A Moment of Clarity

by rthieme on February 28, 1998

press_richard_stallmanIf we are fortunate, there occurs at least once in our lifetimes a “moment
of clarity” in which we observe ourselves with our own eyes and see how
narrowly we have lived in contrast with how we might live if we fulfilled
the possibilities of our best selves. We see that we have come to
everything – work, relationships, even the Internet – with an intention to
use or exploit it to meet our needs. We see that it is possible to come to
the world with an intention to expand the options and possibilities of
others instead of our own.

Most people familiar with hacking culture know the name of Richard
Stallman, founder of the GNU project. GNU = “GNU’s not UNIX” although it is
a robust UNIX-compatible operating system that is – remarkably — freely
available to the entire world.

Stallman was honored at the Computers, Freedom and Privacy conference for
his consistency and the magnitude of his contribution. His speeches and
informal conversation suggest that this particular Don Quixote is equal to
the long-term demands of his improbable vision. The GNU project is no
sprint for Mister Stallman.

What distinguishes Stallman from visionaries who have nothing but ideas is
that Stallman is implementing his ideas. His words have become flesh, his
vision is incarnate.

The GNU project is unfinished and needs programmers and donations, but even
if another line of code is never written, GNU has achieved so much more
than anyone – except Stallman – might have dreamed.

Some dismiss him as just another brilliant programmer stuck in the sixties
culture at MIT where he learned what it meant to be part of a real hacking
community in which everyone’s work, ideas and computers were open and free
to all. Like the source code that Stallman thinks ought to be available to
everybody always.

Quixote’s sidekick, Sancho Panza, would insist on a reality check, and
maybe we ought to listen to him. I grew up in Chicago, after all, and
people like Saul Alinsky, the late great community organizer, reminded us
that we all act on our own self-interest. We may use the vocabulary of the
righteous, he observed, but we always vote our advantage. He would have
scoffed at Stallman’s vision of free software owned by all who use it.

Alinsky’s contemporary, Mayor Richard J. Daley, was often attacked by
opponents from what seemed to be high moral ground. After they had screamed
long enough, the mayor frequently invited them to his office. He asked one
question: what do you need? And after he listened for a while, he asked
one more: But what do you really need?

Alinksy knew what we needed, but Stallman knows what we really need.

Once we have had that moment of clarity and our energy shifts, flowing out
into the lives of others in a way that meets our own needs too, we
experience a feedback loop that is mutually nourishing, that grows
exponentially. Once we have experienced that shift, we can never again
come to others only to exploit them without knowing it and knowing that we
have a choice.

The GNU Project is wildly unrealistic. People just don’t give themselves
over to a project like that. Our economic system uses money to measure our
contributions. Cash flow, like dye in the arteries of our efforts, tells us
how we’re doing.

At least that’s how it looks from inside the old paradigm.

The digital world is changing how we use money. Not just replacing the
exchange of paper for an exchange of electrons, but redefining how we do
business. Electronic commerce, according to the vision of Robert Hettinga,
a financial cryptographer, might bring into being a geodesic society. The
intermediary between any two entities will be secure electronic commerce.
Financial cryptography, secure electronic commerce, and a geodesic society,
he suggests, might reinstate character as the true basis of financial
transactions. If one person tries to defraud another in an electronic
transaction, their identity would be exposed, but if their word is good,
the transaction closes, their identity protected.

Stallman’s vision of software owned by all is similar to Hettinga’s vision
of electronic commerce as a system that rewards trust. Yes, we are all
self-interested, but when we act collectively, when our projects include
and magnify the talents of everyone who participates and contributes, we
discover a mutual self-interest that transcends our individual self-interest.

It’s difficult to talk about all this from inside the old paradigm. We
begin projects like programming thinking of our “selves” as individuals,
authors of our “own” work, as the printing press and copyright law taught
us to think. But when we lose ourselves in the digital collective, in the
kind of fulfillment that Stallman upholds as the ultimate good of our
lives, then the boundaries between reader and writer, software author and
user community blur. The collective authorship of which Stallman speaks is
similar to monastics working together on an illuminated manuscript. Who
owns the perpetually unfinished product? We speak of software “authors”
but a group creates the software and the whole world owns the code.

Sometimes what feels like going backward is really going forward. Sancho
may be a realist, seeing through our fanciful dreams, but Don Quixote stirs
our hearts and inspires our best selves. Quixote went crazy from reading
too many books and believing them, only 150 years after the printing press
was invented. Maybe Stallman has written too many programs. Maybe he’s come
to believe that what he feels when losing himself in something of
inestimable value to the entire community is what we ought to use to
measure all our efforts. It’s difficult to distinguish a child’s refusal
to accept the adult world on its own terms from a crazy kind of sainthood,
the kind that insists that we belong to one another, that dreaming and
thinking take place today on a network, and that we are all cells in a
single body.

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