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|Originally Published: Friday, 24 December 1999||Author:|
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545 Technology Square
When you're at 545 Technology Square, the reputable headquarters of the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, it is hard not to wander around in the empty hallways and wonder where time went. You see the old filing cabinets filled with papers from so long ago. Old editions of Association of Computing Machinery (ACM) scattered about together with magazines and journals on Artificial Intelligence. On a board in the hallway, someone has scribbled "I've smoked lots of stuff in my time," attributed to Gerald Sussman....
Someone who knew his history might look at the signs on the doors and say, "I wonder when Alan Kotok left DEC to come back here," or "gee, is he still around here?"
Then there's a place where the hallway is filled with information on how to help Tibet. This is where rooms 425-427 are, and if someone is there when you walk by them, and the phone happens to ring, you might hear them answer "Project GNU" or "Richard Stallman."
Welcome to the Free Software Foundation's Programming Offices.
People who have never been to the FSF offices often have a hard time grasping the full extent of what the Free Software Foundation has done to move the free software community to where it is today.
Some say that GNU is a nuisance left behind from the early days of the free software movement, but in reality, only part of what they do has changed. The main issue at the GNU offices these days are not about cranking out new free software, it's about educating the public about why they have the software they have and why the GNU project began working on this.
These offices has been on more-or-less the same place for more than 15 years, and they show every sign of it. At first, they might seem to be just about any random hacking office. Computer parts spread across the room. An half-hearted refrigerator giving the inhabitants an assortment of miscellaneous beverages and foods. Network cables hanging from the ceiling, down to the computers below, and some clothes belonging to a random hacker stacked in a pile together with backup tapes.
But it's not regular 4mm DAT tapes, nor is the network twisted pair. It's 8mm DAT at best, large HP tapes, and in the middle office is a fairly large collection of tape reels. Some of the reels containing year old backups, others containing old versions of GNU Emacs. And then there's the coax. The thick coax. And the documentation; vast amounts of technical documentation on the bookshelves and in an old filing cabinet in 427 is a drawer filled with research papers, divided into various software categories.
The many GNU programs didn't happen by chance. They were all part of a much larger scheme to create a wholly free operating system. Everything was prepared for, documentation bought, research papers studied and programmers hired. This was a fight for freedom, everything else would be secondary. Money, stable software, better software, all that was secondary to the greater cause: the ability to help your neighbor by giving away copies of the software, and the ability to build a community by letting your own changes be used by everyone.
The mission of the GNU project was partly completed with the advance of the Linux kernel. While only a small portion of the whole system, it provided the one missing part of the GNU system; the kernel. And in this Linux-based GNU-system, or GNU/Linux for short, part of the GNU project failed because people began looking only at the monetary and technical issues and not the issue of freedom which the GNU Project had worked so hard to preserve.
If you're not concerned about your freedom, that's fine. The FSF does its best to try to preserve it for you, in at least some areas. But if you do care about freedom, consider being a saint in the church of Emacs by running only free software, and consider telling your friends about the issues of freedom. Who knows, you might find very different sides emerge from the friends that you once thought you knew!
Jonas Öberg is a webmaster and system administrator for the GNU Project. He lives in the south of Sweden where he sometimes pretends to know what he is doing.