The irony of free-software advocacy

Free software purists turn out to not necessarily be pure, which is just fine.

Tech Culture

A rich irony of the free-software movement is that it heavily depends upon proprietary hardware and proprietary software to make its voice heard.

As an example, while Mark Antony (really a nice person--we've had tea in London before and I genuinely like him) rails against my "Is open source losing its soul?" post, he does so using proprietary hardware and proprietary Twitter.

Apparently the irony is lost on Anthony. (And yes, he could find an open-source chip to use if he wanted to.)

Not that he's alone. Glyn Moody, one of the most persuasive of the free-software crowd and a wonderful person, writes his well-written Opendotdot blog...using proprietary blogging software. This wouldn't be so bad except that there is plenty of open-source blogging software out there. Heck, even Microsoft has one.

In reality, what the free software world declines to admit is that its very existence owes much to the proprietary hardware and software world that makes it possible. For example, IBM never would have been able to commit $1 billion to the advancement of Linux without a hefty war chest, one built entirely with proprietary software and hardware profits.

This isn't a paean to proprietary software. Nor is it a suggestion that Anthony and Moody scramble to find 100-percent pure open-source alternatives. That would be silly. They use what works, and should continue to do so. If an open-source alternative works better, use it. Otherwise, we shouldn't make a religious fetish out of it.

Indeed, this is a request that we recognize that when we advocate for open source or free software, we're generally doing so within our own distorted reality, one that decides X is OK if it's proprietary while Y is not. So, Anthony clearly believes that his operating system should be free software, but he's not too bothered if the laptop's hardware is proprietary, or that the communication media he uses to advocate for free software are also closed.

Is he a hypocrite? No. He's a pragmatist. He has simply decided that an OS must be free and that the rest...need not. At least, not yet.

We're very good at pointing out flaws in others, and usually point our fingers just beyond the periphery of our own faults. This is convenient, but it doesn't make us any holier than the next guy.

Follow me on Twitter @mjasay. Or don't, if you've found a superior, free-software clone of Twitter. ;-)

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