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.comment: Of Freedom

Points of agreement in troubled times.

  • September 12, 2001
  • By Dennis E. Powell

It is not especially easy to write just now. I'm writing this Tuesday night. About 50 miles from here, in an enormous pile of rubble, there are people, alive, who have no idea what happened. They are in some cases pinned, buried alive, in the dark, dust and smoke in what little air there is to breathe, enduring pain and fear I do not know and do not know I could myself endure.

Near them are thousands -- tens of thousands, barring a true miracle -- of people for whom the possibility of rescue disappeared entirely sometime today. Then there are the hundreds more who thought they were boarding airplanes to California this morning.

And when there are thoughts like that demanding one's mind, commentary on the nature and state of a computer operating system seems almost disrespectful. What's more, it would be difficult to devote my full attention to it, anyway.

This afternoon, though, a friend brought into focus something very much worth saying, I think, and it's a way in which Linux, of all things, ought to be a beacon to a troubled world.

The friend is Uwe Thiem, a KDE developer. He lives in Namibia. He and I have never met. I do not know his race, ancestry, religion, or general views on most subjects. Our communication over time has been solely by email. He does not know my race, religion, or ancestry (it's impossible to escape my views on anything). Yet, as I say, I think of him as a friend, and I suspect he thinks of me as a friend, even if he might provide an entirely appropriate adjective or two.

And this afternoon he posted a note to the KDE developers list. In it, he expressed eloquent sadness over the attacks on the United States this morning. He then said something that I think applies not just to KDE but to all of the Free and Open Source communities:

"I would also like to express my hope that the international community of KDE folks will remain the community of reason it always has been. Let's continue to stay and work together, regardless of nationality, sex, skin color, religion (or none of it), culture, sexual orientation, political beliefs, language or age. Let's be a voice of reason and hope - in a situation of tragedy and grief like today as we have been regarding the computer desktop."

That was more than a wish, it was a recognition of a vast and vastly hopeful phenomenon that maybe isn't often enough remarked upon.

I described my online friendship with Uwe. It isn't unique. I have such friendships with people all over the world, most of them Linux developers working on one project or another. Each of them has similar friendships with others all over the world.

This isn't to say that all is sweetness and light in Linux; it very distinctly isn't. I've been involved in all manner of hot disputes, often over the silliest of things. So have lots of others -- probably most of us at one time or another. A remarkable thing is, there can be two consecutive messages to the same person, the first denouncing that person as having taken complete leave of his senses, the next having to do with jointly working out some tricky configuration issue. And in a day or two, the dispute is forgotten entirely.

Over the months, I've given voice to some of my reservations with the liturgy of the Free Software movement. But I think there is a place where those involved in its politics and I would agree entirely, and Uwe encapsulated it perfectly.

Linux is a result of people working together toward a worthwhile goal (though one, if it had been predicted a decade ago, would have been thought impossible). By the nature of the thing -- the fact that it is developed on the Internet, and if anybody ever actually meets anybody else, it's incidental or coincidental -- nobody ever knows anything superfluous about anybody else. (Indeed, it's sometimes almost funny, when the entirely competent leader of a project announces that he won't be working on it for the next two weeks because he has final exams.) Countries can sometimes be figured out by email addresses, but the only time I've ever known anyone to bother to look is when posting a question, and then checking merely to see if the person most likely to have an answer is in a time zone that would make a quick response probable. Nor does one get measured by the quality of his or her code, because a lot of people involved in all of this don't write code, nor even in the quality or perceptive nature of his or her posts, because that's not really a measure, either. Everybody is welcome, though a degree of good will and at least (usually) good manners tends to be expected.

That's a kind of freedom not found many other places. It's a freedom from the issues that we so often have imposed upon us -- a freedom to deal with other individuals as individuals, to get a sense of them as persons, without loading up ahead of time with the kinds of prejudicial baggage of which I suspect none of us is entirely free.

It's not Utopian by any measure, but it is as good an example as you'll find of people freeing themselves to do good work.

And it's a bitter irony, in a way. The system that resides in the Linux development community achieves many of the temporal goals that are embraced by each of the world's religions. Yet if the evidence thus far proves to be true, today's outrages were committed by people claiming their religion as justification.

The Internet, as we've seen time and again, is not free of its own terrorists. But that is not something found within the many and varied communities that make up the Linux orb.

Thanks, people, for being an example worth emulating. And thanks, Uwe, for pointing it out in a time when far unhappier thoughts are finding no relief.

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