I’m Saint iGNUcius: Stallman tells NIT students



The Saint dons the Himachali crown (Pic by: Saroj Thakur)

Hamirpur, Himachal Pradesh: “He is coming”, “He is coming”, the posters shouted from every nook and corner of the National Institute Technology (NIT) Hamirpur campus. Curious and inquisitive to know more, I stared hard at the picture of a benevolent looking man with an affectionate smile on his countenance. His long flowing hair and beard adding more mystery to his persona. Who is he? An apostle! I thought. What would he teach us about? I was surprised to know that he would teach us a lot about the moral and ethical issues that face the world of Free Software.

Dr. Richard Mathew Stallman launched the development of the GNU operating system in 1984, the goal being to create a completely free Unix-like operating system. The organisation that was founded in 1985 to further this purpose is the Free Software Foundation. An apostle of freedom of Software!

I was interested to learn more about the issue straight from the mouth of the person who is the champion of the cause of free software. A Psycho-social issue that touches all those people who have any knowledge about the working of Computer software and programs! I was interested to know more and the rendezvous with Dr. Richard Mathew Stallman was to enlighten me about so many issues that a computer novice like me needed to know about.

Freedom has to be won: the free software champion sermonises

Dr. Richard Mathew Stallman, President, Free Software Foundation, talked about the most sought after objective of human mind—freedom. We all crave for freedom in all aspects of our life then why don’t we think about free software? Is it not a right of the free thinking human beings to help generate and distribute free software? Well, honestly speaking, it made sense to a nitwit like me!

In June 1971, Richard Matthew Stallman joined MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory as a programmer where he gained popularity with the hacker community and came to be known by his now popular name RMS. In the first edition of the Hacker’s Dictionary, he wrote, “Richard Stallman is just my mundane name; you can call me ‘RMS’.” So hence forth I would call him RMS! Dr. RMS deliberated upon four main freedoms that made the development of free software a necessity:

The level zero freedom is to use and run the software.

The level first is the freedom to change the source code of the programme, as we want it. But then don’t we have the freedom to run the programme as we like it, perhaps not. Can we study and change the programmes that we work on, if not then how can we be free to use it?

The second point that he dwelt upon, the second level of freedom, was—the need for free software for the benefit of one’s neighbour. If your neighbour asks you to give him software that is propriety software, we either refuse to give him any or give the pirated copy of the same. We choose between the lesser evil! In both the cases it is unethical and unsocial as well. We should have the freedom to distribute a software copies freely. The propriety software puts restrictions on the use of software like—for how long or how many—on the users. He called such software as “just trust me software”.

The third level of freedom is to use it for the wellbeing of the society or the community. The free software has the freedom to bring about change the society or the users can benefit from and use the programme accordingly. This is what according to RMS “democracy” is. Living in free society, we must provide the upgradation/modification of the programmes, for the welfare of the community. Now there may be people who don’t know anything about programming so it becomes the job of SW professionals to incorporate the desired changes in the programming and make it available to the community.

It made sense to me as I cannot develop any programme but feel the need for so many new features in the programmes that I run. How wonderful it would be if someone could listen to my point of view and incorporate the desired changes! According to Dr. RMS the propriety software would not let any user bring about such a change in the programme and only the developer is authorized to do the needful.

I bless your computer my child: Stallman enthralls NIT students

Freedom as a Human Right
He used the analogy of the Coloniser and the colonised to drive home his point. The Propriety software develops on the “power of the developer” whereas the free software develops on the “power of the user”. “The Colonial Power Control System at work behind all propriety software” is how he described this entire phenomenon as.

One must have the freedom not to have any Masters! The Propriety Software offers one freedom to choose between different propriety Software and this is just being free to have “a choice in choosing your Master”! He stressed, “Freedom is not to have any masters!”

