Mako Hill, one of the founding members of Ubuntu whom I interviewed as part of my thesis fieldwork, posted a brilliant explanation of the importance of free software:
Suppose I see a beautiful sunset and I want to describe it to a loved one on the other side of the world. Today’s communication technology makes this possible. In the process, however, the technology in question puts constraints on message communicated. For example, if I pick up my cellphone, my description of the sunset will be limited to words and sounds that can be transmitted by phone. If I happen to have a camera phone and the ability to send a picture message, I will be able to communicate a very different type of description. If I’m limited to 150 characters in an SMS message, my message will be constrained differently again.
The point of the example is this: the technology I use to communicate puts limits and constraints on my communication. Technology defines what I can say, how I can say it, when I can say it, and even who I can say it to.
This is neither good nor bad. It is simply the nature of technology. But it means that those who control our technology control us, to some degree. As information technology becomes increasingly central to our lives, the way we experience, understand, and act in the world is increasingly controlled by technology and, by extension, by those who control technology.
I believe that the single most important struggle for freedom in the twenty first century is over the question of who will set these terms. Who will control the technology that controls our lives?
Free software can be understood as an answer to this question: An answer in the form of an unambiguous statement that technology must be under the control of its users. When free software triumphs, we will live in a world where users control their technological destiny. We simply cannot afford to fail.
Far too many of us fail to acknowledge the importance of controlling the technology we use. We don’t realise how much we depend on these tools and services, and how many unconscious comprises we make everyday in using non-free software. Sure, you and I may not be able to appreciate the openness of free software that allows hackers to develop and extend the software according to their needs. But I would much rather depend on people who I know and trust rather than corporations whose leadership might change from one day to the next.
So to show my support of Free software, I’ve joined the Free Software Foundation. Richard Stallman may be an uncompromising zealot – but when it comes to keeping technology free, that’s actually kind of reassuring. 🙂