How Richard Stallman got me to ponder extremism

This evening, I had the opportunity to attend a speech by a man whose work over the past decades enters into my life on a daily basis. The Network for Computational Nanotechnology at Purdue hosted Richard Stallman, the founder of the GNU Project and the Free Software Foundation. Stallman is a well-known and controversial figure, not only because of his technical work, but also (primarily?) because of his idealism and activism. His un-nuanced views and public lack of tact have driven fans of his work away from the FSF. I went into the talk expecting some pot-stirring. I didn’t expect to walk out deep in thought.

Stallman opened with a discussion of terminology, drawing a distinction between free (for the purposes of this post, free software means libre, not gratis) and proprietary software.  It is an ethical, social, and political distinction, not a technical one. Free software, Stallman argues, is a contribution to society. Proprietary software is morally unjust. Stallman prefers, given the choice between writing proprietary software and doing nothing, that developers do nothing. Even though free software is often available at no cost, encouraging the adoption of free software should be framed as a moral issue, not an economic or practical one. Software as a Service (SaaS) is morally equal to proprietary software in Stallman’s view, regardless of the licensing of the software, because users have no control over it.

During the question-and-answer session at the end, this view brought a heated discussion from NCN director Dr. Gerhard Klimeck. NCN runs nanoHUB, which is effectively SaaS for nanotechnology simulation. Stallman seemed to argue that it was a niche and not really important to discuss. He also semi-adroitly dodged the question of how developers can make money with free software, only asserting that it is being done without providing the [mostly student] audience any insights as to how.

Stallman’s views are based on his personal morality and seem to be absolute. This is what occupied my thoughts on the walk back to my car. Because I largely agree with Stallman, I’ve been inclined to see his extremism as an annoying, but useful thing. By being on the edge, he defines the middle. But why should extremism that I happen to generally agree with be more valid than extremism that I disagree with? While extremism does help define the middle ground, it also poisons reasonable discussion. I admire and appreciate his technical accomplishments, but I think he hurts his own ideological cause.