12. People

Free For All. Go to the Table of Contents. Vist the Gifcom.


When I was in college, a friend of mine in a singing group would often tweak his audience by making them recite Steve Martin's "Individualist's Creed" in unison. Everyone would proclaim that they were different, unique, and wonderfully eccentric individuals together with everyone else in the audience. The gag played well because all the individualists were also deeply committed to living a life filled with irony.


The free source world is sort of a Club Med for these kinds of individualists. Richard Stallman managed to organize a group of highly employable people and get them to donate their $50+-per-hour time to a movement by promising complete freedom. Everyone who showed up valued freedom much more than the money they could be making working for big companies. It's not a bit surprising that all of the free thinkers are also coming up with the same answers to life. Great minds think alike, right?


This large collection of dedicated individualists is predisposed to moments of easy irony. Black is by far their favorite color. Long hair and beards are common. T-shirts and shorts are the rule when it gets warm, and T-shirts and jeans dominate when the weather turns cold. No one wears suits or anything so traditional. That would be silly because they're not as comfortable as T-shirts and jeans. Fitting in with the free thinkers isn't hard.


The group is not particularly republican or democrat, but libertarian politics are easily understood and widely supported. Gun control is usually considered to be wrong, if only because the federal government will move on to controlling something else when they're finished with guns. [^10] Taxes are bad, and some in the group like to dream of when they'll be driven away by the free-flowing, frictionless economy of the Internet. Folks like to say things like "Governments are just speed bumps on the information superhighway."


[10]: In fact, the federal government already considers encryption software to be a munition and often tries to regulate it as such. The first amendment is very popular and many are sure that practically everything they do with a computer is a form of speech or expression. The government shouldn't have the right to control a website's content because they'll surely come to abuse that power in the future. Some even rage against private plans to rate websites for their content because they're certain that these tools will eventually be controlled by those in power. To the most extreme, merely creating a list of sites with information unsuitable for kids is setting up the infrastructure for the future Nazis to start burning websites.


Virtually everyone believes that strong codes and cryptography are essential for protecting a person's privacy online. The U.S. government's attempt to control the technology by regulating its export is widely seen as a silly example of how governments are trying to grab power at the expense of their citizens. The criminals already have the secret codes; why shouldn't the honest people be able to protect their data?
Pornography or references to sex in the discussions are rare, if only because the world of the libido is off the main topic. It's not that sex isn't on the minds of the free software community, it's just that the images are so freely available that they're uninteresting. Anyone can go to www.playboy.com, but not everyone can write a recursively descending code optimizer. People also rarely swear. While four-letter words are common on Wall Street and other highly charged environments, they're rare in the technology world.
Much of the community are boys and men, or perhaps more correctly "guys." While there are some older programmers who continue to dig the excitement and tussle of the free source world, many are high school and college guys with plenty of extra time on their hands. Many of them are too smart for school, and writing neat software is a challenge for them. Older people usually get bogged down with a job and mortgage payments. It's hard for them to take advantage of the freedom that comes with the source code. Still, the older ones who survive are often the best. They have both deep knowledge and experience.
The average population, however, is aging quickly. As the software becomes better, it is easier for working stiffs to bring it into the corporate environments. Many folks brag about sneaking Linux into their office and replacing Microsoft on some hidden server. As more and more users find a way to make money with the free software, more and more older people (i.e., over 25) are able to devote some time to the revolution.


I suppose I would like to report that there's a healthy contingent of women taking part in the free source world, but I can't. It would be nice to isolate the free software community from the criticism that usually finds any group of men. By some definition or legal reasoning, these guys must be practicing some de facto discrimination. Somebody will probably try to sue someone someday. Still, the women are scarce and it's impossible to use many of the standard explanations. The software is, after all, free. It runs well on machines that are several generations old and available from corporate scrap heaps for several hundred dollars. Torvalds started writing Linux because he couldn't afford a real version of UNIX. Lack of money or the parsimony of evil, gender-nasty parents who refuse to buy their daughters a computer can hardly be blamed.


In fact, many of the people online don't even know the gender of the person on the other end. Oblique nicknames like "303," "nomad," "CmdrTaco," or "Hemos" are common. No one knows if you're a boy or a girl online. It's almost like the ideal of a gender-free existence proposed by the unisex dreamers who wrote such stuff as "Free to Be You and Me," trying to convince children that they were free to pursue any dream they wanted. Despite the prevalence of these gender-free visions, the folks who ended up dreaming of a world where all the software was free turned out to be almost entirely men.


Most of the men would like to have a few more women show up. They need dates as much as any guy. If anything, the crown of Evil Discriminator might be placed on the heads of the girls who scorn the guys who are geeks, dweebs, and nerds. A girl couldn't find a better ratio of men if she tried.


This may change in the future if organizations like LinuxChix (www.linuxchix.org) have their way. They run a site devoted to celebrating women who enjoy the open source world, and they've been trying to start up chapters around the world. The site gives members a chance to post their names and biographical details. Of course, several of the members are men and one is a man turning into a woman. The member writes, "I'm transsexual (male-to-female, pre-op), and at the moment still legally married to my wife, which means that if we stay together we'll eventually have a legal same-sex marriage."


Still, there's not much point in digging into this too deeply because the free source world rarely debates this topic. Everyone is free to use the software and contribute what they want. If the women want to come, they can. If they don't, they don't have to do so to fulfill some mandate from society. No one is sitting around debating whether having it all as a woman includes having all of the source code. It's all about freedom to use software, not dating, mating, or debating sexual roles in society.


Racial politics, however, are more complicated. Much of the Linux community is spread out throughout the globe. While many members come from the United States, major contributors can be found in most countries. Linus Torvalds, of course, came from Finland, one of the more technically advanced countries in the world. Miguel de Icaza, the lead developer of the GNOME desktop, comes from Mexico, a country perceived as technically underdeveloped by many in the United States.


Jon Hall, often called maddog, is one of the first members of corporate America to recognize that neat things were going on throughout the world of open source software. He met Torvalds at a conference and shipped him a Digital computer built around the Alpha chip when he found out that Torvalds wanted to experiment with porting his software to a 64-bit architecture. Hall loves to speculate about the spread of free software throughout the globe and says, "Who knows where the next great mind will come from? It could be Spain, Brazil, India, Singapore, or dare I say Finland?"


In general, the free source revolution is worldwide and rarely encumbered by racial and national barricades. Europe is just as filled with Linux developers as America, and the Third World is rapidly skipping over costly Microsoft and into inexpensive Linux. Interest in Linux is booming in China and India. English is, of course, the default language, but other languages continue to live thanks to automatic translation mechanisms like Babelfish.


This border-free existence can only help the spread of free source software. Many countries, claiming national pride, would rather use software developed by local people. Many countries explicitly distrust software coming from the United States because it is well known that the U.S. government tries to restrict security software like encryption at the request of its intelligence-gathering agencies. In November 1999, the German government's Federal Ministry of Finance and Technology announced a grant for the GNU Privacy Guard project. Why would a country want to send all of its money to Redmond, Washington, when it could bolster a local group of hackers by embracing a free OS? For everyone but the United States, installing a free OS may even be a patriotic gesture.