Be free, my friend

16 July, 2008

Guest author: Julià Minguillón Alfonso
Professor, Computer Engineering, Multimedia and Telecommunications
Internet Interdisciplinary Institute (IN3) Assistant Director
UOC UNESCO Chair in E-Learning
Universitat Oberta de Catalunya


Julià is professor at UOC since 2001. He has been teaching programming, statistics and data mining, graphical computing and learning technology. His research interests are modelling students’ behaviour on virtual learning environments, the development of tools for learning process’ support and its personalization and the accesibility, mobility and usability topics related.

He is directing the PERSONAL(ONTO) project, about Personalizing the Learning Process in Virtual Environments by means of Adaptive Formative Itineraries based on Reusable Learning Objects and Ontologies. He was also involved in the OLCOS project about open educational contents.


Richard Stallman as a FSF evangelist at FKFT 2008

Richard Stallman as a FSF evangelist at FKFT 2008 (photo by baldiri)

I would like to complement the previous entry about Richard Stallman’s talk at FKFT 2008. Stallman tried to convice us about being free and exercising our rights: free to use a certain piece of software whenever and wherever (i.e. in any computer) we like, free to read and learn from the software (its source code), free to modify it in order to adapt it to our needs and, finally, free to share and distribute it amoung our friends and colleagues. These statements are what Stallman defines as freedom with respect to software. Proprietary software is evil, as it refrains users from exercising their freedom.

Of course I agree with this idea about freedom, but despite Stallman’s vehement defense of his positions, there is something weak in this reasoning, in my humble opinion. Stallman compared computer programs to recipes, a very good metaphor indeed, as everybody is able to cook any recipe if all the ingredients are available and there is also a well equipped kitchen. A minimum of cooking skills are required, obviously. Stallman was asked whether making medicaments is also a valid metaphor or not, and he said that yes but the quality control checks should be very strict, obviously.

Programming is not difficult, hundreds of thousands of people (probably millions) do it every day, but real programming is beyond the capacity of a single programmer, large programming projects require large programming communities. Such a situation where everybody is able to create their own programs and modify other people’s ones is utopic.

But maybe Stallman is right, and if we know how to cook, to talk, to read, to write, to drive a car, etc., why are not we taught to program? Should everybody be a programmer? Should be programming a basic skill of any citizen in the Information Society? Once again, education plays an important role in people’s lives, as only from the knowledge of all the available options the users will be really free to choose according to their interests. Maybe not everybody needs to be a programmer (or a plumber, or a driver, or a writer), but evil is not the only option, as the FSF tries to disseminate.

Learn (to program) and be free, my friend!

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Dora Scilipoti23 July, 2008 at 10:55 am

Free Software is analogous to free speech in that you don’t need to be a journalist, writer or public speaker to enjoy the benefits that it brings to society.

As for the analogies mentioned in the article, it is certainly not necessary to be a cook in order to eat, but acquiring some knowledge on the rudiments of cooking would enable you to modify or prepare your own recipes to better meet your taste. Talking,reading and writing do not require an academic degree in linguistics, but studying some grammar would significantly improve these abilities. You can drive your car without being an engineer, but learning the very basics of mechanics so as to get a grasp of how your car works would help make your driving more efficient or even enable you to do some small repairing or maintenance if you wish.

Similarly, it is not necessary to be a programmer or a computer engineer for the purpose of running a PC, but –as for talking, reading and writing– some literacy is highly desirable. In a world where computers rule your everyday life, you should know your ABC’s. Yet, the great majority of people are computer illiterate. This is because schools seem to have forgotten that the main purpose of education should consist in helping students develop their talents. You don’t educate by providing training on how to use a specific computer program or system, and you don’t close the door on the face of a student by exposing him to proprietary software. Just as schools include grammar and literature in their curricula, they should also include some programming and allow students to read code.

In any case, whether or not you can actually write computer programs, the point is that you have the right to know exactly what the program in your computer is doing, and only Free Software gives you this possibility. In fact, one of the features of Free Software is that it gives access to the code, so if you are a programmer you can read it, study it, make changes to improve it or to meet your needs and even distribute your improvements to the public if you wish.

But what if you are not a programmer? In the first place, with Free Software you are not isolated nor helpless, you belong to a community of users and developers who are eager to share efforts and knowledge. There are well established free software programs out there which have grown powerful and became renowned on the basis of sharing. This is not just a theoretical possibility, it actually happens. Second, as the code is not secret but available to anyone out there, it is hard to believe that it would contain any undesirable features. And even if you cannot personally modify it, you can exercise your freedom by engaging someone else to do the job for you. With Free Software you are not limited to going through the program’s developer. Rather, you are free to ask any programmer to implement the changes or add the features for you.

In the case of public institutions or private companies, the use of Free Software is a must for a number of reasons, one of them is to remain autonomous by avoiding dependence on a single vendor for improvements or adjustments. For government agencies, it is a matter of preserving their own sovereignty.

To be or not to be a programmer, that is not the question.

Oriol Miralbell23 July, 2008 at 10:56 am

Julià, thank you for sharing this information and these insights with us. I’d like to see Stallman’s arguments the other way around. We’re talking of the freedom to share programs with others to make knowledge a commodity that makes the world better. In the case of an open source Operatng System (like Linux), it looks to me like the grammar of a language. We have it in our minds, it is in our brain, even some experts like Pinker say it is in our DNA.
But if the OS is like Windows we should talk always the way Microsoft decides, We would not have an open code to communicate, and the grammar or the OS is something we need to build our communication.
Even Microsoft has got advantage of the existence of open source software. IT in general have evolved much more thanks to the open source and free software philosophy.


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