Freedom From Choice

October 7th, 2011

Since Steve Jobs passed away on Wednesday, the web has been overflowing with heartfelt tributes to the impact his work had on the technology world, and the world at large.

But a few people don’t respect or value the contributions that Jobs made. Richard Stallman, the famously anti-Apple, GPL protagonist, comes off borderline celebratory in his reaction:

Steve Jobs, the pioneer of the computer as a jail made cool, designed to sever fools from their freedom, has died. As Chicago Mayor Harold Washington said of the corrupt former Mayor Daley, “I’m not glad he’s dead, but I’m glad he’s gone.”

It’s dumbfounding to me that anybody who lives to any degree in the public’s eye could be this emotionally callous about the death of another person. He paints Jobs as a robber of freedoms, first and foremost, while neglecting to acknowledge the many liberties he brought, for example to those of us who can’t, or don’t want to build our own computing infrastructures.

I find it laughably easy to poke holes in the philosophy of “freedom” that Stallman and his acolytes passionately pursue. In this particular case, his metaphor of the computer as a jail brings to mind the beauty of constraints. Freedom from choice can be as liberating and empowering as freedom of choice.

Imagine a Steinway piano: each string is perfectly tuned so as to cast a unique, beautiful tone into the air with the gentle press of a key. I respect and value this instrument as a liberator of artistic expression. Many people find a lifetime’s pursuit of study in this device, extracting no end of joy from the limitless possibilities it offers.

But to Richard Stallman the piano must appear no less than “musical jail.” After all, the sound spectrum is made up of an infinite number of tuneable pitches, and this … instrument … this villainous oppressor of choice, limits its users to a paltry 88 tones.


22 Responses to “Freedom From Choice”

  1. Michael McWatters Says:

    Stallman hangs out with Hugo Chavez. Let’s not hear about ‘freedom’ from him.

  2. haineux Says:

    A facetious reference now, and I’ll write something more thoughtful later:

  3. Paul Hoffman Says:

    Another reason to ignore Stallman. He only cares about choice for him and his admittedly-small number of followers, not for the vast majority. This is the rudest thing I have heard him say, but not by much.

    You missed an opportunity to link to the classic Devo song “Freedom of Choice”, which does mention “Freedom of choice is what you got; freedom from choice is what you want”.

  4. DDA Says:

    We already have the ultimate Freedom of Choice; we can buy OS X or Windows or we can download and use GNIU Linux. It seems Jobs increased choice by making yet another alternative available. Same with the iPhone; it’s even completely legal to jailbreak the device!

    So yeah, cry me a river, Stallman.

    (typo alert: “…into the air with the a gentle…”)

  5. Daniel Jalkut Says:

    I want to jump in before somebody else does and point out that taking the piano as a strict metaphor for the computer, it would be easy to rip into my argument by pointing out that, for example, the owner of any piano is free to retune it, prepare it, even retrofit additional tones onto it, if they see fit. The piano is “hackable” to the extent that Stallman wishes all software were.

    My use of the piano metaphor wasn’t meant to stand in for the computer, but to draw attention to a widely-appreciated example where very specific limitation of choice is considered to be, nonetheless quite workable. Furthermore, the standardization of choices that technically “limits” the user of a regular piano, frees that user up to share and collaborate with other piano players, other musicians, etc.

    Stallman’s philosophy tends to suggest that there are only downsides to constraint, whereas the piano is a great example that many upsides exist, as well.

  6. Andy Lee Says:

    Hi Daniel,

    Stallman does indeed live in the public eye, but not for his people skills. I’ve only had the occasional brush with him, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s wired differently as others have speculated, whether it’s Asperger’s or whatever. In a way, I hold him less accountable than people who at some level know better but make a conscious choice to be morally or socially repugnant about Jobs’s death.

  7. Jesper Says:

    I’m not going to defend Stallman’s rampant tact deficiency, but I have spent the past four years making the case that people should be able to widely distribute apps outside of the App Store on iOS.

    Freedom of choice is a scale, and I’d like for them to slide from “you may do whatever you’d like, as long as you use jailbreaks which abuse security vulnerabilities which we patch” to “if you’d like, you can tap a row in Settings and install any app you’d like”.

    Steve Jobs was an accomplished creator and a great mind, but we disagreed on the level of control that his company should be able to assert on its goods when it had left the factory in the name of user experience and children chastening. The App Store grand piano plays plenty of sour notes, but I still can’t be trusted to maintain my own moral compass. The poetry of the usefulness of constraints in software development is fine, but it’s not the whole story.

  8. Brooke Callahan Says:

    “Freedom from choice”

    Nice. Here’s a TED talk that makes the same point:

  9. Gavin Carothers Says:

    A polarizing figure who isn’t a very nice person mentions that a polarizing figure who wasn’t a very nice person is polarizing and does so in a polarizing manner.

