My friend Richard Stallman is the founder of the free software movement . His ideas have spawned not only the GNU/Linux operating system , but Wikipedia , Creative Commons the anti-DRM Defective by Design campaign, and other important social movements. He is a MacArthur “genius,” and arguably the world’s most successful activist, and I was honored to have the opportunity to interview him.
Q: What is free software?
A: Free software means that the user has the four essential freedoms: 0. The freedom to run the program as you wish. 1. The freedom to study the program’s source code, and then change it so that the program does what you wish. 2. The freedom to distribute exact copies of the program to others. (This is also known as the freedom to help your neighbor.) 3. The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions. (This is also known as the freedom to contribute to your community.)
Q: You have been working on the free software cause for more than 20 years. How do you keep your momentum going and stay “attached” to your work and maintain your sense of urgency?
A: I personally use computers, so I personally will be among those who lose our freedom if free software does not prevail. Thus, I have plenty of motivation to keep on with the struggle.
Q: How often do you feel fear or discouragement? How do you deal with those feelings?
A: I am a pessimist by nature, so I find it easy to imagine defeat, especially given the size of the companies we are fighting against and their pet government in Washington. But it doesn’t take that much to make me despair. If I make a few attempts to fix a bug and they don’t work, the frustration can build to the point where I scream in mental agony. But that feeling lasts only a few minutes, and then I get back to work.
As for fear, my main fear is the defeat of freedom. The best way to avoid that defeat is to carry on, so I do.
Q: How important is working as part of a team or community to your achievement, and what do you consider effective versus ineffective teams/communities?
A: The free software community is very decentralized — each program has its own maintenance team. This makes plenty of room. If two people don’t get along, they don’t need to work together, they can work separately. This doesn’t eliminate the problem of personality conflicts and abusive behavior, but does mean that it at worst causes some drag.
Q: What are your work habits and schedule, and why and how did these habits and schedule evolve?
A: I don’t have or want any structure in my day. When I wake up, I usually start to answer my mail. When I feel I need a break, I take one — I might read, fantasize, listen to music, or eat. After a while, I go back to work. I don’t follow a schedule, except for travel and meetings. However, nowadays that amounts to quite a bit of schedule, which in some ways is annoying.
The time I was at my most productive was as a programmer in 1982. I had very few appointments, so I did not need to maintain a 24-hour schedule. When I was tired, I went to sleep. When I woke up, I started working again. When I was hungry, I ate. No schedule at all! This enabled me to be very productive, because when I was not sleeping I was wide awake.
Q: Have you ever taken a sabbatical or break from your activist work? Why or why not? If you did, what benefit did you derive?
A: In the 80s, when the movement was new and my work in it was mainly software development, I never thought of wanting to set it aside for long. Nowadays, since my work is mainly corresponding with people, I can’t do so. The mail would pile up in a horrible way if I don’t attend to it each day.
Q: How effective do you think you’ve been at creating change?
A: I cannot impartially estimate my own capacity, so I cannot answer that question. What is clear is that we have at least gained a foothold for using computers in freedom, but that we are still far from our goal: that all software users should be free. At least the free software movement continues to grow.
Q: What would you consider your most significant accomplishments as an activist?
A: We have developed free operating systems, free graphical environments, free applications, free media players, free games — thousands of them. Some regions have adopted GNU/Linux for their public schools. Now we have to convince the rest of the world to do the same.
Q: What would you consider your most significant failures, or which areas do you wish you had made more progress on?
A: The free software movement’s biggest failure is an ironic one: our free software became so appealing to geeks that usage and development of free programs spread much more than the appreciation of the freedom that the movement is based on. As a result, our views came to be seen as eccentric in the community that we built.
To what extent this is my own personal failure, I don’t know. I don’t know whether I could have avoided this by acting differently.
Q: What natural (cognitive, emotional, lifestyle, etc.) advantages do you think you have as an activist?
A: My biggest advantages, other than my natural ability as a programmer, are persistence and determination, and a brash mocking defiance that enables me to do things that really aren’t hard but that others might shrink from trying.
Most people seem to assume that if you get discouraged about victory then you give up. I cannot make any sense of that. What point could there possibly be in giving up? Nothing I could imagine achieving in the world is more important than defending human rights. So long as my chances of winning are greater if I try than if I give up, it would be absurd to give up.
Q: Another advantage would seem to be that you are enormously resilient in the face of criticism or even ridicule. You were ridiculed for many years for viewpoints which are now seen as valid and even mainstream. Not many people can cope with that kind of intense criticism or ridicule. Was it hard for you to do so, and if you had a coping mechanism, what was it?
