Software that liberates people: feels about FSF@30 and OSFeels@1

tl;dr: I want to liberate people; software is a (critical) tool to that end. There is a conference this weekend that understands that, but I worry it isn’t FSF’s.

Feelings are facts, by wrote, CC BY 2.0

This morning, social network chatter reminded me of FSF‘s 30th birthday celebration. These travel messages were from friends who I have a great deal of love and respect for, and represent a movement to which I essentially owe my adult life.

Despite that, I had lots of mixed feels about the event. I had a hard time capturing why, though.

While I was still processing these feelings, late tonight, Twitter reminded me of a new conference also going on this weekend, appropriately called Open Source and Feelings. (I badly wanted to submit a talk for it, but a prior commitment kept me from both it and FSF@30.)

I saw the OSFeels agenda for the first time tonight. It includes:

  • Design and empathy (learning to build open software that empowers all users, not just the technically sophisticated)
  • Inclusive development (multiple talks about this, including non-English, family, and people of color) (so that the whole planet can access, and participate in developing, open software)
  • Documentation (so that users understand open software)
  • Communications skills (so that people feel welcome and engaged to help develop open software)

This is an agenda focused on liberating human beings by developing software that serves their needs, and engaging them in the creation of that software. That is incredibly exciting. I’ve long thought (following Sen and Nussbaum’s capability approach) that it is not sufficient to free people; they must be empowered to actually enjoy the benefits of that freedom. This is a conference that seems to get that, and I can’t wait to go (and hopefully speak!) next year.

The Free Software Foundation event’s agenda:

  • licenses
  • crypto
  • boot firmware
  • federation

These are important topics. But there is clearly a difference in focus here — technology first, not people. No mention of community, or of design.

This difference in focus is where this morning’s conflicted feels came from. On the one hand, I support FSF, because they’ve done an incredible amount to make the world a better place. (OSFeels can take open development for granted precisely because FSF fought so many battles about source code.) But precisely because I support FSF, I’d challenge it, in the next 15 years, to become more clearly and forcefully dedicated to liberating people. In this world, FSF would talk about design, accessibility, and inclusion as much as licensing, and talk about community-building protocols as much as communication protocols. This is not impossible: LibrePlanet had at least some people-focused talks (e.g.), and inclusion and accessibility are a genuine concern of staff, even if they didn’t rise to today’s agenda. But it would still be a big change, because at the deepest level, it would require FSF to see source code as just one of many requirements for freedom, rather than “the point of free software“.

At the same time, OSFeels is clearly filled with people who see the world through a broad, thoughtful ethical lens. It is a sad sign, both for FSF and how it is perceived, that such a group uses the deliberately apolitical language of openness rather than the language of a (hopefully) aligned ethical movement — free software. I’ll look forward to the day (maybe FSF’s 45th (or 31st!) birthday) that both groups can speak and work together about their real shared concern: software that liberates people. I’d certainly have no conflicted feelings about signing up for a conference on that :)

12 thoughts on “Software that liberates people: feels about FSF@30 and OSFeels@1”

  1. Yeah, it’s this kind of thing that gives me mixed feelings about the FSF. It’s quite telling, comparing the two agendas, that despite their strong ideological base, their conference has nothing about communication – nothing about how to reach out to people and sell them on the FSF vision, nothing on building communities around that vision.

    The software world has benefited hugely from work the FSF has done – but it’s sometimes hard to see how they managed it, given how poor they can be when it comes to communicating with those outside the group.

  2. Much of the rhetoric around open source is about choice: I would like to have the freedom to choose (to do x, y or z) with my (code, product, OS, interface).

    That’s great. But the amount you have to know and the time you have to invest to choose open systems often makes it effectively unattainable or untenable — and thus not a real choice at all — for many users of (code, products, OSs, interfaces). Which means the very language and core rhetoric of open source restricts it to a tiny club of people who have the enormous background necessary to make that choice.

    We can do better: by making more accessible open systems for people who do know a lot but are still intimidated; by continuing to craft core infrastructure; by improving education (I’m at MIT, home of many things including the FSF founders, and there’s no real student education or support on free licenses that I’ve discovered — let alone at other universities); and by not just out and out dismissing people who don’t want to sever connections with friends and family by dropping facebook, or who don’t have the time to work for free, or who don’t know what an operating system is: by being, in other words, just a little more empathetic.

