Planting social solidarity reaps a harvest of community

Free software hacker Jamie McCracken wrote that the One Laptop Per Child machine, known as the XO, shouldn’t allow its users to run non-free operating systems on it. I believe this stems from the common frustration that proprietors are wealthy enough to effectively undo some of the good that comes with a machine like the XO.


The XO will ship with a free software GNU/Linux distribution based on Fedora GNU/Linux. The plans for the XO have always been to allow its users to learn from the machine as much as learn about the machine, so the software that runs on the machine by default will respect the user’s freedoms to run, inspect, share, and modify the software. The XO has started a backlash amongst proprietors who have been working on plans to get their proprietary software to run on the XO (as with Microsoft’s Windows) or offer XO target countries an alternative computer that ships with a lot of proprietary software.

A strategy aimed at doing what we should do more of anyways

While it’s certainly frustrating to see a so-called educational machine prohibit its owner and user from making the machine do whatever the user wants, there’s a better way to achieve a comparable result to what McCracken advocates. This method involves a lot of hard work that, historically, few have demonstrated they are interested in doing: teach people the values of software freedom, teach the philosophy behind why the free software movement exists, and help people favor freedom even when faced with robust and capable non-free alternatives. This method will not only give them reason to favor the XO’s software as it ships (or some free alternative), but this method will arm them for when anyone tries to tempt them to give up their freedom. Freedom and community are worth it for their own sake. Dependency and separation from one’s fellows doesn’t help any computer user, regardless of where they live or their income.

Some of the responses to McCracken’s article focus on technical features the XO will offer, saying that these features will draw and keep the XO audience focused on using free software. I don’t believe that is true and this means the free software movement is failing to take advantage of an opportunity to teach these users about why community matters more than technical glitz. In the long run it would only prove to be a failure.

I have no doubt that the XO is made to be as technically good as it can be made. I’m sure the OLPC team understands that the XO must be practical to capture an audience. But no programmer is perfect. All complex software is buggy and free software is no exception. Eventually the bugs in XO software will be found. Sooner or later, XO users will discover that the XO would better meet their needs if the software were improved.

If a user is taught to focus on technical glitz they are being taught to reject problematic hardware and software and trade away anything — even their freedom — to get something that “just works”. If a user is taught to focus on freedom, they could be motivated to help fix the bug by reporting the bugs they find, band together with more technically-minded users to help fix the bug collaboratively, or fix the bug on their own and share the results of that fix with others so that their entire community will benefit. The XO offers us a chance to teach people that social solidarity is a good unto itself and that they don’t need to sacrifice their freedom for social solidarity.

Richard Stallman, founder of the free software movement, wrote about this principle in his essay “Why “Open Source” misses the point of Free Software” where he explains how another movement with a different philosophy, the open source movement, attracts users to our community but doesn’t stress software freedom and thus fails to convince people to stick with the very software that movement advocates for:

The idea of open source is that allowing users to change and redistribute the software will make it more powerful and reliable. But this is not guaranteed. Developers of proprietary software are not necessarily incompetent. Sometimes they produce a program which is powerful and reliable, even though it does not respect the users’ freedom. How will free software activists and open source enthusiasts react to that?

A pure open source enthusiast, one that is not at all influenced by the ideals of free software, will say, “I am surprised you were able to make the program work so well without using our development model, but you did. How can I get a copy?” This attitude will reward schemes that take away our freedom, leading to its loss.

The free software activist will say, “Your program is very attractive, but not at the price of my freedom. So I have to do without it. Instead I will support a project to develop a free replacement.” If we value our freedom, we can act to maintain and defend it.

So I hope you’ll join us in celebrating the advances of free software and teach others to cheer for the freedoms which let us treat our neighbors as neighbors.

As the advocates of open source draw new users into our community, we free software activists have to work even more to bring the issue of freedom to those new users’ attention. We have to say, “It’s free software and it gives you freedom!”””more and louder than ever. Every time you say “free software” rather than “open source,” you help our campaign.

Richard Stallman, Why “Open Source” misses the point of Free Software