software freedom beyond RMS 

seeing a great thread about how to talk about this without talking about him.

I sympathize with the impulse. It echoes an earlier struggle to talk about and teach without continuing to elevate another three-lettered self-inserted software sage, whose contributions have been more modest. I'm not going to name him (yeah, of course it's "him"). So, I've been thinking about how to balance an honest accounting & appraisal of the history without undue, even harmful, valorization.

software freedom beyond RMS 

First, you have to talk about RMS, if only because others are going to talk about him. We don't want to cede the discussion to his cult of personality.

Second, ceding the discussion that way feeds into the "missing stair" aspects of his influence.

Third, for better or worse, attribution is a pretty core academic value. It's not only impractible and irresponible not to cover this, it's not credible to leave it entirely out.

The challenge then is emphasis and interpretation.

software freedom beyond RMS 

All this assumes one intends to acknowledge the history & teach about it at all. There are plenty of folk who want to deny it or bury it.
In some cases, their motiivations are pretty clear, in other cases they can only be inferred.

The general approach--beyond any question of personalities, of their foibles, failures, & other harms--challenges a very specific exploitative structure situated in contemporary, ongoing, legal, political, technical, social, philosophical systems.

software freedom beyond RMS 

This exploitative structure is the alienation of agency over computing power: Who wields it versus who is subject to it.

To manifest this concern as practice we deal a *lot* with source code, how it's made and used and who has access to it practically and legally.

But ultimately it is about power relationships among people.

software freedom beyond RMS 

This is where our opportunity comes to contextualize the early history of software freedom: We make our point well not by ignoring the who, but being very clear about the who. (it was, coincidentally, the time of The Who, too, but that's an aside best left at that for now).

software freedom beyond RMS 

Who was even doing computing, then, when the four freedoms began to take shape? Where were they doing it? What was it like? When are we even talking about? What was left out? What hadn't happened yet that we take for granted now? *Who* was left out?

software freedom beyond RMS 

I've seen claims that the idea of free software wasn't a big deal, because all software was free up until the mid 1980s. IBM shipping their first binary-only software & the Apple vs. Franklin case, both around 1983, have been cited in support of this. Maybe you could push it back to the Copyright Act of 1976 (in the US).

software freedom beyond RMS 

Those are reasonable time points to orient us to what was happening, but to hold them as isolated events of unique impact is like a temporal version of the 'great man' theory of history.

Why and how did the US change copyright in 1976? What led to IBM shipping binary-only software? These did not arise out of nothing, they were in turn reactions to *earlier* developments.

software freedom beyond RMS 

My favorite time point here is earlier: 1970. This is the point at which many things came together with regard to software freedom. And I'm not talking about the creation of Unix, though AT&T sort of figures into things as one of the industrial giants of the time but enjoined from competing in the computing market due to its monopoly in wireline telephony.

No, 1970 is around the time things came to a head for IBM.

software freedom beyond RMS 

1970 was smack in the middle of the Honeywell vs Sperry Rand case around the ENIAC patents, to which IBM had access via a deal with Sperry Rand. This case ran 1967 through 1973.

Separately, antitrust action against IBM more generally was ramping up from the US federal government, starting in 1969, going to trial in 1972, withdrawn by the government without a clear *legal* decision in 1982. I emphasize *legal* here because it's clear the pressure IBM was under in this era.

software freedom beyond RMS 

Essentially, up to that point, IBM *was* the computing industry. Smaller companies made hardware & software but struggled to break into a market dominated by IBM's bundling. IBM essentially rented hardware to customers. They provided parts, service, software, everything. Customers & competitors alike were hankering for IBM to sell the hardware so that third parties could provide service & support (including software).

software freedom beyond RMS 

It's tempting to start talking about integrated circuits helping put men on the moon by this point, about Intel introducing the 4004 in 1971, prefiguring the rise of the MITS Altair in 1975, the Apple I in 1976, and the Open Letter to Hobbyists that same year.

In hindsight it seems they should be part of the software freedom story now, but they are conspicious really by their *absence* as a factor. At least, so far in the story.

software freedom beyond RMS 

This is where we get back to who is doing computing & how. Computing was still being done almost entirely on big machines at big organizations. The original MIT & Stanford hackers, & their contemporaries elsewhere, were not hacking on Altairs or Apples in the '70s & '80s, they were hacking on PDP's & Lisp machines, & a host of other things larger, more powerful, and more expensive. Microsoft BASIC wasn't bootstrapped on its target, it was developed on a PDP-10 at Harvard.

software freedom beyond RMS 

This is where RMS comes in: He's at Harvard as an undergrad starting in 1970, also the year Harvard & Radcliff first hold a joint graduation ceremony. Harvard's relation to the education of women would remain complex vis-a-vis the strong role Radcliff played as a coordinate women's institution & one of the Seven Sisters. But elsewhere, Princeton & Yale had just "gone co-ed". Dartmouth wouldn't until 1972. Columbia's status vis-a-vis Barnard would also remain convoluted.

software freedom beyond RMS 

All of this is to highlight that US elite higher education was only just opening in many respects on an equal basis to women as computing was opening up as a field from IBM's dominance.

So, computing was still largely big computing, being done at big institutions, and big institutions were still, so much more even than now, largely the province of men.

software freedom beyond RMS 

This then is the environment idealized by RMS and which he sought to protect and propagate.

