Be Realistic. Demand the Impossible
A favorite slogan of the Situationists during the social upheavals in Europe during May 1968 was "Be Realistic. Demand the impossible". Stretch out, dare to dream, go against the flow, and your dreams just might come true. The slogan might have been written to describe the mission of Richard Stallman, the one true begetter of GNU, the General Public License (GPL) and the free software movement, who has dedicated his life to realizing the dream of an operating system that is written from scratch and is totally free.
Stallman is an implacable spirit, and has been likened to an Old Testament prophet - "a kind of geek Moses bearing the GNU GPL commandments, and trying to drag his hacker tribe to the promised land of freedom whether they want to go or not. His long hair, which falls thickly to his shoulders, full beard, and intense gaze doubtless contribute to the effect." (Glyn Moody - Rebel Code p29).
As this suggests, Stallman is an ascetic individual who brooks no compromise, and has devoted his life and fortune, including the $240,000 "genius grant" he was awarded by the MacArthur Foundation in 1990, to wandering the world with his battered laptop, evangelizing and preaching the necessity of free software to anybody who will listen. "The only reason we have a wholly free operating system", he told Moody, "is because of the movement that said we want an operating system that is wholly free, not 90 per cent free. If you don't have freedom as a principle, you can never see a reason not to make an exception. There are constantly going to be times when for one reason or another there's some practical convenience in making an exception."
Stallman claims that the greatest effect that the MacArthur grant had on his lifestyle was that it made it easier for him to register to vote. Stallman was living in his office. The authorities refused to believe that his office was also his place of residence until a newspaper article on the MacArthur fellowship verified his claim.
"I live very cheaply. I basically still live like a student because I never wanted to stop," he told Michael Gross in 1999. "Cars, big houses have no appeal to me. No appeal at all. I wasn't a slave of appetite for money, and that enabled me to do something worth doing. That's why, when I started the GNU project, I also started growing my hair. I did that because I wanted to say I'd come to agree with one aspect of the hippie movement: don't focus on material success as a goal in life."
Stallman's ascetic and uncompromising vision hasn't been universally popular, even among the hackers who have benefited from his dedication. But the objective of free software does not begin or end with GNU/Linux, the GNU Hurd, or any other operating system, language or application that has been, or may be, developed on the open model that the GPL facilitates. Stallman doesn't really care whether free software works better and is more efficient, so long as the software is free.
"It's not about money", he says, "it's about freedom. If you think it's about money you've missed the point. I want to use a computer in freedom, to cooperate, to not be restricted or prohibited from sharing. The GNU/Linux system is catching on somewhat more now. The system is becoming popular for practical reasons. It's a good system. The danger is people will like it because it's practical and it will become popular without anyone having the vaguest idea of the ideals behind it, which would be an ironic way of failing."
Stallman recounts that when he founded the GNU project in September 1983, people said, "Oh, this is an infinitely hard job; you can't possibly write a whole system like Unix. How can we possibly do that much? It would be nice, but it's just hopeless."
Stallman's response was that he was going to do it anyway. "This is where I am great. I am great at being very, very stubborn and ignoring all sorts of reasons why you should change your goal, reasons that many other people will be susceptible to. Many people want to be on the winning side. I didn't give a damn about that. I wanted to be on the side that was right, and even if I didn't win, at least I was going to give it a good try."
Nine years later Linus Torvalds announced to comp.os.minix: "I'm doing a (free) operating system (just a hobby, won't be big and professional like GNU) for 386(486) AT clones." In Stallman's view the Linux kernel is just one part of the operating system. "There is no operating system called Linux. The OS called Linux is GNU. Linux is a program - a kernel. A kernel is one part of an OS, the lowest level program in the OS that keeps track of other programs running, and apportions memory and processor time among them."
Stallman's controversial assertion that Linux should properly be known as GNU/Linux is motivated by his desire that "people understand that the system exists because of an idealistic philosophy. Call it Linux and it defeats the philosophy. It's a very serious problem. Linux is not the system. Linux is one piece of it. [...] The idealistic vision of the GNU project is the reason we have this system."
Stallman's special contribution to the free software movement has been to raise awareness of the legal and proprietary obstacles to the free distribution of software and ideas. The universal language of contributors to open source projects (and the software industry in general) has been informed by the philosophical and political grounding provided by Stallman's writings, especially his insights into the nature of the law surrounding software copyrights and patents.
In the introduction to 'Free Software, Free Society', a collection of Richard Stallman's essays and lectures, published by the GNU press, Lawrence Lessig, professor of law at Stanford University, declares that "Every generation has its philosopher - a writer or artist who captures the imagination of a time. Sometimes these philosophers are recognized as such; often it takes generations before the connection is made real. But recognized or not, a time gets marked by the people who speak its ideals, whether in the whisper of a poem, or the blast of a political movement. Our generation has a philosopher. He is not an artist, or a professional writer. He is a programmer."
Stallman is not only the (perhaps accidental) philosopher and conscience of the free software movement, but is regarded by many as the ultimate hacker, having contributed many of the basic tools that made the existence of the Linux kernel possible in the first place. Stallman's code still represents the greatest single contribution of any individual to the average Linux distribution. Many developers regard Emacs, Stallman's first great software creation, as the ultimate operating system within an operating system. The GNU tools written by Stallman and the FSF, (most significantly the GNU compiler, gcc), were the prerequisite for building the kernel that became Linux.
Stallman's greatest achievement, the GNU General Public License (GPL), has bestowed many benefits on users and developers alike, not all of which were necessarily foreseen at the time of its creation. The license and its preamble are the profound exposition of Stallman's clarity of purpose, to liberate software from the shackles of its proprietary chains, and to allow hackers (in the original meaning of the word, "enthusiastic computer programmers who share their work with others"), the freedom to develop and grow, and share their code.
The essential ingredient of the GPL is the concept of Copyleft, which uses the power of copyright to ensure that free software remains free. Copyleft inverts copyright law by asserting that software adapted from GPL'd software and released to the public must also be as free as the version of the software from which it was adapted. The beauty of the GPL, as any accomplished software developer will recognize, is that like a piece of elegantly written code, it has a simplicity and transparency all of its own. The license fulfills its demanding objective, of protecting and promoting the principles of free software, without ambiguity or compromise, and as such is a reflection of the determination and personality of Stallman, who willed GNU, the GPL, and the free software movement, into being.
The measure of Stallman's achievement is that the GPL has turned the assumptions of the software industry on their head. Initially, free software, the continuation of the ideals Stallman learned at MIT's AI lab in the early 70s, was dismissed as implausible and impractical - a playground for hackers, hippies and geeks - but against the odds, free software has become an acceptable paradigm for software development, and the lost and restless hacker community has begun to find a home...
"You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete" - R. Buckminster Fuller
Richard Stallman: High School Misfit, Symbol of Free Software, MacArthur-Certified Genius: