The Knights of Free Software

The Knights of Free Software


Lately, I've been thinking about what the free software movement is really about. Is it really just a bunch of guys who work with code, releasing it under a particular type of license? We seem to talk a great deal about "freedom" and insist that what separates free software from open source or proprietary is this philosophical, ethical, and legal insistence on total freedom for the user. All right; but is this all there is to it? Or should free software programmers and devotees start thinking about bigger issues, and making more serious contributions to society than just improving its code base? Should we "focus on coding" and just hope that society improves by osmosis? Personally, I find this outlook is becoming increasingly unsatisfying. I think this movement needs to expand its horizon and start exploring more direct ways to change the world we live in. I think the Free Software Movement must be about a life choice, not merely a software licensing choice.

What I'd like to do here is offer some possible steps towards a more total free software movement. What I have in mind specifically is some ethical standards and practices free software hackers could possibly set for themselves that set them radically apart from the rest of society. Many can say that the free software movement should be about more than the code of computers; it should be about a code of honor, akin to the chivalric code of Medieval knights, perhaps, but probably more similar to the code lived under by Franciscan monks. My contention is that by logically extending the principles of free software to other aspects of life, we end up with a much stronger movement.

Keep in mind that what I am proposing is definitely not for everyone. However, some hackers out there could in fact get some inspiration. I will refer to a hackers who want to follow this path "Knights of Free Software."

What would such a life look like from the outside? First off, it would be important to undertake a "vow of non-ownership." What I mean is that knights would not only refuse to own any proprietary software, but also to own any property whatsoever. He or she should accept only as much in the form of donations as absolutely necessary to survive and continue programming or enlightening others. Once these bare minimums of subsistence are reached, a knight should kindly refuse additional donations. All luxuries, such as fancy cars, expensive clothes, and the like should be avoided as well. Any "luxury" or "commodity" acquired out of some desire rather than merely to fulfill a necessity is a dangerous trap--a lure back into the closed, greedy society that true knights are committed to changing. Furthermore, many people will donate to such a worthy order if they are convinced of the sincerity of its followers.

Besides a vow of poverty and subsequent lifestyle, knights should also practice selflessness. What I mean by this is that these knights should not be concerned about pride and winning admiration, but rather about acting in all ways selflessly, with humility. A knight should act in such a way as to always benefit others, whether that be in the form of coding or informing others about the movement. This will be best achieved if they come together to elect experienced people to direct their activities. Many folks new to FS are confused about a number of important tenants of the movement, and may resist. For example, an apprentice knight (i.e., a "squire") might still find it "necessary" to use Internet Explorer or to continue to buy and own frivolous items. This behavior would conflict with the code, and these squires would need to understand that even though they still think such things are acceptable, for the sake of the movement, they will cease them as long as they wish to retain their knight status. The idea here is that once they realize they really don't "need" such things, it won't be a problem to continue avoiding them.

The final vow is to make every effort, whenever possible, to inform and challenge others who do not live in accordance to these principles. This should never be done in a violent or insulting way, but only in a helpful, informative and dialectical manner. For instance, if someone is seen using Internet Explorer, the knight should ask, "Why are you using that program?" and from there, very patiently, attempt to lead the person to the better way. This same tendency can be applied to other situations. For instance, if a person owns a gas-guzzling SUV, or is contemplating buying one, or is simply interested in acquiring wealth, the knight should engage in another round of questioning and debates (with an eye towards helping the person discover the truth). "Why do you desire to buy a vehicle that will drain your resources and destroy the environment you live in?" "Why do you desire more money than you need to survive?" With enough effort, the person can be shown that they are merely enslaved to their own foolish desire for wealth and envy, and if they really want to be free, they will learn to control these irrational impulses.

My contention is that if there were a movement that really embraced these principles, it would have a much greater impact on the world and society. People would eventually become impressed by the lifestyle of these Knights of Free Software and likely become much more sympathetic to the movement. Of course, these knights might also be exposed to much ridicule and hatred, but their cool reserve and compassion for even those who hate them will only boost them in the eyes of others.

Category: 

Comments

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

Last vow: stop using computers ?
A computer is a "luxury" you know.

