Wearing no shoes, with long hair flowing, Richard Stallman sipped a cup of tea while he regaled a packed lecture theatre at the University of Manchester with a tub-thumpingly passionate and eloquently argued case for Free software.
Stallman is the American enfant terrible of the computer software industry. His radical ideas fuelled his breakaway from the pack in the 1980s, when he set up the Free Software Foundation – that’s free in the sense of liberty rather than free of charge. For most people it’s a subtle distinction so I’ll use his own words to explain:
“Free software means software that respects the users’ freedom. Our society encourages people to judge programs in a shallow way based only on practical convenience – how powerful is it, how reliable, what does it cost and to ignore the most important questions: what does this program do to my freedom. What does this program do to the social solidarity of my community? These questions are what the free software movement is all about.”
Unsurprisingly, given Manchester’s history of radicalism (think Anti-Corn Law League and the Peterloo Massacre), Stallman found a natural audience. The crowd loved every minute of his talk, they roared for more, and, afterwards, they literally besieged him to get his signature on books, slips of paper, and even, in one case, a laptop lid. This is as close as it gets to rock ‘n’ roll in computer science.
Once the dust had settled I was able to make my approach. I was there to get a post-show interview for Oxford University’s OSS Watch website, and after several ‘ah-ha’s while I explained who I was, Stallman’s first question was “do you know about my rules…?” I was made to promise that I would be careful during the interview with the use of certain words associated with the free software movement, for example, to always refer to GNU/Linux, not Linux.
With the niceties over, a fascinating, and at times rambunctious, half hour ensued. I did quite well with my vocabulary during the first half of the interview, but the second half was trickier, whether through clumsiness or fatigue on my part, and there were a couple of near misses. However, I have to say, it was worth it.
Stallman is an engagingly unusual character. If you ignore, or even just simply enjoy the eccentricities, you have a man with a powerful message and one that is so rarely heard. It is a compelling case for programmers and users to become much more aware of the democratic and social implications of software.
It hasn’t all been just talk, either. Stallman combines the programmer’s eye for minute detail with sweeping ideas about freedom. By concentrating on the detail – the exact wording of things like software licences – he has driven forward his concept of free software.
I came away impressed by a man who has the courage to challenge other technologists with talk about ethics and values. The sort of stuff one doesn’t hear too much about in these nervous, corporate, globalised days: social solidarity, individual liberty, democracy, community ethos, public service. The way he articulates his message is clear, deeply refreshing and at the same time curiously old fashioned. There were moments during the interview when I imagined this must have been what it was like hearing one of the radical political thinkers of the eighteenth century speak: only with a deep knowledge of modern technology.
In true radical style Stallman completed the interview with a made-up folk ditty about Gordon Brown being a clown and the English always being free (sung to the tune of ‘Rule Britannia’). And for a computer person, his singing voice wasn’t too bad, either.
UPDATE: Feb 2011 – the FSF have now uploaded a video of Stallman’s Manchester talk