    I know I sure as heck would not like to have RMS over for dinner, nor would I have liked to have Steve Jobs in my home. I respect both of them immensely for what they have accomplished but neither is well known for their kindness or interpersonal skills.

  10. Tom Says:

    “Microsoft has no taste” Jobs once said. Looks like Stallman has just sunken a lot lower. I wish there was a way to lock myself in a jail to stay away from people like him.

  11. Garrett Says:

    Why not both? Freedom from choice for those who want it, and freedom of choice for those who want that? Why must one or the other be cast as evil?

    Ancient poetry, with its strict adherence to rules, was beautiful – “dancing in chains”. Modern poetry, with its freedom from rules, is similarly beautiful. Why force one to choose only one or the other? Either way, our potential as a population is severely limited.

    Why not have one political party, while we’re at it?

  12. Van Ly Says:

    Stallman. Principle.
    Steve. Paradox.

  13. Wilhelm Reuch Says:

    The limits of the appstore give a vast majority of the users the ability to try new software without worrying that much about malware and viruses. These users who have long been dependent of “IT-experts” now can enjoy a new freedom and control the own computing experience.

    Remember that the Apple business idea is all about the users. The users rank higher than the software developers. And it is only native cocoa applications that require authorization before they can be disrtibuted.

    Anything else. Web-apps, the web, Music, Books, Video, Film, Radio, Podcasts … and the list goes on and on … can all be freely distributed on any Apple device.

    How about a look at Stallman himself – he places severe restrictions on what you can do with GPL:ed software.

  14. John C. Welch Says:

    Stallman wants to create a messed up world where art is funded based on popularity, (he’s evidently too stupid to realize that means Disney gets all the money, AGAIN), and if you aren’t a programmer, you have no options in software.

    The idea, the concept that people just want to use stuff, and get stuff done, not only doesn’t occur to him, but as near as i can tell, is antithetical to him. He’s also a raging hypocrite, given that the GPL is just as restrictive as any other license. A gun at my head that has “GPL” written on it is still a gun at my head.

    Also, no, whatever behavior disorder he has is not a get out of jail free card. Having Asperger’s may *explain* why he’s such a raging douche, but it does not EXCUSE that behavior, nor does it keep him from any and all criticisms of said behavior.

  15. Neil Anderson Says:

    Freedom from choice is a choice.

  16. Andy Lee Says:

    John, I don’t really disagree. I’m not sure why I don’t get pissed off at Stallman when I’ve gotten explosively angry at people who’ve committed far lesser offenses for whom one could apply the same explanation.

    Bottom line is that I reserve my deepest visceral contempt for people who understand how scummy they are being the same way I do but make the conscious choice to be that way anyway and will grin in my face while they’re at it. Example: that Gawker guy. Given a choice, I’d send him to hell way before I’d send Stallman.

    Maybe another reason is that absolutely zero people I know will actually be affected by Stallman’s words, whereas two people I know Facebooked the Gawker link as if it was some kind of call for sanity, which leaves me just dumbfounded.

  17. Andy Lee Says:

    Gavin, regardless of how you feel about Steve’s personality, I’m surprised you think of him as lacking social skills. One of his most famous characteristics was his sense of people. He was able to anger and humiliate people, but he could also be extraordinarily charming and indeed kind, by many accounts.

  18. Kaippally Says:

    Stallman’s “jail” analogy is quite right. It’s a closed looped ecosystem. With three important group of inmates.

    a) the shareholder.
    b) the developer.
    c) the consumer.

    Apple has tightly controlled what applications and hardware can run on their devices to ensure a smooth operation for the protection of the above mentioned groups. With the introduction of iTunes software developers had the opportunity to earn money for their work without the fear of piracy. Music labels could sell their albums directly to consumers. Consumers buy them at much lower costs than what they would pay at an outlet. Sometimes as low as $0.99. Apple takes 30% share of all revenue. This ensures the shareholders reap the rewards.

    Newspapers, magazines, music labels and game developers are all rushing to Apple for this single reason.

    Everyone is happy. Any criticism levied against this closed loop from the outside hardly makes any difference to the growth and success of Apple as a company.

    Could anyone please name a single Software company in the history of software development that actually satisfies these three groups.

  19. Thorsten Roggendorf Says:

    The Steinway analogy from the article is utter nonsense. Carrying that bullshit back to Stallman’s field would imply that Stallman despises ordered fields of bits because such limits the possibilities of expression for programmers. The opposite is true. He loves libraries. Something nearer to most people’s personal experience: Following the analogy Stallman should hate programs (Apps, I bet he hates that term :-) ) that limit what one could do with them. The opposite is true. Stallman is the father of Gnu and a core element of the Gnu philosophy is a program should do *one* thing and do it well. The piano analogy is clearly a category mistake.