Jerson Michael Perpetua's picture

IF you play games with your computer that is partly true, at least. But to most of us who make a living using computers such a statement is immature. Not to mention that the world is more and more (though slowly) becoming dependent on this technology. Computers, nowadays, are hardly a luxury. Try typing your-much-needed documents with your type writer and tell us again. ;P

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

I am sorry, but I for one will have none of it, for the following reasons:

(1) I don't believe that programmers are any better qualified to tell society what it "ought" to be like than anybody else.
What Programmers *can* do is set an example of how to respond when *their* freedoms are encroached on, and present an alternative to closed-source software with it's associated bottled-water salesmen ethics. This is essentially what Open Source is all about. Giving people a choice instead of telling them what to do.

(2) As to the idea of turning programmers into "evangelists", I shudder at the thought of having people who aren't necessarily educated beyond coding tell the world how they feel it ought to behave. We have enough political parties for that. And ... speaking in European terms, Open Source programmers span the political spectrum from the Greens to Social-Democrats to Christian parties (and only seem to appeal to "Conservative" parties in a cost-benefit sense). Would you really want to try and have a big political as to which political faction Open Source should embrace, and which political stream should be allowed to claim Open Source as its exclusive domain? If you were to succeed, this would likely mean the marginalisation of Open Source in political terms.

(3) Supporting the ideals of "Open Source" isn't a religion, it's sometimes an ethical choice, often a practical choice, and in many cases a cold-hearted calculating business choice. Open Source merely follows those practices that have made Science what it is today: visible and open to criticism by anyone who is willing (and able) to take the time and effort to understand it. In addition, Open Source makes often sense from a business and development perspective, _regardless_ of one's ethics. After all ... how much of the corporate contributions (IBM, SUN, Novell, as in Open Office, Java, the JFS, power-pc enhancements) were made by people who have taken a vow of poverty?

I fear that associating Open Source with a "vow of poverty" will mean the kiss of death to its credibility in the world, starting with the corporate world, the mainstream press, public opinion, and working downwards from that. Would you truly want to give Microsoft the opportunity to tell people: "You can deal with us or with those loony anti-capitalist vow-of-poverty zealots?" and not have it be FUD? Just after Open Source has begun to gain wide-spread credibility in Government, Industry, Academia, *and* the public consciousness?

Well ... I don't, and I hope that this idea of yours dies a quick and, above all, _silent_ death.

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

a software community driven morality can only take you so far... Real religions, in the times when they were introduced had a set a techings/values/ideals which had the power to transform because their prime concern was spiritual in nature. Software development on the other hand is not specifically spiritual...although I would be the first to admit that the FLOSS community embodies many positive 'spiritual' principles.

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

I like your ideas. Some might argue that they are overly idealistic but I believe that every great change has been fueled in large degree by idealism.

One thing I'm not clear on. When you say the knights wouldn't own property, do you mean any property or property in excess? I think some property would be necessary, obviously a computer and clothes, also arguably a refrigerator and stove. Land could also prove useful for growing one's own food which would make it possible for the knight to live on even less actual money. I'm assuming the knights would be allowed to have families so only renting might not be practical for one's whole life. Perhaps they could own modest shelter of some sort such as a small house or a yurt. Those are just some things that came to mind.

I hope your ideas are accepted and The Knights of Free Software becomes a reality. I would love to see this grow and develop in the future.

--Faith Mansell

Matt Barton's picture

I couldn't agree more. In fact, I'm surprised to see anyone who still thinks of computers as luxury items. I'd say that any item that you need as part of a job isn't a luxury, but a tool. If the tool also doubles as an entertainment device, what of it? The important thing is the utility it can serve.

It'd even make sense for someone to claim a game console as a tool if the device could be put to good use. I don't know if it's true or not, but I've seen lots of people claiming that in many cases it's more cost effective to hack a game box into a GNU/Linux machine than it is to buy a dedicated computer. If these modded boxes were used to provide cheaper computing power to poor people, why not?

Finally, I'm not sure I'm willing to say that games are purely unnecessary. I think we learn a lot about who we are as people by playing games. Who could imagine our society without chess, for instance? Many of the best games allow us a fun way to test ourselves and keep our mental skills sharp.

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

"I'd say that any item that you need as part of a job isn't a luxury, but a tool. If the tool also doubles as an entertainment device, what of it?"
If you look at it the right way, you could also use this statement to ruin the argument against SUV's? (Not that I specifically support SUV's.)

In truth computers ARE a luxury. How do I know this? Because there are millions of people that are still able to survive without them. Turn your computer off... you will still live.

Also, I see no conflict between Free Software and aquiring wealth. Some people aquire wealth in ethical ways, some don't. So please try not to clump everyone that is wealthy in the same catagory, Mr. Shuttleworth and I don't appreciate it.

