GNU/Linux: Too Much about Hate, Not Enough about Pride

Starting from nothing, the free software community has achieved the impossible, confounding all sorts of expectations. So why all the angst?
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[Correction appended to end of article.]

Ever since I wrote "It's Time to Get Over Microsoft," people have demanded in blogs and emails how I could ignore the obvious threat that Microsoft represents to free software. Usually, I ask them to read the article more carefully, and note that it suggests that free software has grown strong enough to take care of itself. The fact that so many free software supporters persist in a negative identity -- that is, one defined by not being a Microsoft user -- frankly puzzles me when the community has so much to be proud of in its own right.

As a citizen of Canada, a country whose national identity is too often defined in terms of anti-Americanism, I'm all too familiar with the limitations of a negative identity. Admittedly, Microsoft bashers, just like Canadians who are hostile to the United States, are in little danger of losing their identities through the disappearance of the object of their hate, but other dangers remain.

With a negative identity, you tend to focus on whatever defines you so intensely that you overlook other things that are equally important, such as the fact that other monopolies, such as Adobe or the Recording Industry Association of America, are just as much a threat. Even more importantly, you are unable to see yourself or your accomplishments clearly. Self-knowledge and an integrated personality remain beyond your reach, because, instead of taking pride in your accomplishments, you are forever distracted by establishing what you are not, rather than on what you are.

That is why, aside from the occasional curse in the direction of Microsoft, I usually prefer to focus on what the free software community has accomplished.

Think about it: Starting from nothing, the free software community has achieved the impossible, confounding all sorts of expectations. In doing so, it has not only changed the way that business is done, but empowered millions, combining technological and social change in a way that has never been seen before. These accomplishments, I suggest, are long overdue for acknowledgement and celebration. We hear too much about hate, and not nearly enough about pride.

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One of the aspects of the free software movement that has always impressed me is that it continually confounds expectations. When the mainstream first started hearing about free software in the early 1990s, the conventional wisdom was that competition and profit drove innovation. The idea that cooperation and pride in exercising your ability could replace these incentives was Utopian, communistic, hippy-dippy, anti-American, naive -- anything except practical.

You still hear echoes of these attitudes today. The difference, though, is that while free software was the fringe movement fifteen years ago, now it's increasingly the detractors who are dismissed as unrealistic. Quietly ignoring all the explanations of why free software methods would never work, the community has patiently plugged away, doing what needed to be done. And, in the end, it has proved all the conventional wisdom wrong.

GNU/Linux will never scale, the critics said. Yet for years, the operating system has been a major player in servers, until today it is one of the main drivers of growth in that market. Releasing code makes for insecurity? Today, you'd be hard-pressed to find a security expert of any note who doesn't believe that free software is securer than proprietary code. Free software can't scale to larger applications? Today, programs like Apache are standard parts of the developer's tool kit. Free software can't be user-friendly? Handle quality assurance? Time and time again, the free software community has done what everybody said couldn't be done -- not by those methods, or with that idealism -- and, for the most part, done it superlatively well.

Admittedly, part of my interest in these accomplishments is a contrarian's delight in seeing what everybody knows debunked. But mostly it's a deep-seated appreciation for the independence and determination of those with the courage to succeed in their own way.

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Tags: open source, Linux, developer, Microsoft, GNU/Linux

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