How Will History View Richard Stallman?
Pages: 1, 2
Stewart: How do you think future generations will view Stallman and the Free Software Movement?
Williams: This is the closing theme of my book. I think they will view him very favorably. I think in the historical view his stock is definitely going to rise. In terms of developing the GPL (GNU General Public License), every year that passes people realize that it's more of a significant innovation than originally thought, and that seems to be the character of a lot of his work. It looks simple in retrospect, but just the fact that he was there to propose the idea, or to make the hack that opened up EMACS development, or had the idea of codifying the hacker social contract into the GPL. These are major things that are going to really become more important in the coming decade.
Stewart: How successful do you think the Free Software Foundation has been at achieving its goals?
Williams: That depends on what you think the goals are. The original goal was to support the GNU project and to develop a GNU operating system. They obviously fulfilled that goal. They didn't do it in the timely manner that a lot of people expected, but they were really one of the few groups of people actually making this kind of effort. They were definitely one of the few groups that saw it as a political cause.
About the time that Linux came on the scene, and kind of filled the gap that they hadn't been able to fill with the Hurd kernel, it seems like their goal morphed a little bit into "free software everywhere." I think in terms of that goal they've done a fairly good job. Probably the biggest thing is that they are the steward of the GPL, which I describe at one point in the book as the big stick in the software industry, you know, like the old Teddy Roosevelt quote: "Speak softly and carry a big stick."
Stewart: Do you see the free software movement progressing or stagnating at this point?
Williams: I don't know. I don't think those terms really apply to the movement. It's not dependent on the market. It's not judged in terms of acceptance or non-acceptance. In talking to Richard there's a definite theme that without eternal vigilance all could be quickly lost. But I think it's been largely successful.
Stewart: One of the criticisms of the Free Software Foundation ideals is that they don't really give developers true freedom -- such as the freedom to pick whatever license they want for software they write. How do you think Stallman would respond to that?
Williams: Yes, that's a definite criticism. That's sort of where Torvalds and Stallman kind of split, and where Stallman splits with people like Tim O'Reilly. This whole idea that people should be free to choose whether or not they want their software to be free software and open source goes against the Stallman world view that says it should always be free software. Richard's argument has always been that the people on the open source side, these people advocating this extra degree of freedom, are really just arguing for the freedom to make themselves a slave again. A lot of his effort over the last decade has gone into providing a counter-argument to these conciliatory viewpoints.
From Tim O'Reilly's Weblog:
I think we're at a weird inflection point period right now, and the next two to five years will be very important, but I got the sense when I started this book that the GPL was really beginning to pick up steam, mainly because it doesn't allow people to break off proprietary offshoots, like the BSD license and other more liberal licenses do. A lot of its recent endorsements have come from people and organizations not traditionally associated with Stallman or the FSF. For instance, a number of companies and organizations switched their software over to the GPL in 2000 -- Sun Microsystems, Troll Tech, MySQL, etc.
It's hard to gauge the momentum of a license, because software is such an evolutionary marketplace, but the fact that the GPL is gaining new adherents while Stallman spends most of his time travelling the world and evangelizing on other, related issues, is an indication that the GPL is selling itself.
Stewart: In many ways the free software movement parallels the anti-WTO movement and other grassroots efforts to counteract corporate power, and Stallman's personal Web site is full of links to progressive political causes. How has Stallman's political vision shaped the community around him?
Williams: I would say not very much. He's a definite liberal, and you can see when he's fighting over this schism between the free software and open source movement that it does kind of come down to political values -- on the one side you've got these libertarian people that just say, "Let my people make their own decisions," and then you've got Stallman, who's got kind of the liberal approach of, "Let people make their own decisions, but at the same time protect people from exploitation."
One of the things that interested me, and this goes back to his personality, is that he's not really a coalition builder. There's so much opportunity to link the free software movement to other similar movements, like the environmental movement ... I mean it's all generally the same thing. Capitalism, expansion, growth, corporate culture -- those are all good things, they all help, they're all better than the alternatives -- but at the same time there's notions of responsibility, ethics, and stuff that he has gone a long way in terms of voicing in the software community, but I find it very surprising that he hasn't really expanded beyond that.
At one point he said free software was his "small puddle of freedom," and he really can't move out of it, or he doesn't really have the confidence to move out of it, and I think that that has definitely hampered his visibility in some ways.
Stewart: Would he be a more effective leader if he knew how to compromise, or is his political charisma entirely dependent upon staying away from the main stream?
Williams: I think the latter. His charisma is dependent on being non-compromising and this is the role that he has adopted -- whether consciously or unconsciously. People that do compromise can say, "Well, at least we have Richard Stallman over there on the periphery." One person I talked to, I don't know if it made it into the book, but one person called him kind of a "pole star." You can always measure yourself against Richard's position because his position doesn't budge.
Stewart: Asperger's Syndrome, a mild version of autism, has gotten quite a lot of attention in the geek press recently, and I understand Stallman postulates in your book that he may suffer from this. What do you make of this claim?
Williams: I asked him about this directly and he says he's not entirely sure that that's what explains his childhood. While it may be impossible to determine if Stallman suffered from Asperger's Syndrome, descriptions of him as a child certainly run parallel to descriptions of kids currently diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome. It's sort of like retroactively diagnosing El Greco with astigmatism or Da Vinci with dyslexia. You can't be entirely sure, but the evidence is compelling.
His mother is a little bit more convinced. I spoke with her a few days ago. Initially I thought that she didn't see any link, but when I spoke with her again she said, "No, no, I definitely think that he might have suffered from a condition like that," but it just wasn't anything that was diagnosed in that manner at the time. But it was a definite factor in the way his career has evolved because a lot of what he talks about over and over again are these themes of finding a home, overcoming loneliness, and neighborliness.
Stewart: How does his mother feel about his career and the free software movement?
Williams: She's very proud of it. I detected a little tension, but she seemed like your typical Jewish mother who just loves to gush about her son and what he's done. I'm glad I got a chance to talk to her because she really filled in a lot of gaps on why is he the way he is, and when you listen to the stories about his childhood it definitely helps you empathize with him a little bit more.
Stewart: What one thing surprised you the most as you researched this book?
Williams: What surprised me the most was the lack of enthusiasm by people closest to Richard within the Free Software Foundation to help out with the book. I really thought that a lot of these people that helped to found the Free Software Foundation would be the most eager to participate in this, and in fact the opposite was true. There was a lot of questions like, "Why are you doing a biography on him?" And then people would give me interviews but off the record, and other people wouldn't respond to emails or calls. I don't know what to make of it, if it's bad blood, or if it's just academia, or if they saw me as an outsider and thought, "It's going to be a waste of time to deal with this guy because he doesn't know the issues or he doesn't know software," but it surprised me.
Bruce Stewart is a freelance technology writer and editor.
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