Matt Barton's picture

I'm really happy to see that people are engaging with this post, even if they don't necessarily support all of the ideas behind it. I'll try to take a few of the issues folks have raised here and see if I can resolve a few of them.

I don't believe that programmers are any better qualified to tell society what it "ought" to be like than anybody else. As to the idea of turning programmers into "evangelists", I shudder at the thought of having people who aren't necessarily educated beyond coding tell the world how they feel it ought to behave.

Ideally, these knights would never "tell somebody what do to," except for their squires, who have requested that they do so! Please don't think I'm advocating some Jeremiad here. As I mentioned in the post, the knight would only ask the person questions, engaging him in a debate--and hopefully helping that person improve his thinking.

I could tell someone, "Hey, don't buy an SUV," but why should she listen? The only way I can really convince someone not to buy do so would be to offer compelling and persuasive reasons not to. A sample dialog might run something like this:

Q: "Why do you feel you need a SUV?"
A: "Because they're really cool."
Q: "What is it about them that makes them seem so desirable to you?"
A: "Hmmm...I guess because they're a status symbol."
Q: "So, would you say that it's really other people that want the SUV, and you want it to make them jealous of you?"
A: "Well, I don't know..."

So, in this vein, the knight can go on at some length, until the person either decides not to buy the SUV or will at least agree to put it off and think it over.

Supporting the ideals of "Open Source" isn't a religion, it's sometimes an ethical choice, often a practical choice, and in many cases a cold-hearted calculating business choice.
Who said anything about open source? I really have nothing to say about it. I'm concerned only with the free software movement, which is far more idealistic than open source by design.

Software development on the other hand is not specifically spiritual...although I would be the first to admit that the FLOSS community embodies many positive 'spiritual' principles.
Yes, I agree with this statement. In fact, this is basically the reason I envisioned the "knights" in the first place. The FS advocates I've met are very morally upright people, even if they don't necessarily claim to be "spiritual." What the knights could do is extend these tendencies and hopefully work on creating a more "spiritual" base for the movement, though I'd hope that anyone involved in this wouldn't look to a supernatural being for help. This is a movement about people helping people, not people begging a supernatural force to help them.

When you say the knights wouldn't own property, do you mean any property or property in excess? I think some property would be necessary, obviously a computer and clothes, also arguably a refrigerator and stove.
I've been thinking about this issue very carefully. What I'd like to suggest is that there's a difference in needing something to use it, and needing something to "own" it. For instance, a farmer doesn't necessarily need to claim private ownership of a plow to use it. He could freely choose to freely share the plow with whoever else needed it, provided they were of the same sharing mindset.

All I'm really doing is trying to apply the same "share and share alike" of the GPL to every kind of "property." I think that the minute we start saying, "Well, THIS is mine, and THAT is mine," we've lost something. A knight might say, "I'm the one using this computer now," but would gladly share it with anyone else when he or she wasn't using it.

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

Quote:::
Q: "Why do you feel you need a SUV?"
A: "Because they're really cool."
Q: "What is it about them that makes them seem so desirable to you?"
A: "Hmmm...I guess because they're a status symbol."
Q: "So, would you say that it's really other people that want the SUV, and you want it to make them jealous of you?"
A: "Well, I don't know..."
:::

No offense, but real life conversations do not go like this, and you can rarely convince emotional people to change their minds with logic.

Intellectual property is a myth, so please stop refering to it as such. Software is not property at all, it is information.

Also, you appear to be confusing FS with communism. Free software is not communism (farmer sharing his plow). When I give you the software I created, I still have the perfect/unmodified original, and have lost nothing. If I give you the plow I created, I HAVE lost something, and you may potentially damage it.

I am a vegetarian and I drive a 4 cylinder vehicle. Do I wish to convert others to these things? No, for two reasons. First is because FSF people are looked upon as "cultish" enough without any extras. Second is because it spreads my time and resources to thin. I care more about _digital_ freedom in the future than I care about the others. If you care more about something besides _digital_ freedom, I suggest you concentrate on that instead.

I ask you to please stop all of this. We just need people to continue writing code, writing documentation, and continue to help bring others to _digital_ freedom. Anything else is a Non FSF issue.

BE LIKE UNIX, DO ONE THING, AND DO IT WELL. (free the software)
stephenpinker79@nospam.yahoo.com

Author information

Matt Barton's picture

Biography

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.