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Archive for February 8th, 2009

I have interviewed Richard Stallman and other members of the Free Software Foundation often enough that he remembers my name (no small feat, I’m sure, considering the hundreds he meets each year). Once or twice, I think, in talking about parrots and folk music, I may have caught a personal glimpse of him. But, even if I haven’t, I generally support the Free Software Foundation. So, when Richard Stallman spoke the other night at the Maritime Labour Centre in Vancouver, I wasn’t going to see what he is really like, or to hear his arguments. I went to see his public persona, and to observe how other people reacted to it.

First, in case you are wondering, Stallman is neither three meters high, green-skinned, nor fanged like a sabertooth tiger. He is a man in his mid-fifties, surprisingly short –maybe 170 centimeters high– and apparently not given to exercise. His hair is long and graying, and so is his beard. Both are uncombed. His clothes are business-casual.

He was tired when he arrived at the hall, and perhaps feeling a little over-exposed to people, having given a speech earlier the same day at the University of British Columbia. After meeting the organizers, he immediately requested a quiet place to work. The request was probably a necessity, since Stallman keeps in close touch with the Free Software office in Boston, but I also suspect that he was relieved to have a moment to himself in the middle of a day in the public eye.

Another myth-buster: Stallman starts by being polite when you talk to him. Nor is he humorless. His comments sometimes show a wry sense of humor, often based on literal interpretations of other people’s phrases. He shows, too, an interest in dining as a social occasion, lamenting that, when he arrived the previous night, he had no one with whom to eat. And, after listening to the local band that warmed up the crowd for him with Flanders and Swann’s “The GNU Song,” he got up on stage to sing “The Free Software Song” with them, his smile not the least deterred by the fact that he is a mediocre singer and could only remember some of the words.

At the same time, Stallman is not always easy to talk to. He seems a little deaf, and impatient with the fact. He is impatient, too, when talk strays into an area where he has expressed the same opinion for decades – or perhaps he simply does not suffer fools gladly. And who can blame him? At this point in Stallman’s public career, anyone who calls him a supporter of open source software has clearly not been paying attention. Nor can it be easy to cover the same basic subjects dozens of times each year.

One on one, he might make some women uncomfortable with compliments about their attractiveness that are a little too quick and open by modern standards. Other women seem to find him chivalrous. Both sexes might accuse him of expecting to be the center of attention, but again, who can blame him? When he is on tour (and he is often on tour), he usually is the center of attention, with his hosts hovering nervously around him.

After our phone conversations, I expected some of these traits, but the overall impression that Stallman makes in person is hard to define. He is neither as obnoxious as detractors paint him, nor as selfless and charismatic as some supporters insist . Although, after meeting him, you can see how all these depictions originate, like any person, Stallman is more than the sum of such caricatures.

Stallman on stage

The fragmentary impressions I got of Stallman off-stage were reinforced when he got up to speak. Like many professional speakers, he immediately gains animation and energy when handed a mike, no matter how tired he is beforehand.

Stallman spoke for well over two hours, not using notes, but obviously covering ground (In this case, his view of copyright law) that he had gone over many times. He was fluent, with few if any pauses or interjections, but not particularly eloquent. Think of a university instructor who keeps his classes interested without being arresting or given to flights of rhetoric, and you have the right impression. The two hours went by quickly, and the audience showed no signs of boredom.

As an argument, Stallman’s speech was concrete, full of examples ranging from the personal to the legal, often enriched with small jokes, and structured with extreme clarity.

If I had to summarize Stallman’s speech in a single word, that word would be “focused.” When Stallman lays out an order to his points, he always returns that order, no matter how many digressions intervene – and, generally, he allows himself very few.

One thing that comes through very clearly as he spoke is his absolute sincerity and conviction. Whatever else anybody might think of him, those are never in doubt. He is quite willing, for instance, to do without a cell phone, DVDs with DRM, or anything else that he cannot use with a clear conscience.

But, as I watched his argument develop, what struck me was not so much any brilliance (although clearly Stallman has an above average intelligence), but his thoroughness. Although other people might possibly make connections or reach conclusions faster than he could, few could think topics through as carefully as Stallman.

In particular, Stallman pays close attention to how issues are framed by language. For example, he rejects the term “piracy” for file-sharing, pointing out that its main purpose is to demonize the practice, not to suggest an accurate analogy. Conversely, he talks about “the war on sharing,” doing his own bit of framing.

This is the same concern, of course, that leads him to insist on referring to GNU/Linux. Many people reject this idea without thinking, but, once you realize that, for Stallman, defining the terms is a necessity for clear thinking, then you realize that he is not simply being pedantic. He is well aware that language is rarely, if ever neutral, and, quite unsurprisingly, tries to influence the debate so that it is on his terms, or at least neutral.

If Stallman’s speech had a weakness, it is that he did not always think on his feet. Several times during the questions at the end, he seemed mildly at a loss, and could only refer back to his speech or declare – sometimes arbitrarily – that a questioner’s topic was irrelevant. Once, when a questioner went on and on without getting to the point, all he could do was seize on a careless use of “open source” rather than “free software,” instead of moving to take direct control of the situation. But perhaps fatigue had a lot to do with this behavior.

Watching the crowd

At any public event, watching the audience can be as rewarding as listening to the performance, and Stallman’s speech was no exception. Some audience members, I later learned, also attended his speech earlier in the day, as well as the one on the next day. However, even without that knowledge, I would still unhesitatingly describe the crowd as geeks with a small smattering of spouses. Most clearly had some familiarity with free software and Stallman’s ideas, and had not come to be challenged so much as to glimpse someone famous.

A minority had a slightly more ambitious goal: To engage Stallman, however briefly, in conversation. Since Stallman’s reputation and manner discouraged most from approaching him informally, some found a moment by getting him to autograph copies of his book, others by asking questions at the end. Many of those lining up up the mikes to each side of Stallman did not have an actual question, so much as a statement they wanted to make to Stallman. One or two seemed inclined to argue with him.

Conclusions

So what do these impressions add up to? A public event is not the place to get to know anybody, and Stallman would probably be a difficult man to get to know under any circumstances. What I saw was the public figure, with – perhaps – the occasional flash of the private man, both accustomed to his fame and occasionally irritated and trapped by it.

In the end, it occurs to me that a distinction between the public and private Stallman many not be worth making. He reminds me of the portrayal of the Wart (King Arthur) in T. H. White’s The Once and Future King. White depicts Arthur as someone inspired by a great idea that took over the rest of his life. In something of the same way, Stallman appears to have been struck by the idea of free software in the early 1980s. The decades since then, I suspect, have simply been filling in the details and taking the idea to its logical conclusions – until now it is hard for a casual observer like me to say where the public man ends and the private one begins.

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