    Let’s set the piano analogy straight. Everything you play on that Steinway must be bought from the Steinway store and Steinway keeps thirty percent of all transactions. If you fail to comply and try to play a score you bought somewhere else (“jailbreak”), Steinway denies responsibility for the instrument and you loose all warranty. Worse, should you compose a piece on a Steinway, Steinway goes to extremes to keep you from being able to play your piece on a Steingräber & Söhne (radical customer lock-in). Steinway goes a long way to design its music racks to let scores that are not sold in the Steinway shop slip of the rack (flash player lock-out).

  20. Adam Says:

    This is an interesting discussion. I agree that it’s emotionally callous to use another person’s death as a reason to tout you favorite cause, which in Stallman’s case, is done very frequently. So when Steve Jobs dies it’s just another excuse to remind people of something you do regularly anyhow?

    There is some tension that I think bites back at Stallman. Apple actively contributes to open source/free software development—Safari’s rendering engine, novel and really useful behaviors of the Darwin OS that improve upon what’s already there in the BSD foundation. In fact a large portion of the Apple world operates because of its use of BSD! As well now I have access to all those X windows apps, and even…Emacs.

    I do believe that software created by large corporations, for instance Microsoft, or Oracle, or Adobe, have an oppressive feel to them. They reflect the corporate culture they come from. Applications like MarsEdit, Wallet, the Kiwi twitter client, for instance, reflect their origin as products of craftsmanship—one person, or a small group’s, work at excellence and to create something really unique and distinctive. I consider these software craft shops essential to the application ecosystem and I make a practice of using them whenever I can.

    If it makes any difference, I am a strong advocate of free software and the free software development methodology, and I would run all free software if I could.

  21. Raduga Says:

    Seeing this mention (a few weeks late) of one of my Heroes behaving in such shameful nasty manner, brings out another painfully awkward remark, I also saw a few days ago, from someone else I admire nearly as much (though not quite, a hero). Jobs’ remark (quoted in the upcoming bio) that “I will spend my last dying breath if I need to, and I will spend every penny of Apple’s $40 billion in the bank, to right this wrong. I’m going to destroy Android, because it’s a stolen product. I’m willing to go thermonuclear war on this.” wasn’t an attack on a person (like RMS’s) but more sincere and more terrible in that his breaths WERE so few in number, and he must have seen the end already. A death-curse on a rival of such smaller and meaner stature, is not the legacy I want to remember him by.

    I never met Steve; only know him by his published works and creations. I’ve met RMS on a few occasions, and what many find petty and coarse in his dealings with the world, I would agree with Andy Lee, may be “different wiring” in that he listens quite closely to some things but remains oblivious/unconcerned with others.

    I’m in a quandary, in that I flout both their rules and would elicit both their contempts. I write Free Software for iOS systems, distributed outside the AppStore. I love the iPhone OS, not because its “Free” or “Beautiful Design”, but because of it’s perverse, ironic freedom. I owe a tremendous debt to Steve Jobs – for making a pocket-sized Personal Computer.
    It suits my needs because it runs Unix, and can accommodate most of the tools and resources I desire. Jobs didn’t have to create an iPhone so open and so Free as it is- or he could have left harder and harsher roadblocks in the way.

    The degree of Freedom he chose to offer (devs, consumers) was far less than RMS (or I) would prefer, but he left enough room for remodeling that a larger and Freer space, between the competing visions could still appear. Jobs received enough praise (and criticism) in his life that I think he was not overly tortured by lack of recognition and misuse of his work. RMS and the ones he directly instigated built the foundations for much of Apple, Google, and others’ creation- but the Freedom he spins is protean and abstract. Good for building bricks and mortar, hard to make consumer products from.

    I’m saddened that RMS retains so much bitterness, and also that his “enemy” couldn’t reach out to him in friendship and gratitude.

    Yeah, its true that nobody outside the Free Software and Apple Developer communities will ever hear Stallman’s rant. Other than to piss people off it’s useless. But as long as you use GCC (or products built with it) his rants continue to affect and influence and guide your code. The perverse freedom, owing to RMS and owing to Jobs, reigns.

  22. Stefan Says:

    I don’t know Richard Stallman as a Person or any of the Publication he has made. But the fact, that he speak so badly about Steve Jobs dead, made me to call him a Racist of Humanity!

    I don’t like Richard Stallman, after i read your post. And should be come the time in my life, that i meet Richard Stallman in real, i will show him what fear is. ;)

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