Twenty years ago today, Linus Torvalds sent the announcement that announced Linux to the world. The Linux Foundation has promoted the anniversary all year, displaying memorabilia and holding a Roaring Twenties theme party ( much to the evident embarrassment of Torvalds, who was conspicuously absent at LinuxCon when invited to take a bow.) – and it’s fitting that the free software ecosystem that has grown around Linux should be celebrated. However, amid all the self-congratulations, I think it’s worth remembering that what is being praised is the goal more than the reality.
I hate to insist on this cold splash of reality, I really do. Although I wasn’t around at the start, I have been involved in free software for twelve years, and I share the dream. For me, free software is as important a part of activism as recycling. One way or the other, it has been my major source of income for most of those twelve years. The community of free software is where I’ve found a modest dollop of fame. Moreover, as I rediscovered at last week’s LinuxCon, where I seem to have spent three days shaking hands and renewing old acquaintances, I feel at home in the community, and many of my closest friends come from it. So, when the keynote speakers on the first morning stood up and celebrated the accomplishments of free software, I was moved in much the same way as other people might be moved by the national anthem of their country.
And yet –
Something whispered in me that the keynotes at Linuxcon were just a little too self-congratulatory. I couldn’t help thinking that the rhetoric of co-operation was sometimes being delivered by the representatives of corporations famed for their cut-throat business practices. I thought, too, of how, despite everything that the free software ecosystem has accomplished – often contrary to the predictions of old-school business and development experts, much to my delight – the community seems to have balked at taking the final steps, putting up with cost-free drivers rather than pushing for free-license ones.
But the largest gap between rhetoric and practice came in the description of the community. The gospel was preached most vividly by Jon “Maddog” Hall.
Hall is a seemingly endless source of friendliness and good will, and part of me hates to contradict him. All the same, I had to raise an eyebrow when he proclaimed – as he had already done in his blog :
I am proud of the Free Software community in embracing diversity. And finally, it is lucky for me that the Free Software community also embraces older people…..
No one asks these programmer/entrepreneurs their age, their race, their religion, their sex or their “sexual orientation”. No one asks them if they were physically challenged, what country they came from, or their political views. No one told them “don’t go there”, “don’t do that”, “you are too young”, “you are too old”, “you are just a…” or “you can not succeed”…..because (as one of my favorite cartoons points out) “on the Internet no one knows that you are a dog”.
All the Free Software community says is “show me the code”.
It’s a wonderful dream, Jon, and I hope that one day it comes true. But read the Geek Feminism wiki, and you soon realize that it isn’t true yet. Pornographic presentations, the litany of sexist bloopers from one community leader after another, the knee-jerk, foul-mouthed hostility to even the suggestion that more should be done to encourage the participation of women – it all buzzes around in your head like loud music when you have a hangover. Before long, you are forced into the realization that, unfortunately, the community does not always embrace diversity, and that portions of it care very much who you are. In fact, they care so much that they will do their best to prevent you from contributing your code no matter how well-written it is.
Taking time to appreciate the accomplishments of free software is only right. It’s a working community, and many of us don’t take enough time to appreciate what’s being built a bit at a time. But what Jon and the other Linuxcon keynote speakers praised was the ideal, not the way things are.
So, while we should celebrate what is after all a unique accomplishment, let’s also take time to remember that the accomplishment isn’t finished yet, and that we’ve collectively fallen short of the ideal. Forget that, and we risk always being less than we could be and betraying ourselves.