Electronic Design

Richard Stallman: Freedom—His Passion Both For Work And In Life

Stallman (2003)

For Richard Stallman, there's no separation between his work and his beliefs. They are one and his creation of the GNU Project is the optimum example of that.

The GNU system (an acronym for GNU is not Unix) gives computer users a free operating system. It also provides them the freedom to copy it, redistribute it, and change it.

And that summarizes exactly who Stallman is—an energetic, staunch supporter of human freedoms without Big Brother telling you how to live your life. Apparently, others feel the same. Today, Linux-based variants of the GNU system, based on the Linux kernel developed by Linus Torvalds, are in widespread use. Estimates run to 20 million users.

The GNU system includes the GNU Compiler Collection, a portable optimizing compiler designed to support diverse architectures and multiple languages. Stallman is its principal author as well as the author of other GNU programs like GNU symbolic debugger (gdb) and GNU Emacs.

All of these programs exemplify Stallman's strong belief in freedom, particularly the "freedom for individuals to cooperate." He rails against the many ways that companies and governments seek to restrict what one can do and limit people's ability to cooperate. Stallman especially objects to software giants that don't give users source code and prevent them from redistributing or publishing modified versions.

Stallman also supports many organizations and causes who have the same views as he regarding freedom issues, such as the ACLU and MoveOn. Check out his Web site at www.stallman.org. You'll find links to those organizations and others, ranging from a site to ensure that voting machines aren't susceptible to massive, centralized fraud, to tackling the government policies toward the poor, to separation of church and state, to fighting human rights abuses.

"I'm trying to do what I can to make things better. I'm trying to give something to society because I'm part of society," he explains.

Stallman launched the development of the GNU operating system in 1984 "to make social and ethical advances rather than merely technical advances. All operating systems available at that time were proprietary, denying users the freedom to help themselves or cooperate with each other. The GNU system, used with Linux as the kernel in a GNU/Linux combination, offers users these freedoms. While it may also have technological advantages, freedom is its most important advantage," he explains.

Stallman continues to push for "an end to the practice of distributing non-free software." By "free" he doesn't mean to give software away, but rather allow people to make changes, give people the freedom to change the source code and redistribute it any way they wish. "It's a matter of freedom, not price," he explains.

So it's not the technology that makes Stallman the most proud but rather that he "decided to serve the goal of freedom rather than goals decided by economics." Similarly, he never saw the technological work as challenging. "The real challenges were whether or not to do the right thing, to stand up for what was right. It was how to make compromises on details without altering the basic goal and message. There were many such occasions when those issues came up. It was more a philosophical or moral issue rather than technical. It was judging what is right."

While Stallman's political side is obvious on his Web site, some things aren't there, like that he flew a plane before he drove a car. "I was afraid my tendency to get distracted for a second or two would get me killed if I were driving. In a plane, except in takeoff and landing, nothing much would happen in one second," he explains. "But after the experience of flying as a student pilot, I decided that I probably could handle driving too."

Most also don't know he has played a percussion instrument in Balinese gamelan music. Says Stallman, "The sound is like a forest of bells. It's mostly metal bars, gongs, and drums. It's complicated in a way that I can't follow. It fascinates me in its rhythm and sweeps me away."

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