Is Open Source Driven Forward By Pragmatists or Purists?

by Sam Dean - Jul. 13, 2011Comments (5)

Jason Perlow has a very interesting column on open source up on ZDNet, with the compelling title "Why I'm Smarter Than an Open Source Surrender Monkey." The "surrender" in the title, and the column itself, come in response to Bruce Byfield's Datamation column, "Tech Pundits Surrender: The Retreat from Free Software and Open Standards." Byfield's column considers whether some users who are fleeing from open source and open standards are simply making pragmatic choices about using proprietary technologies. Perlow's column considers the same topic. Both columns reach some conclusions that are interesting, but the truth is that a mix of pragmatism and zealotry drives open source forward.

Perlow writes:

 "Those of us who are Open Source evangelists use Open Source software because it is practical and useful to do so, not due to an inherent ideological need to do so."

He goes on to point out that he uses a Mac, and likes it for some tasks, and uses Ubuntu and likes it for some tasks, etc. I, too, use a Mac as well as Ubuntu for pragmatic reasons. Still, though, Perlow seems to overstep several bounds when he pronounces all "open source evangelists" pragmatists, going so far as to say that they are free of ideological leanings.

Isn't Richard Stallman an open source evangelist? In this post, we covered his ideological opposition to eBooks, which he says employ proprietary technologies that "don't respect our freedom." In this post, we covered his refusal to carry or use cell phones, because they are "Stalin's dream." Sure, one could argue that Stallman's conclusions are pragmatic, but they ring of quite a lot of ideology. They are definitely not free of ideology when it comes to open things.

Pragmatists who are also open source evangelists are using mixes of proprietary and open technologies. I use a mix of them. But the legend of the cave-dwelling Linux zealot is not dead, and there are lots of people who are as technologically jingoistic about their open source platforms and projects as any Mac fanboy who refuses to use any non-Apple technology.  Lots of open source evangelists proceed with a mix of zealotry and pragmatism.

What they aren't is free of open source ideology. 


Shailesh Patel uses OStatic to support Open Source, ask and answer questions and stay informed. What about you?


Gonna keep it short and sweet.... pragmatists

0 Votes

Interesting position. However, Richard Stallman (who started the GNU project and the Free Software Foundation) is universally known as a free software activist. It seems to be completely confusing and misleading to describe Stallman as an "open source" evangelist...

I would suggest to link to as a useful (and well-known...) source of clarification.

A short excerpt may help to focus on the issues raised by this post:

"Most people involved with free software, especially its distributors, say little about freedom—usually because they seek to be “more acceptable to business.” Nearly all GNU/Linux operating system distributions add proprietary packages to the basic free system, and they invite users to consider this an advantage rather than a flaw.

Proprietary add-on software and partially nonfree GNU/Linux distributions find fertile ground because most of our community does not insist on freedom with its software. This is no coincidence. Most GNU/Linux users were introduced to the system through “open source” discussion, which doesn't say that freedom is a goal. The practices that don't uphold freedom and the words that don't talk about freedom go hand in hand, each promoting the other. To overcome this tendency, we need more, not less, talk about freedom."

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I'm not sure why you would call free software advocates, "zealots," people who make irrational choices due to religious faith. The point of software freedom is to have the freedom to make practical choices, rather than let software owners impose impractical things. Non free software exerts power over users that no one should have and the results are a very practical concern.

The Google Bing Sting has rewritten the rules of the theoretical concerns about non free software. Microsoft was caught keylogging ordinary users to scrape Google search results. No business that values its competitive edge, no hospital that wants to comply with HIPPA and no person who values their privacy will use Windows or other non free software after learning about the Bing Sting and thinking for a few minutes. If that's not reason enough to avoid non free software, a former Microsoft employee has just written an excellent article about what non free software ends up doing.

So what practical considerations forces supposedly rational people like Jason Perlow to use non free software? What his clients use and ... he likes Visio. I thought that was crazy two years ago, today most people would agree. The only things that keep people using non free software are conformity, bad habits, irrational attachments and beliefs that are increasingly ridiculous.

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Avoiding Ruinous Compromises

by Richard Stallman

The free software movement aims for a social change: to make all software free so that all software users are free and can be part of a community of cooperation. Every nonfree program gives its developer unjust power over the users. Our goal is to put an end to that injustice.

The road to freedom is a long road. It will take many steps and many years to reach a world in which it is normal for software users to have freedom. Some of these steps are hard, and require sacrifice. Some of them become easier if we make compromises with people that have different goals.

Thus, the Free Software Foundation makes compromises—even major ones. For instance, we made compromises in the patent provisions of version 3 of the GNU General Public License (GNU GPL) so that major companies would contribute to and distribute GPLv3-covered software and thus bring some patents under the effect of these provisions.

The Lesser GPL's purpose is a compromise: we use it on certain chosen free libraries to permit their use in nonfree programs because we think that legally prohibiting this would only drive developers to proprietary libraries instead. We accept and install code in GNU programs to make them work together with common nonfree programs, and we document and publicize this in ways that encourage users of the latter to install the former, but not vice versa. We support specific campaigns we agree with, even when we don't fully agree with the groups behind them.

But we reject certain compromises even though many others in our community are willing to make them. For instance, we endorse only the GNU/Linux distributions that have policies not to include nonfree software or lead users to install it. To endorse nonfree distributions would be a ruinous compromise.

