Friday, April 08, 2011

Richard Stallman at PSU

For those who don't know their philosophy, Richard Stallman is one of our premier pragmatist - ethicists. His training in logic revolved around LISP, one of the more sophisticated executable notations. His work in that brought us Emacs, much as Bill Joy's research brought us vi, later updated to vim by Bram Moolenaar.

At the end of his talk (I've caught it before), Richard likes to pause, walk over to his bag of tricks, and pull out a robe and a halo. He transforms into St. I-GNU-sius and starts spouting all kinds of offensive mock-religion, Subgenius style. This tends to disarm those who decry his wearing some holier-than-thou halo, as clearly he makes no bones about doing so.

St. i-GNU-scius

Stallman's rap is well-structured in an Hegelian trope, with Logic on the one hand, History on the other. The thesis - antithesis pair is unfree versus free software. Their fusion is an unholy alliance that colors the chronology (history).

Those wanting (and defending) liberty above mere convenience make a point of not using those portions of the Linux code that masquerade as part of an "open source" kernel, but are no more than slapped-in binaries, mostly support for higher end video cards, wherein the competition is cut throat and trade secrets are jealously guarded.

Such competitive environments tend to challenge the "love thy enemies" approach of sharing source with all comers. The proprietarily minded are simply among the most selfishly misguided, and so are in special need of liberal arts alchemy (new world geekery). SAAS and Apple both get special treatment, along with DRM (all tools of Idiocracy).

He then went on to spell out the four freedoms in detail and why each one mattered, and what the symptoms might be, were each one curtailed.

There's the freedom to run the software only when and if you wish, the freedom to share it with others unmodified, the freedom to modify it as you please, and the freedom (option) to help others by republishing the altered code.

Seeing through the eyes of a debater / judge, I could see that Stallman has reached a well fortified position. I've been circling his name in our Wittgenstein Study Circle, as one of the greats of our age.

Without GNU, there'd have been no free C compiler and the Linux kernel (named for Mr. Torvalds, as Stallman calls him) would have been a long time coming. GNU helped connect all the dots and sparked a revolution in computer engineering that still baffles many classical economists.

Second tier (academic) philosophers, self-marginalized from today's core cultural conversations, have had relatively little to say on this revolution or its implications. Their reluctance and/or ignorance and/or timidity has left universities semi-rudderless when it comes to answering student questions about the ethical integrity of their own computing practices.

Why do universities use closed source software to manage their own internal affairs? You would think they'd be more interested in walking their talk, plus giving faculty and students more insight and control over their own code. Does PSU eat its own dog food, or lazily piggy-back on Banner like everyone else (we know the answer, but why not form that consortium we've been talking about?).

Stallman brought a toy Gnu to the podium, maybe from Finnegans, probably cost him like $8.99. He auctioned it off for a cool $450. He was also able to control the room's temperature (a tribal center built for just such convenings of tribal elders) simply by flapping his arms and uttering friendly directives. The man still has both power and charisma and philosophy has been lucky to have him (computer science too).

I sat with students in the Systems department, whom I've befriended (John is the architect, introduced to me by Dr. Consoletti).