Richard Stallman

Richard Stallman was in Leeds last week, talking about what he considers “free” to mean in a digital society. It was worth making the trip over to see him speak - it’s hard not to have at least some degree of respect for someone who has devoted virtually their entire adult life to promoting an ideal. And continues to do so even when the alternative would make for an easier day-to-day existence.

My problem is, that’s also a definition of the worst kind of religious zealot. And there were some occasions listening to him that there was more than a little religious fervour to what he was saying. Not that I think Stallman is necessarily a zealot in the truly religious sense. His principles seem to be based around “you can if you choose to”, rather than “you must because I say so”.

His internet would be run on the noblest of principles - although that works only so long as everyone involved sticks to those principles. That doesn’t seem to fit with actual experience of what human nature is. There’s a lot of talk of “they” - by which he means governments and corporate interests, and presumably “society” in the most general sense. But if those are “they”, who are the “we” that he also talks about?

There was a certain irony about seeing him speak in Leeds. The city centre is an architectural theme park for the kind of corporate interests that he rails against, and the soulless, nagging announcements that blanket the station in aural passive aggression are how corporations would sound if they had a voice to match their legal existence as pseudo-humans.

There’s an irony too, that I’m typing this on a laptop designed and made by Apple. Stallman’s not a fan - the Apple model of restricting an iDevice to running only “approved” software runs counter to all of his rules of free software.

I do get the feeling that perhaps he somehow undervalues the tremendous positives that the internet has been responsible for, compared with the negatives that he’s concerned about. An internet that conforms entirely to Stallman’s ideals would be a less colourful place - even if that colour comes with a price.