RMS is the past. Fedora is building the future

Nearly 30 years ago I read a book named “Hackers: Heroes of the computer revolution” by Steven Levy. I was a teenager then, into programming- self taught, a loner. And this book, this amazing book, was a tome of Stories Of My People. I didn’t know I had people, but here they were: at MIT and CalTech, starting in the 1950s, obsessively pushing computers as far as they could go. Suddenly I knew that I was not alone in this world, that there were others like me. The book’s stories ran through the early 1980s, when it was originally published. The last chapter in the book is titled “The last of the true hackers” and it’s about Richard Stallman.

The title carries many meanings, it’s actually RMS’s verbatim personal lament about himself in the early 80s. The chapter describes a talented, pedantic programmer obsessed with halting the decline of MIT’s hacker culture, doing everything in his power to subvert people using computers in any other way than the way he thought was right. When he lost his ability to force his opinions on others he began to reimplement their software on his own and give it away (giving it away was part of hacker culture). “Stallman had no illusions that his act would significantly improve the world at large. He had come to accept that the domain around the AI lab had been permanently polluted. He was out to cause as much damage to the culprit (proprietary software) as he could”. Soon after he left MIT with a plan to write a UNIX clone and give it away so he could “continue to use computers without violating his principles”.

Depending on the context you read this is in, it’s possible to walk away with at least two wildly different views of this guy. If you’re reading the book cover to cover, and you’re bought in, as my young impressionable mind was, then Hacker Culture was The Way- he was a champion of a wonderful erstwhile era, whose essence must be maintained. Alternatively, a more experienced person with a large variety of acquaintances, as I am now, might read this chapter as a tale of a controlling, infantile man with boundary issues who would do anything he had to in order to get his way. These are both credible interpretations.

We all know what came next in a greeting card sort of way: the FSF was founded, many pieces of software were written for a UNIX clone (GNU), the GPL was created, and we also know RMS did the lion’s share of the work in the early days. Along the way RMS picked up some followers, too. GNU was never quite pulled off on its own, but if you added Linus’s kernel here and MIT’s X window system, you got something pretty good. In Fedora, we have and still do use portions of that goodness and we of course continue to contribute back in turn. It’s not easy: working with core GNU packages can be unpleasantly challenging, not simply because the code is hard, but because if the code doesn’t align with RMS’s philosophy, it’s often rejected, no matter how valuable or desired it is, often because of how valuable and desirable it is.

I think, to really understand the RMS situation, you have to decouple 2 concept pairs that are often confused for one and other: Intent vs Impact and Leadership vs Initiative.

First let’s tackle intent vs impact, because it seems to be tripping everybody up. Nobody is saying RMS is a moustache-twirling bad-guy who wakes up every morning with fresh ideas designed to disenfranchise other human beings. But what they are saying is that he has a history, going back decades, of taking actions that have the effect of disenfranchising others. His personal boundaries for acceptable behavior with others, especially women, are often in conflict with others’ boundaries, especially women’s. Nobody casts themselves as the bad guy, it’s not his intent, but it is the impact. We have to work with what happens, not what people intend. I’d like to make a special request that all the men venturing opinions, who don’t see it or didn’t see it recognize that they perhaps wouldn’t see it, and give some credence to the idea that you might have biases that make you oblivious. It doesn’t make you bad, it just means you’re a product of the time and place in which your sense of normal was installed, but you haven’t installed the latest updates on what a more balanced normal looks like.

Second, was RMS a leader, or simply a driven individual with a lot of initiative? There are many takes on what leadership means. I personally subscribe to the theory that leadership requires empowering others. I don’t believe RMS is, or ever has been, a leader in this sense, as other people were beside the point. Instead, he was an individual with a clear personal objective, determination, and the skill to make it happen on his own, no matter how long it took. The fact that others wanted to help is interesting, but irrelevant: The FSF, GNU, these are universally recognized as extensions of RMS, not organizations empowered by a founder to grow and adapt in a changing world. If anything, RMS is a celebrity: somebody who has achieved something admired, and suffered the calamitous effects of a cocoon of enablers, with all the consequent shielding from reality that people rely upon to remain grounded. If you do want to attribute leadership to RMS or the FSF, I would ask for recent examples as few things come to my mind after gplv3’s completion over a decade ago.

So, with all this in mind, here’s how I look at the current situation: First, I acknowledge that many good things have come out of RMS’s work: numerous open source packages, copyleft, and center of gravity for people who wanted to work together in ways that were compatible with his vision. Second, and more importantly, I recognize that a lot of bad things have followed: Functional exclusion of many people (especially women), debilitating infighting, and commensurate blindness to being leapfrogged by proprietary competition. I’m not going to add these up and come to a conclusion about if it was worth it or not, doing so would be absurd. Rather, I want to talk about the future, because it is the one thing we can do something about.

The future I want to live in is one in which we recognize we have more in common than in conflict. Details matter, but I’m not as concerned about the nuances of 1001 open source licenses as I am about the way people treat each other day to day. Building this kind of world takes daily acts of leadership by all of us, reinforcing the belief in a united cause. This is inclusivity. This is assuming good intent. This is compassion under stressful circumstances and patient education of the accidentally ignorant. But it’s also excising ardently toxic participants, it’s having limits on unacceptable behavior, it’s stepping in and defending those without the power to defend themselves. This is the social element of Fedora culture, these are the sorts of things we expect from our leadership and each other, because we are all part of what makes it true.

The creation of Fedora, a real developer community, started 34 releases ago, and we’re still getting better at it, still growing who can be part of it and feel welcome. It is part of an incredible legacy that everybody involved can feel proud of: “I was part of this, I helped build this with many others.” What its future holds and who is part of it, I hope it is inclusive, that the council will do the right thing for the communities of the future. I believe in a bigger us.


@blc ,

Nice post!

Hi @blc. Thanks for taking the time to be vulnerable and share your thoughts here!

I liked this metaphor.

Beautifully put. I think these are the words many of us feel inside when we think about why we work on Fedora. I am optimistic for our future too, even with the identity crisis faced by Free Software in the current moment.

Thanks for being bold and expressing this here @blc.