Tilting at Windows

Software 'Saint' Richard Stallman fights for computing freedom — and against corporate control
By MIKE MILIARD  |  December 18, 2009


The GNU and you. By Jeff Inglis.
Twenty minutes into our interview, at the Downtown Crossing headquarters of the Free Software Foundation (FSF), Richard Stallman learns that I own an iPhone.

"That's a shame," he says, leaning back in his chair, fixing me with a stern gaze, and fiddling, as he'll do for much of the next hour and a half, with his beard.

Stallman founded the FSF in 1985, two years after he'd launched the still-ongoing mass-collaboration GNU software project at MIT — which provided the fundamentals for the hugely popular GNU/Linux operating system that's in millions of computers today. He has no truck with the "iMoan." Nor with the "iScrod." And certainly not with "MS-DOG," as he derisively dubs Microsoft's MS-DOS operating system.

Such proprietary technology, trussed up with "malicious features" designed "specifically for the restriction of the user," says Stallman, "impose control to an unusual degree" and represent "forms of subjugation."

And here you thought you were just checking your e-mail.

But Stallman — a legend in the programmer community for more than a quarter century — considers it his life's work to proselytize the free-software gospel, educating the lay people who'd otherwise assume that Microsoft or Apple are exclusively synonymous with computing.

"They think it's natural that the software developers will have power over them," he says. "My mission is to point out to them that that isn't natural. It's wrong. It's an injustice. And they shouldn't stand for it."

Some in the open-source community (a note about semantics anon) have griped that Stallman is a stubborn utopian, whose Manichean worldview and rhetoric are counterproductive to the larger cause.

Others hail him as a principled and pugnacious advocate for freedom and cooperation, waging war against any and all outside interference with the way we engage with technology — which, of course, is these days tantamount to the way we live.

"Richard has written some of the most important software, and has changed the very way we make software forever," says open-source advocate Bruce Perens. "He has contributed equally to technology, economics, and freedom."

In that Stallman is such a renowned programmer, if he'd chosen to travel that route, it's not inconceivable that he could be a billionaire like his co-generationists Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. Instead, he's never owned a home. Or a car. Or even a cell phone. He admits, "I think my main expense literally is food."

His lifestyle is a pointed rejoinder to this mediated consumer culture of litigiously enforced copyrights, trackable GPS-equipped cell phones, radio-frequency identification chips, and omnipresent surveillance cameras. And his pronouncements — on matters technological, but also geopolitical and environmental — mean to stir us to join his fight.

The tricky part: far fewer people than he'd wish share the courage of his convictions.

Stallman may sometimes sound like a voice in the technological wilderness. (And, with his tangled hair and bramble of beard, may look the part, too.) But that doesn't necessarily make what he says less true.

"What we need," he says, "is enough people not to be outright cowards, and we can win. I really care about freedom and I'm willing to make some sacrifices for it. There are such strong forces arrayed to take away our freedom, and it's vanishing so fast that, without sacrifices, we're sure to lose it."

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