  3. The sessions for the day were kind of thrown together in the last week (posted publicly on wednesday before a saturday event). Reading what you wrote, I think more human/social topics/tracks would have been wise. It is what we wanted anyhow and what each of the tracks/sessions more or less became. The day event was more atrium, couches, and small meetups with inclusion than it was topical based conferncing. No good reasons it wasn’t that, except maybe the general challenge of busy people doing work. You were missed. I looked around at the party for (which I needed to leave early). So many people … Fontana and his wife came, and Karen and her one in the oven, and Allison and many others … It was good. Maybe you can help us shift a track for libreplanet … Tune it until it resonates with those chords you are writing. I hope to see you there. Best, Josh

  4. Randall: yeah, I think we’re thinking along the same lines. If you are interested in jumping in the philosophical deep end, you’d enjoy reading a basic intro to the capability approach.

    Phoebe: Yup. Focusing on empathy and empowerment are key. But it makes a lot of previously bright lines very grey – as you say, questions like “what to do about Facebook” suddenly become much more complicated when you’re empathetic about the functionality that is lost. And that’s hard (even demotivating) for a lot of people to grapple with. :/

    Josh: Part of me would love to get more involved with libreplanet (I’ve considered preparing a version of the capacity approach talk there a few times), but to be honest, I’m not sure how well-received some of these messages would be at LP: they challenge a lot of sacred cows. :/ But perhaps that’s a chat to have somewhere other than blog comments :)

  5. I’m dubious that having the FSF lift its focus from the technical to the wider world would do anything but dilute its technical contribution.

    Yes, the ultimate goal should be to liberate people. But specialist groups can also contribute. I think this works for fields of endeavour just as it can work for groups: parents who concentrate on bringing up their children with little care for the global picture can do as much for humanity as those who have a wider view constantly in mind.

    The Raspberry Pi project has been an excellent example of how this narrow approach can work: it had a purely technical goal originally, namely: make a cheap “real computer” at a (UK middle-class) pocket-money price. How it would be used was not part of the vision.

    At the time I thought this was narrow-minded of the R-Pi crew.

    For a couple of years I thought I was right, as it was largely adults who bought and enjoyed the devices. I didn’t see much evidence that they were getting kids interested in programming.

    But then something unexpected (at least by me) happened: kids started picking them up, and learning how to use them often without direct adult instruction; instead, they searched online for tips, tutorials &c. written by adults, often, or even mostly, for other adults.

    The more narrowly focussed a group is, the easier it is to pick goals, measure progress, and generally get ahead. As you broaden goals, it’s much easier to get stuck in, and run aground on, difficult arguments. Making progress in those circumstances can be really hard.

    And last, what’s wrong with working at different levels? There are plenty of organisations that directly address broader human questions. Richard Stallman has always been very clear about the limits of his vision, and I think it’s a large part of the reason for his, and his organisation’s, success, as well as for some notable failures.

    I’ll happily take the last 30 years as they were, and hope the next 30 are as interesting technically; for debate and action on broader questions, I’ll look elsewhere. (I’ll also be grateful that it was partly through the GNU project that I came to think about them in the first place.)

    Disclosure: I’m a GNU maintainer.

  6. I wonder how many macbooks there are at the OSFeels conference.

    Less jokingly, I think the FSF has an uncompromising stance on a lot of things that’s both necessary and makes it hard to build the bridges that you talk about (and that I wish existed). I think anyone knows what to do about that, sadly.

  7. > It is a sad sign, both for FSF and how it is perceived, that such a group uses the deliberately apolitical language of openness rather than the language of a (hopefully) aligned ethical movement — free software

    I think a conference called “FreeFeels” would probably attract the wrong kind of crowd…

    (Also, I don’t think “open” (in this context) is about being apolitical. It’s just less ambiguous than “free”. You don’t need to say “we mean open as in ‘open discussion’, not open as in ‘open beer cans'”. Even people who don’t already know what you’re talking about will still understand right away.)

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