Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

22 Mar 2011, 20:45 p.m.

A Slightly Disjointed (Due To A Five-Day Cold) Musing On Open Source, Fear, Motivation, And Witnessing

Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2011 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.

I was introducing C. to a set of QuestionCopyright friends and acquaintances, and they were joking about indoctrinating her, and she was curious to hear what free culture is all about. So she wondered why I reflexively suggested that the others wait a bit, tell her next time.

They did give C. the introductory spiel, and conversation was pleasant and edifying, and nothing terribly awkward ensued. She has developed a substantial interest of her own, now, in the theory and practice of free culture. But why did I have that reflex? I felt around for it and grasped something. It makes it harder, I said, once you know these things and care about them. Becoming a free culture/free software person is like becoming a vegan.

No, G. replied -- at least people know what vegans are.

We happy few.

Here I was, a fulltime free culture/free software consultant, feeling an unaccustomed reluctance to give someone else the sunglasses, to witness.

There are self-constraining ideologies like veganity or chastity that modern society at least theoretically understands, even if some cohorts scoff. Then there are the practices that always require an introduction. When I explain how I met Leonard, I often start with the thirty-second "what is open source" explanation, because it's all of a piece. But my "what is open source" intro focuses on pragmatism -- many eyes making bugs shallow -- rather than free software values.

DVD cover for film The Gnome-MobileI think I'm a moderate sort of open source gal, an ovo-lacto vegetarian. There's an iBook running Mac OS tucked off in a drawer, and all these Linux boxen in our house surely have nonfree binaries driving bits of hardware. No Facebook but I surely use many cloud services that violate the Franklin Street Statement. I hang out with copyright abolitionists, Debian users, and other free culture/free software folks who make me feel namby-pamby. And then I go to dinner with someone who makes me feel like a Jain. Or I find myself saying, as I said a week ago, that developing on a closed platform is like trying to fall in love with someone who won't talk to you.

Our love is part of what energizes us, moves us to act. In FLOSS, volunteers do things for two basic reasons: either because we enjoy doing them for their own sake, or because the task needs doing and we want to do our bit. We see some goal the task will help us reach, or fear an outcome the task will help us prevent. [By the way, it's useful to have experienced that, because it's useful to assume those two as the means of persuasion whether my colleague's paid or not. As a leader, I should either set up tasks people will genuinely enjoy (and get the scutwork out of the way), or help my colleagues see a straight line from the task to a glorious future. Show them how what we're doing leads to something they want. This is my pet theory of How To Lead Knowledge Workers and your mileage may vary.] And -- as a zillion social scientists will tell you -- even if we momentarily burn out on caring about a goal for its own sake, we don't want to let the team down. We don't want to let our buddies down.

As we were talking about GNOME marketing, Andreas once asked me what I found special, what personally spoke to me about GNOME. I rambled: object code is compiled from source code, but the source code is compiled, too -- compiled from people, from time, from love. Every time I look at my desktop, every feature and every bug comes from someone, someone with a name and a face, and sometimes I can even remember. Hey, I remember when she added that feature to Empathy. Oh, right, I know he's working on that bug. It's like all of Planet GNOME is helping me out, every day. It's like my whole community's right there, on my desktop, every time I open the laptop lid.

I don't want to keep my friends blissfully ignorant of this. Is there a more loving human impulse than the joy of sharing? I'm sorry, C. I'm sorry I was afraid of making your life harder. I remembered the local minimum and forgot the greater maxima awaiting you. Why keep us a "happy few" when we can be an ecstatic many? And yes, it's harder, to learn our principles and try to walk this path alone -- but the whole point of our principles is that our multitude, our diversity, our union, our communion is far richer and more sustaining than individual hoarding ever could be.

GNOME heart, thanks to Jeff Waugh


22 Mar 2011, 23:58 p.m.

This is really great. I plan on mailing it around to people I think it will turn lights on for.

26 Mar 2011, 18:36 p.m.

No apology necessary! BUT I do think the "preaching to the choir" thing has got to end. I want them to want to keep having to add tables together at FRUNCH. I know so much of geek culture is about who is "in" and who is "out" and not wanting to waste time explaining things to people who might not get it or might not want to get it, but I still strongly believe it is worth the try and all the conversations are really worth having. Last time I was at FRUNCH, we were all sitting around and feeling full of good food and like we were all on the same page, but someone brought up something about "corporations being evil" and we realized right away that there was still a lot of misunderstanding going around amongst people and still a ways to go. Honestly, I think free culture people and open source people are FAR too timid and modest with who they are reaching out to and their goals. I'm not sitting here maniacally rubbing my hands together, prepped to bellow "This could be huge!" but I do think there are a ton more people that would be interested in having these free culture conversations and open source conversations, but you guys who understand these things better have to be patient enough and have enough courage in your convictions to put the information out there and not hold back. It's not enough to just have your beliefs, you gotta bang the drum a little, whether anyone else jumps on the wagon is up to those individuals, but at least the word has been spread and a seed has been planted. I'm glad I was part of this learning moment. You are a good friend!