The issue of Freedom was a later development for Dr. RMS as initially he, too, started in 1983 at development of programme as a pastime as he said, “developing software was I good at!” Though he started as a pleasure seeking active programmer but later he wanted to “develop a new Operating System and make it free”. “I could campaign for freedom using my Technical Skills,” he acknowledged. He could see a social problem. It was like if you see someone drowning and know how to swim, it is your moral duty to save the person. (Though he put it humorously, that not if the drowning person was Bush!)

But the real obstacle was to develop hundreds of programmes to develop a Free Operating System. The name he selected for these programmes was “GNU”! Later GNU was provided with the kernel named Linux which is the heart of any Operating System. All these steps resulted in GNU/Linux Operating System! “The software supported the philosophy and the philosophy supported the Software.” It was getting interesting as a person like me who was more or less computer illiterate was able to appreciate the issues!

Dr RMS drove home the basic philosophy behind the free software in the following way and citing example from the freedom struggle that India had to undergo to win freedom:

Freedom has to be won.
Freedom needs to be defended.
Freedom has to be preserved.
Freedom has to be valued.

To win, defend, preserve and value freedom one has to understand what does it mean? “Human rights need to be understood” with regard to free software and Operating systems. “All Computer Engineers and Users must know about four human rights and four freedoms”. Some social and ethical issues! Dr.Richard Mathew Stallman is a free software pioneer. As president of the Free Software Foundation and founder of the GNU Project, he is also an evangelist of a free society in which people have basic human rights to run, study, copy and distribute software.

The Propriety software provides one with convenience of working. “It values your immediate convenience and not your freedom” We sacrifice our freedom for the sake of convenience and this makes us addicts. The software companies are “conspiring together to enslave you in the Software programmes.” I wondered about the ease it was to work on some propriety programmes and thought of the difficulty that I might have to face in order to change to free software!

Dr RMS was especially critical of the role that Educational Institutes are playing in propagating the use of Propriety Programmes. He strongly advocated about the onus on the Educational Institutes to make their students have independence to learn and develop free software.

Under such a situation the role that Educational Institutes can play to imbibe a learning culture among students becomes paramount. The educational Institutes have a responsibility to be “free software users” as it is more about “socio Ethical issues” that help the students to know what it means to live in a free world. How to “occasionally make a sacrifice for the sake of freedom?”

RMS further touched upon the issue of the so called philanthropist attitude of the Propriety software companies that supply their software free of cost to some Educational Institutes. They do so only “to colonize “the students and once they graduate they become users . Thus Schools become “tools for teaching dependency” so the Educational Institutes should not allow it to happen and not make their students addict to convenience that propriety software provide. Schools should make students “strong, capable, independent” members of free society. It should be the mission of the schools.

“We can win freedom with some minor sacrifices” sacrifices to run some programmes that Propriety software provide. Propriety Programmes give us the option between “take it or leave it: whereas with the free software one can change as one develops.

Yes, it made sense to me, a nitwit as such, but I just wondered if laypersons like me start working using free software then would we be able to work as efficiently as we work using propriety software? Perhaps yes.

The saint calls his hat his “Hard disc”

The Saint iGNcius!
Suddenly he put away the Himachali cap, that he supported throughout, on the table nearby and put a black coloured disk, having a hollow in the center, on his head. He put on a black robe as well and now he really looked like the apostle that I thought him to be! Ah! He was now in his appearance that is his hallmark, I think, the Saint iGNcius! The hat like thing that he wore was a huge floppy like object that he called “my Hard disk” and the black robe was his sacramental robe! “I am saint iGNUcius of the church of Emacs. I bless your computer my child.”

Next was the question answer session where sitting on the stairs leading to the Dias, he patiently answered all that queried the young mind s of our students. He seemed to carry a childlike innocence and warmth during all his interactions, and his informal ways and mannerism endeared him to all of us.

I sat mesmerised during his discourse and was wondering about the innovative and creative urge that made such a concept possible for people like Dr. Richard Mathew Stallman. Whenever I read The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand, I wonder, is it possible to have such creators in the world? Do they really exist in the present day world? The rendezvous with RMS strengthened my conviction about the possibility of existence of such great men who work driven by their innovative thinking and are not, by any means, the Second handers!

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