Originally Published: Friday, 12 May 2000 Author: Rob Bos
Published to: featured_articles/Featured Articles Page: 1/1 - [Std View]

Why Free Software Matters

Why is Linux important? What does mere software matter, in a world where children are starving, where people are dying in unjust wars, where ignorance and stupidity undermine everything we do? There are plenty of good causes to subscribe to; in every corner of the world there is something that is worth doing.

"Folks, we're talking about operating systems and software, for Pete's sake. My two cents: Kick back with a Coke and chill out. It's time to get a life." -- Ziff-Davis columnist

Two days ago, I was waiting for the bus at one AM, and missed it by about five minutes. During my half hour wait, I was approached by two people asking for spare change, whom I had to politely rebuff. A third woman approached me, apparently desperate for ten dollars to get a hotel room. Another person gave me a heartbreaking story about his experiences on the street and his difficulties as a sufferer of AIDS. I talked with a few other people on other random subjects.

While I am not completely naive, and realise that the various requests for change were likely requests for booze, drugs, or whatever, it's hard to not be touched by the desperate situation that many of these people on that single street corner, and in hundreds of thousands of similar street corners the world over. We live in a world where there is a lot of suffering; decent people are thrust into extreme circumstances where they seek to escape, to hide, to survive by any means necessary - or simply to self-destruct and escape by any means possible.

Why is Linux important? What does mere software matter, in a world where children are starving, where people are dying in unjust wars, where ignorance and stupidity undermine everything we do? There are plenty of good causes to subscribe to; in every corner of the world there is something that is worth doing. If it's keeping someone off the streets for another day, if it's helping someone get a job, if it's simple compassion for someone else, it's something that must be done. There are plenty of worthy causes to devote resources to; why is Linux worth even a shred of effort when there is so much suffering going on?

The same could be said of many things in history. Why should we concern ourselves, waste resources on such things as breaking totalitarian rule, when the same resources could be better spent healing individual people? Why do we fight for freedom, when fighting for food is so much more immediate and practical?

One of the core ideas of free software is responsibility. When you have a problem, you fix it. When you have a problem, you analyse that problem, break it down, and work to repair it. Instead of dithering about problems, Linux users will tend to be the type to simply go in and fix it, to hack up a solution. It's a necessary survival trait, and an essential, if understated, tool about the world about large that if a problem exists, it can be solved by breaking it down into meaningful, discrete chunks and dealt with. If free software becomes a truly global phenomenon, the number of people willing to take responsibility and deal with problems, instead of passing them off to superiors, or giving them to other people, must necessarily increase. This can not be a bad thing.

When people do something about problems instead of complaining about them, when people take an active role in the world around them instead of a passive one, something has to give eventually.

Free software is about openness, about transparency of method, of cranking open the process of creation as wide as possible and getting as many eyes involved as possible for any project. This philosophy does not just apply to free software; historically, this method applied to every area of society has led to fundamental changes in the way we view the world around us. Getting more and more people involved in governance, in science, in music, has led to revolutions in all those areas and overall, a more humane society to live in. Where elites once ruled, now competents do. In general, where processes have been opened up to more people, good things have happened. Free software is a natural application of this principle in the computing industry.

Finally, the scope problem. We can not solve all the world's problems, we can only choose the small battles that we know how to win and can work toward in a reasonable manner. There is no way that any person can hope to solve the large problems of today, but we can solve small ones. A wise man once said, "Don't try and solve everything. Just try and solve one thing."

Free software works toward a better society by attacking the ultimate roots of some of the biggest problems in society, rather than the symptoms. It puts decisions into the hands of people who can make them effectively. It blurs the artificial boundaries that tend to get put up by bigotry. Over time, it can and will lead to a more human, compassionate society in some small way. Linux doesn't just lower the artificial economically-created barriers of software development, Linux in its own small way lowers barriers between people and opportunities to learn, to grow, to become more than they are.

In that way, free software can help the people of the street; by creating a better, more compassionate society around them.

Rob Bos is a student at Simon Fraser University and rationalises everything.