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Why Linux has Zealots

Date/Time Permalink: 12/20/06 04:13:45 pm
Category: General

Now, when I say "Linux", just apply it in your mind to all of GNU, Linux, BSD, Open Solaris, Darwin (if it ever comes back), Plan 9, et cetera encompassing all of Free and Open Source software.

So, why the zealotry? It's hard for the non-geek population to wrap their minds around the zealot factor. It's just a computer, isn't it? Why all the fuss? We geeks know how we are. We take a simple thing like playing a song and turn it into an anti-DRM crusade. Show us an RFID chip and we set off into a rant about rights to privacy. Write a web page for IE-only and watch the indignant geeks line up to decry the injustice.

Are we really serious, or are we just putting everybody on? Is it really so important to spread Linux? What do we have against proprietary software?

The answer is that it's not at all just about Linux or just about DRM. Those are each just one tree in a vast forest. I have no idea if it's been set down before - please link me in the comments if you find a similar declaration - but let me here (in a sweeping act of hubris) set down what I have come to think of as...

"The Four Pillars of Technology Freedom"

1. Technology permeates every aspect of our lives.

Consider not only the device on which you're reading this. Look at how you cook your food with a programmable microwave, pay for everything with your credit and debit card, stay in touch with the world with your cell phone, and on and on. Even if you've never seen a computer, lots of data about you is stored on several of them. Even if the only thing you read is words printed on paper, that newspaper or book was laid out on a monitor. Even if you're a monk wearing only natural fibers and meditating on a mountain top, you can be sure there's a picture of you on Google Earth. When you have a health problem, there you go to a hospital where they will use every high-tech gizmo at their disposal to keep you going.

2. The role of technology in our lives will only increase.

Hardly a day goes by when a new breakthrough isn't announced. We've figured out more and more technology applications. Particularly, two areas promising more growth are health and space exploration. To go on, we will have to advance science in such areas as power generation, transportation, and eventually space colonization. So far, there is no evidence that our Earth or our solar system will last forever and ever, so figuring out how to exist entirely in space or on some terraformed planet is just one future challenge we will have to meet. Then there is the extension of the pitifully short human lifespan. Be all the purist you want, that's fine with me, but somewhere, sometime, there will be someone who wants to live forever and will do anything they can to do it. Even if they have to clone themselves, regenerate from stem cells, or merge with machines until they are cyborgs. The only alternative, eventually, will be to simply die out, and most of the people I know are far too fond of our species to allow that to happen. Thus, it is our destiny to merge technology into ourselves, until we eat, breathe, and sleep it.

3. Given 1 and 2, we do not dare let one power-mad despot control all of technology.

Because that is too much power to trust to one person. We've never allowed one tyrant to be king of the world; we've never settled for a unified global religion under one Pope or Bishop or Buddha or what-have-you. But right now, something like 95% of all the computers in the world are either controlled by or at least limited by Microsoft corporation, and almost nobody seems to mind. But in the past, whenever a new product of the industrial age has rolled out, be it the printed word or steel or oil or automobiles, a temporary monopoly - more-or-less - has formed based on it. Eventually it was thrown. And while the public might have once been concerned with the monopoly of the auto industry or the telephone system, today both cars and phones have gone digital, so computing technology, if it continues as it has, stands to be the biggest monopoly of all. The monopoly that encompasses all others. The biggest mass total control and domination of the human race that has ever been seen. The human race has never stood for such massive power in one set of hands, and it never will.

4. The only alternative to power in the hands of one is power in the hands of many.

Here in America, we have founded a government based on the idea that it's better to rule ourselves with the tools of democracy than to answer to a monarch. But with that freedom comes responsibility. Elections mean nothing unless we-them-fabled-peoples get out there and vote. We wanted our own government, and so we have to know who our representative is and study the records of our congressman and vote on propositions. In other countries, all through history, the people have banded together and had a revolution to throw off those in power and replace it with what they at least perceived to be distributed power in its place.

So it will be with technology. Distributed power will also mean distributed responsibility and distributed knowledge. Either you trust your life from cradle to grave to computers made by the global dictator, or you overthrow that dictator - and then resolve to master those machines yourself, so that no other dictator can ever take that position again.

"I hold these truths to be self-evident!" - said the ranting man from his soapbox. But really, what can possibly refute them? Maybe it won't all apply today, but it will apply tomorrow.

One of my taglines - something I've been saying for years - is "The technology that you do not master, will master you." And that is why I care. I could give a rat's hat if you, as an individual, run Linux or listen to DRMed music or whatever way you exchange money with The Man in exchange for whatever convenience you want.

But I have chosen to preserve my freedom in as many ways as I can. I fix everything myself where I can. I fixed my own brakes for $50. in raw materials after the auto shop wanted to charge me $600. We cook a lot of our own meals out of healthier food than what we get at a fast-food joint. When my DVD-player quit reading discs, I thought nothing of taking it apart and swabbing the little optical read-head with a Qtip, cleaning the dust off of it which had persisted in spite of numerous blasts with the air-can. We take the time to supplement our children's public schooling with teaching them at home as well. And of course, I build my own computers out of free (or very cheap) second-hand hardware and run free operating systems on them. How much have you spent buying and maintaining a computer? I've spent almost nothing.

I'd do the same if I were a millionaire (well, except for the car. The mechanic can have my $600. if I'm a millionaire - anything to avoid mechanic work, which I loathe.). It isn't about money. If Microsoft gave all of its software away for free and Linux cost $50. per distro, I'd still use Linux. It is not, never was about, never will be about, the money.

It is about the liberty. I have chosen to preserve my freedom in as many ways as I can. And I am many times happier because of that. And I want to provide for others to be able to make that choice as well. Eventually, perhaps many generations down the line, but inevitably, everyone will choose their freedom. And when they do, I hope they will find the trail blazed for them to do so.

It's worth being a zealot about. It is a crusade.

- I already know about the 95 Theses of Geek Activism.

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