This post is a bit of a departure from my normal routine.
When I first found out the Ubuntu distribution, it’s basic core value of “Humanity towards others”, and it’s FOSS philosophy, I was both very excited but also sceptical that this effort was “for real” and not some marketing ploy. I had chats with developers and the people from the fledging user base at the time and realized that pretty much everyone was bought into the concept and would see it through. This really made a positive impression on me. What could be better than a purely altruistic endeavour to provide Free Software to the masses? We had (and still do have) the FSF but this project gave the effort a good shot in the arm because it wasn’t commercial. So I bought in.
Fast forward a bit and commercial value added services were added as a means to help fund the continued development of Ubuntu. Launchpad was created to make support and development easier and was free to everyone to use. Yet still the original “Humanity towards others” existed as did the promotion of Free Software.
Fast forward to about a year ago and now I’m working for Canonical. I have an inside view to the public exterior. What have I discovered? Something interesting. The folks that work at Canonical are simply amazing. Brilliantly intelligent folks (all except me I’m afraid. I still call myself the Village Idiot.) who subscribe to the same core values as Ubuntu. This is something hard to do. Canonical is unique in that it takes the love of FOSS and marries it with commercial products on one side of the house, as a way to keep the core Ubuntu developers doing what they love full time: making Ubuntu. (This also allows Canonical to provide other value added services to the users of Ubuntu.) From my “Corporate America” background I would have thought the message of Ubuntu would just be a marketing sham, a ploy to rope folks in. From where I set I can say that there is no sign of this at all. Canonical does get some intrinsic leverage of course since it created and is the main sponsor of Ubuntu but don’t let that confuse you. Most of the company is made up of folks who are Free Software developers. If you’ve ever met one of these nuts (ahem) you’ll know that they don’t take this lightly.
Now that the background is out of the way, my real message arrives. Today is Martin Luther King day in the USA.
“Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle. And so we must straighten our backs and work for our freedom. A man can’t ride you unless your back is bent.”
Martin Luther King, Jr.
King spoke of racial oppression but easily one could extrapolate the greater meaning in his words and ideals. An inalienable right to Freedom. I personally don’t take his statements and keep them racially centric. I believe he was after the big picture. And the big picture includes Free Software:
Damaging Social Cohesion
Suppose that both you and your neighbor would find it useful to run a certain program. In ethical concern for your neighbor, you should feel that proper handling of the situation will enable both of you to use it. A proposal to permit only one of you to use the program, while restraining the other, is divisive; neither you nor your neighbor should find it acceptable.
Signing a typical software license agreement means betraying your neighbor: “I promise to deprive my neighbor of this program so that I can have a copy for myself.” People who make such choices feel internal psychological pressure to justify them, by downgrading the importance of helping one’s neighbors—thus public spirit suffers. This is psychosocial harm associated with the material harm of discouraging use of the program.
Many users unconsciously recognize the wrong of refusing to share, so they decide to ignore the licenses and laws, and share programs anyway. But they often feel guilty about doing so. They know that they must break the laws in order to be good neighbors, but they still consider the laws authoritative, and they conclude that being a good neighbor (which they are) is naughty or shameful. That is also a kind of psychosocial harm, but one can escape it by deciding that these licenses and laws have no moral force.
Programmers also suffer psychosocial harm knowing that many users will not be allowed to use their work. This leads to an attitude of cynicism or denial. A programmer may describe enthusiastically the work that he finds technically exciting; then when asked, “Will I be permitted to use it?”, his face falls, and he admits the answer is no. To avoid feeling discouraged, he either ignores this fact most of the time or adopts a cynical stance designed to minimize the importance of it.
Since the age of Reagan, the greatest scarcity in the United States is not technical innovation, but rather the willingness to work together for the public good. It makes no sense to encourage the former at the expense of the latter.
But King had another ideal: Service in support of others.
Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is not only for celebration and remembrance, education and tribute, but above all a day of service. All across America on this day, his followers perform service in hospitals and shelters and prisons and wherever people need some help. It is a day of volunteering to feed the hungry, rehabilitate housing, tutoring those who can’t read, consoling the broken-hearted and a thousand other projects for building the beloved community of his dream.
This also ties in nicely with the spirit of Ubuntu.
And today, for the very first time in my 20 years of being a working man, I am actually working for a company that recognizes this Federal Holiday and gives me paid leave to celebrate his achievements and reflect upon his message. And today I do so, with this blog post.
“Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”
Martin Luther King, Jr.
For writing this blog post it’s possible that I’ll be branded adversely by people and even a government or two. If that unfortunately does happen it surely means they missed the point. And that point is that we should all support basic intrinsic Freedom and “Humanity towards others”.