A: All such ridicule really says is, “We are bigger than you, nyaah nyaah!” It is meant to intimidate dissenters, and the way to thwart it is to refuse to be intimidated.
Sometimes it intimidates all but one of the dissidents. That has
happened to me many times. It felt discouraging until I learned to
remember that others probably do agree, even though they won’t speak up, so in effect I am their spokesman. I also realize that many others with undecided views are probably listening and weighing the arguments. Simply by sticking to my position, remaining calm, and refuting the adversaries’ arguments without rancour, I can win some of them over. Of course, staying calm is easier to do in email than in person, so I try to have these debates in email. A mailing list is also likely to reach a larger number of undecided people that I might win over.
By contrast, in a private discussion I have learned not to waste time listening to ridicule. Instead I do something else more useful, which is usually also more enjoyable.
Q: What natural disadvantages have you worked to compensate for or overcome?
A: My main disadvantage is a tendency to lose my temper. But I have found a way to control this in most of my work: I reread and revise my outgoing email before actually sending it.
Q: Many activists have trouble decided which projects or tasks to take on. Many make the wrong choice, wasting time and compromising their effectiveness. How do you decide which projects or tasks to take on?
A: I have tried to ask myself what problems the community faces, and what I can do to change the situation.
Q: What other mistakes do you see activists make that compromise their effectiveness?
A: I find that many techies who want to support the movement think only in terms of what they can do acting on their own. It doesn’t occur to them to seek allies in order to act with greater strength.
Meanwhile, others who come to appreciate the ideas of the free
software movement feel discouraged by the size of a task that might require years of work, and give up before the first step. They perceive such a job as impossibly large, not recognizing that we have done much larger jobs already.
Q: What personal sacrifices have you made for your activism? Looking back, how do you feel about having made them?
A: I have worked hard, but I would not call that a sacrifice. How can you achieve something important without work? And most people work hard for things that are hardly worth the trouble.
I have done without some things that most Americans are taught to want: I have never had a house, a car, or children. But I do not regret that. If you have those things, they turn your life into a desperate struggle to get the money to pay for them. Men usually get divorced, after which they hardly even get to see the children that they must struggle all their lives to pay for.
What a waste it is to dedicate your life to a struggle to keep on keepin’ on. Rejecting those burdensome luxuries made it possible for me to struggle for something worth struggling for.
Q: What personal benefits have you derived from your activism?
A: I spend most of the time traveling to places that have invited me to give speeches. In some ways, this is very nice — I get to see many countries, visit beautiful and interesting places, try many foods, listen to many styles of music, and make friends. It also has its bad aspects: airport lines take up time, the security feels fascist, and I can’t take a class of any kind because I am not home enough.
Q: What advice would you give to activists who wish to be more successful or effective?
A: Keep your focus on how to change the future. Don’t dwell on the past except to learn lessons for how to be more effective in the future. Don’t waste time on symbolic gestures, but don’t put more than half your effort into actions that are effective but don’t convey a message. Ideally every action should make a dent in the problem and inspire others, too
Q: What is the best way for someone who doesn’t have a lot of time or money to help the free software movement or any other movement they support?
A: You can support the free software movement with a small amount of money by becoming a member of the Free Software Foundation . You can support the movement with a small amount of time by signing up on DefectiveByDesign.org to participate in our protest actions against Digital Restrictions Management (DRM). That refers to the practice of
developing products to restrict the user.
You can also help in a way that saves you both time and money, by not buying media you don’t have the means to copy. Don’t buy BluRay or HD-DVD. Don’t by e-book readers such as the Amazon Swindle or the SONY Shreader. Don’t get music or video in encrypted formats. Insist on unrestricted media only.
Q: If you weren’t a programmer or free software activist, what other profession would you have enjoyed following?
A: I would have liked to do research in physics. I would still like to be a stand-up comic. Whether I have the ability to do either one, who knows?
Q: Stand-up comic! What’s your favorite joke?
A: I don’t have a favorite joke, favorite food, favorite book, or favorite whatever it is. I can’t recall without reminders all the jokes that I might tell if circumstances remind me of them. And if I could recall them all, I would have trouble comparing them and choosing one as the favorite.
Here’s a comeback that I thought of today, in a split second, when it was useful. I had a medical test, and the doctor said “It’s close enough for government work.” I responded, “So what? We don’t have a National Health Service yet.”