Having just passed its thirtieth birthday, the Free Software Foundation has plenty to celebrate. Having begun as a fringe movement, free and open source software has become the backbone of the Internet, transforming business as a side-effect. Yet for all is accomplishments, the one thing it has not done is capture the popular imagination. As a result, I find myself wondering how free and open source software might present itself in the next thirty years to overcome this problem.
This concern is usually known as framing, and is widespread in all social and political discussion. For example, in the United States, a group promoting handgun regulation might frame its campaign as a matter of public safety, while its opponents would frame it as a matter of civil rights.
Similarly, a political party might call for increased taxes for business as a matter of corporations paying their fair share, while its opponents might condemn the idea as stifling initiative, Whichever description gets picked up by the media and the majority of the public usually determines side gets its position passed into law.
What is surprising about free software’s failure to frame itself is that Richard Stallman has always been highly aware of the importance of framing. For instance, his insistence on the use of “GNU/Linux” is not just an obsession, but an effort to win free software equal recognition alongside the Linux kernel.
In the same way, he has always referred to “file sharing” rather than “piracy.”
Yet the closest the Free Software Foundation has ever come to framing its cause was during Peter Brown’s time as executive director from 2005-2011. A long time social activist, Brown attempted, with limited success, to encourage supporters of environmentalists and similar causes to make free software part of their principles.
This attempt required tremendous effort, because it meant educating activists about complicated issues they had never encountered before. When Brown approached a friend at the BBC for coverage, his friend had no idea where to begin. He was like: “This is a big topic we’re talking about,”’ Brown says. “’It covers disks, it covers downloads, it covers television, it covers iPods. How on earth am I going to wrap up this story?” Often, his queries were simply ignored.
After Brown’s departure, his efforts were de-emphasized by the Foundation’s leadership, although some survive, and remain popular among its supporters. Still, I suspect that the efforts hardly had time to succeed and might well be the frame that free software requires, especially with the regular stories about security and privacy violations now trickling into the mainstream media.
When You Turn on Your Computer . . .
Accordingly, with no false modesty whatsoever, I would like to suggest a way forward by quoting myself:
“When you turn on your computer, you’re making a political statement.”
Most people, of course, take their computers for granted, and never think this way. But that is the entire point. It’s a dramatic statement that should capture their attention — and, with any luck, start them re-evaluating.
From there, the discussion can move naturally into a politicized discussion. If you boot into Windows or OS X, you are passively supporting monopolies and invasion of privacy. As an OS X user, you are also buying into an aesthetic whose purpose is not so much beauty as sales. Even if you regularly complain about these corporations, if you use these operating systems, then you are acquiescing with countless practices that you would protest loudly in other parts of your life. That might be acceptable if no other choice existed, but, increasingly, it does, and it is now easy to start using
Having stirred listener’s consciences, you can move on to mention how free software enfranchises the poor, and can provide the technical infrastructure for developing countries.
You can mention, too, how free software’s ideas are extending into other fields: for instance, how open access makes academic journals available to all, and how open hardware make computers even more accessible, and is creating a new niche for small business when combined with crowd-sourcing.
This is a cohesive story, touching on social responsibility, consumer rights, and humanitarian aid — many of the causes that already engage activists and their supporters. By the time you are finished explaining, if your listeners are not convinced to make room in their social consciences for free software, then you are probably addressing the wrong audience.
The Frame Awaits
Two points that my proposed frame do not mention are licenses and the four software freedoms. These are the points that free software always emphasizes, and by now, their limited appeal outside technical circles is undeniable.
As Brown once told me, you do not interest the average person in recycling by explaining the chemical processes involved in composting. Instead, you talk about how composting benefits them or the planet. Framing free software is no different — it is a matter of finding the right emphasis.
Free software has all the raw material to become a social cause. It might even have the potential to cut across traditional political lines. So far, however, no one has assembled a narrative that would excite the non-technical, even though at least one is waiting to be used. I can only hope that some time in the next thirty years, free software finds the frame it needs to reach a larger argument.
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