I don't even remember when I read Stephen Levy's book _Hackers_ in which he lauds this environment.

I did not recognize it then, but the book serves as an opportunity to exercise the caution "when someone tells you who they are, believe them".

software freedom beyond RMS 

I had long been using free software, working with it, trying to help others use it, and had started teaching about it formally before I was reminded about Levy's book, and was prompted to re-evaluate these timelines.

opentranscripts.org/transcript

software freedom beyond RMS 

Late 1990s, early 1990s free software then left out a lot of people, both because of the nature of the institutions and due to the nature of computing otherwise at the time. It was socially as well as technically exclusive.

Now I'm ready to go back to 1970 and pick up that neglected microprocessor thread.

software freedom beyond RMS 

So, the 4004 comes out in 1970.

By 1974 we get the 8080 going into the Altair, which comes out at the start of 1975. Thus begins the wild profusion of 8-bit microcomputers accessible at the very least to hobbyists, schools, and the home market.

In 1981 IBM, not yet free of the anti-trust suit, releases its PC. But it's still not quite enough for the hardcore hackers. That has to wait until the 32-bit 80386 debuts in 1985 and begins making its way onto desktops.

software freedom beyond RMS 

A clone with a 386 is what Torvalds buys and which he uses to begin his kernel, in 1991, a full 6 years after the 386 is introduced.

I'm not entirely sure what hardware GNU was using up to this point. I find some references to Motorola 68000 machines, but I think this was probably still largely bigger workstations intended for institutional use rather than the small office home office (SOHO) market that took up the PC with fervor.

Show newer

software freedom beyond RMS 

I want to revisit this part of the thread to tease out something, to highlight something I might otherwise inadvertently be making worse: It isn't that women weren't part of these eras in the computing story, but that their part in computing--as in so much else in society--has been discounted.

To that end both as practice and as reference, it's probably better for me to point out work by folks like Janet Abbate and Mar Hicks, amongst others.

software freedom beyond RMS 

Came here to post this link.

Since I wrote the above, this interview with original author of bash and GNU readline, Brian J. Fox, came to my attention.

There's a lot going on there, but in terms of FOSS history a key point to me is how Fox started programming on an 8-bit machine, (the Apple II), was misunderstood & dismissed by RMS initially before coming on board at the start of the GNU project:

podcast.curiefense.io/22

software freedom beyond RMS 

@deejoe I’m all about this thread. This is great.

software freedom beyond RMS 

@deejoe Another aspect of this story is the cultural exchange between the remnants of the drop-out side of the 1960s youth counterculture and the early computer industry. Not the protest-against-the-Vietnam-war counterculture, the libertarian-ish move-to-the-hills-and-start-a-communue-with-super-straight-gender-relations counterculture. thedigradio.com/podcast/counte

@be
> Not the protest-against-the-Vietnam-war counterculture, the libertarian-ish move-to-the-hills-and-start-a-communue-with-super-straight-gender-relations counterculture.

Depending how you slice it, this is:
a) a false dichotomy. The New Left were just as interested in utopian experiments as mass protests.

b) a false conflation. There was a conservative counterculture whose communes fit this description, but it had much less overlap with the Californian scene than did the New Left

@deejoe

@be
It's the same backcasting error Adam Curtis and others make, the assumption that the corporate conservative adoption of "libertarian-ish" rhetoric predates its actual historical rise in the 1980s, as one of the key tactics of neoliberalism.

@deejoe

software freedom beyond RMS 

@be

I've finally got a tab open to that podcast, am going to try to get through a listen of it to see what parts of this they touch on. (example here of how I really miss having transcripts)

That said, I'm well aware of this connection from direct experience at The WeLL & reading Whole Earth stuff starting in the '90s, stretching into connected communities up to very recently.

When I see retreat-to-commune discourse now I tend to wonder "do they even know about The Farm?".

software freedom beyond RMS 

@be

I didn't realize in the moment that the question I got about The Farm, and my answer to it, were off-thread, so I'll drop these links here about it too:

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Farm

johncoate.com/

socialchemy.wordpress.com/abou

wired.com/1997/05/ff-well/

no mention of Gaskin or The Farm directly in that podcast with Fred Turner at The Dig though.

software freedom beyond RMS 

@deejoe the social media behavior of scrolling away into oblivion does great threads like this a disservice, makes me want to copy it into a blog somewhere for posterity

Show newer

software freedom beyond RMS 

@deejoe this reminds me of the start of eBay, amazon, Facebook et al., chelseatroy.com/2021/07/30/the

software freedom beyond RMS 

@deejoe What would be the advantages in burying it?

software freedom beyond RMS 

@n8chz

I can only speculate.

software freedom beyond RMS 

@deejoe @danbelascorogers - i'll just point out that if we didnt have RMS we would have a very different linux, and leave it at that. like him or not, he's important. and his contributions are important. have you ever watched gcc compile from source? that was all (plus the code) in his head... and we wonder that people like that have trouble relating to humans? i dont fault him for not knowing how to word emails, an off the charts genius,+ very misunderstood.

Sign in to participate in the conversation
Mastodon for Tech Folks

mastodon.technology is shutting down by the end of 2022. Please migrate your data immediately. This Mastodon instance is for people interested in technology. Discussions aren't limited to technology, because tech folks shouldn't be limited to technology either!