Tech Blech

Friday, April 22, 2011

Richard Stallman's speech "A Digital Society", Apr 20, 2011

Richard Stallman in 2008
This week Richard Stallman, founder of the free software ("free as in freedom") movement, gave a talk at the University of Pennsylvania. It's been far too long since I heard a good radical plying his trade. Stallman is blunt and uncompromising, fully intending to stir folks up and make them think about how they may be being manipulated by those who wish to track and surveil and control. His talk included some often amusing provocations:
1. He calls the Kindle a "Swindle" and the Nook a "Schnook" because we are not allowed to lend a book we have purchased to our friends, and because the seller can recall a book from your possession at any time (as Amazon once famously did with George Orwell's "1984").
2. Modern devices (including cable boxes, cell phones, and computers) often surveil us and may subject us, later, to censorship.
3. The use of proprietary and closed data formats and software increases the chances of our privacy being invaded, and decreases our ability to learn the art of software programming.
4. If only all the effort and expense devoted to the public war on sharing, deemed by Stallman as an attack on community (including Digital "Restrictions" Management (DRM), and the Digital Millenium Copyright Act that makes it illegal for us to know how some software works)--if only this effort could be redirected towards, say, preventing automobile accidents, thousands of lives per month might be saved.
5. The precariousness of our right to access the global internet is lamentable, because according to Stallman, "the U. S. governement has been bought".
6. According to Stallman, it is every citizen's duty to poke Big Brother in the eye.
7. Blame the government, he says, and blame the companies the U S Government works for.

Stallman gave permission to publish a recording of his speech, ironically made by a student on her devilish iPhone--but only if converted to free audio format Ogg Vorbis first. I converted the .m4a files with the help of a utility inappropriately named the "Free Convert M4A to MP3 AMR OGG ACC Converter"; it stubbornly truncated its conversions until I agreed to pay $25. Here in two parts is the recording: Part 1 (< 3 minutes) and Part 2 (1 hr+). These are .zip files--sorry to make you unzip them, but I don't think my hosting service can accomodate much realtime streaming.

One of the more interesting parts came during the Question and Answers at the end, after the recording ended. Stallman explained that, in the 1990's, his organization split into two parts: 1) Free Software Foundation (Stallman's first priority), and 2) the "Open Source" movement. Stallman stated that Open Source is focused on finding the best ways to develop software as a group, whereas FSF remains focused on the ethical issues surrounding misuse of digital technology and that, while he does not disagree with Open Source aims, if he were to start advocating for Open Source purposes, the ethical issues would get lost in the morass of it all. And so he kept his organization completely separate and finds it frustrating that people often confuse Open Source (a term he claims was coined at the time of the split) with Free Software Foundation.

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