Compromises are ruinous if they would work against our aims in the long term. That can occur either at the level of ideas or at the level of actions.

At the level of ideas, ruinous compromises are those that reinforce the premises we seek to change. Our goal is a world in which software users are free, but as yet most computer users do not even recognize freedom as an issue. They have taken up “consumer” values, which means they judge any program only on practical characteristics such as price and convenience.

Dale Carnegie's classic self-help book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, advises that the most effective way to persuade someone to do something is to present arguments that appeal to his values. There are ways we can appeal to the consumer values typical in our society. For instance, free software obtained gratis can save the user money. Many free programs are convenient and reliable, too. Citing those practical benefits has succeeded in persuading many users to adopt various free programs, some of which are now quite successful.

If getting more people to use some free programs is as far as you aim to go, you might decide to keep quiet about the concept of freedom, and focus only on the practical advantages that make sense in terms of consumer values. That's what the term “open source” and its associated rhetoric do.

That approach can get us only part way to the goal of freedom. People who use free software only because it is convenient will stick with it only as long as it is convenient. And they will see no reason not to use convenient proprietary programs along with it.

The philosophy of open source presupposes and appeals to consumer values, and this affirms and reinforces them. That's why we do not support open source.

To establish a free community fully and lastingly, we need to do more than get people to use some free software. We need to spread the idea of judging software (and other things) on “citizen values”, based on whether it respects users' freedom and community, not just in terms of convenience. Then people will not fall into the trap of a proprietary program baited by an attractive, convenient feature.

To promote citizen values, we have to talk about them and show how they are the basis of our actions. We must reject the Dale Carnegie compromise that would influence their actions by endorsing their consumer values.

This is not to say we cannot cite practical advantage at all—we can and we do. It becomes a problem only when the practical advantage steals the scene and pushes freedom into the background. Therefore, when we cite the practical advantages of free software, we reiterate frequently that those are just additional, secondary reasons to prefer it.

It's not enough to make our words accord with our ideals; our actions have to accord with them too. So we must also avoid compromises that involve doing or legitimizing the things we aim to stamp out.

For instance, experience shows that you can attract some users to GNU/Linux if you include some nonfree programs. This could mean a cute nonfree application that will catch some user's eye, or a nonfree programming platform such as Java (formerly) or the Flash runtime (still), or a nonfree device driver that enables support for certain hardware models.

These compromises are tempting, but they undermine the goal. If you distribute nonfree software, or steer people towards it, you will find it hard to say, “Nonfree software is an injustice, a social problem, and we must put an end to it.” And even if you do continue to say those words, your actions will undermine them.

The issue here is not whether people should be able or allowed to install nonfree software; a general-purpose system enables and allows users to do whatever they wish. The issue is whether we guide users towards nonfree software. What they do on their own is their responsibility; what we do for them, and what we direct them towards, is ours. We must not direct the users towards proprietary software as if it were a solution, because proprietary software is the problem.

A ruinous compromise is not just a bad influence on others. It can distort your own values, too, through cognitive dissonance. If you have certain values, but your actions imply other, conflicting values, you are likely to change your values or your actions so as to resolve the contradiction. Thus, projects that argue only from practical advantages, or direct people toward some nonfree software, nearly always shy away from even suggesting that nonfree software is unethical. For their participants, as well as for the public, they reinforce consumer values. We must reject these compromises if we wish to keep our values straight.

If you want to move to free software without compromising the goal of freedom, look at the FSF's resources area. It lists hardware and machine configurations that work with free software, totally free GNU/Linux distros to install, and thousands of free software packages that work in a 100 percent free software environment. If you want to help the community stay on the road to freedom, one important way is to publicly uphold citizen values. When people are discussing what is good or bad, or what to do, cite the values of freedom and community and argue from them.

A road that lets you go faster is no improvement if it leads to the wrong place. Compromise is essential to achieve an ambitious goal, but beware of compromises that lead away from the goal.

Copyright © 2008, 2009 Richard Stallman.

Richard Stallman is the founder of the Free Software Foundation. You can copy and redistribute this article under the Creative Commons Attribution Noderivs 3.0 license.

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The "pragmatism" vs "idealism" argument IMHO can be summed up as follows: "pragmatists" go for short-term wins, or wins that benefit themselves or individual projects ("what works for me" or "what makes distro X more popular") whereas "idealists" look at the bigger picture and at long-term wins ("what is best for the whole community").

I'm an idealist, as a matter of course. While I respect "pragmatists" who get things done, I don't feel comfortable with the direction of FOSS turning towards "pragmatism." "Open source pragmatism" smells to me like the attitude of proprietary software users/developers grafted onto Richard Stallman's free software movement; a bizarre but somehow effective chimera. While I respect the right of anyone to use whatever software they deem fit for themselves (horses for courses as they say), I personally view "pragmatism" of this type as a primarily self-serving attitude.

Make no mistake, what drives us forward are forces from both sides, sometimes in harmony and sometimes not. If so-called "pragmatists" were the sole most powerful group in FOSS our only accomplishments would be a collection of Apache-licensed frameworks and libraries with which to build an assortment of proprietary products. The GNU "idealist" side acts as a counterbalance to that, a subtle reminder that users as well as developers deserve the Free Software freedoms.

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