on any of my own systems
  2. I will not provide support in their usage of any Non-Free software.
  3. I will not recommend to anyone the usage of any piece of Non-Free software.

I make an exception to my policy when someone is involved in reimplementing Non-Free software as Free software. I mention this exception only when it is relevant to the situation.

I tell them that I only use and support the usage of Free (aka. libre) software. Then I explain that the issue isn't about price but of freedom and then explain the the philosophy of Free software. Then I explain dangers of Non-Free software as well my experiences of being harmed by User-Subjugating Non-Free software. Finally, if they enquired about $NON-FREE-SOFWARE, I explain that $NON-FREE-SOFTWARE restricts my freedom to $FREEDOM and then I reiterate the dangers associated with restricting the freedom.

The great thing about my policy is that:

  1. I get to evangelise without shoving my belief down their throat (they WANT to know about my "only Free software" policy)
  2. I don't directly become an accessory to furthering Non-Free software
  3. it leads to me being absolved of MANY tech support requests. (I don't have to help maintain malware-infected Windows boxes ;)

I managed to convert two people to use only free software because I promised to support them with their usage of free software to the best of my abilities. I also managed to educate and inform many others about free software. I even helped fixed a couple of instances relating to confusion (or FUD) relating to free software.

Matt Barton's picture

1. I do not and will not use Non-Free software on any of my own systems
2. I will not provide support in their usage of any Non-Free software.
3. I will not recommend to anyone the usage of any piece of Non-Free software

Ah! This policy reminds me strongly of what my Catholic roommate used to tell me when I asked him why you don't see Catholics going door to door like Jehovah's Witnesses or Mormons. His explanation was that Catholics preferred to "evangelize" by living a certain kind of life, and attracting the admiration of their neighbors and friends. If they asked him about Catholicism, he'd be happy to explain, but he would never go out of his way to "witness" to someone or debate with them about their religion. Obviously, he wanted to avoid the stigma associated with the "guys in ties on bikes" and the like that go with door-to-door "fanati-tactics."

It'd be hilarious to get a knock on the door from some geeks who "just want to ask about my computer's soul and whether it 'knows the gnu.'"

On the other hand, I think the point of the article was precisely that. If we limit ourselves to only talking about free software when it's opportune (i.e., when we're in some technical discussion about software), then we're severely hampering the movement. The way I see it, the philosophy is actually more important than free software itself. You might not want to seem "fanatical" about free software, but I bet you wouldn't mind being "fanatical" about freedom and making the world a better place. I think we have to start from that perspective, then work our way back to free software and explaining how we can use the latter to achieve the former.

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Matt Barton is an English professor at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota. He is an advocate of free software, wikis, and the Creative Commons. He also studies and writes about videogames and computing history. Matt also has blogs at Armchair Arcade, Gameology, and Kairosnews.