The Algebra Of Freedom

Free Culture does not owe Free Software its fealty. Free Software is concerned with the freedom of hackers to continue hacking, any other concerns are secondary unless they interfere with this freedom. Hardware, for example, is of interest to Free Software only when it prevents the hacker from hacking. Closed BIOSes and ‘Trusted Computing’ microprocessors are examples of this.

Stallmanian Freedom is a domain-specific, self-reliant freedom. If you do not have what you need in your creative domain, it is your responsibility to create it. And if another domain interferes with your freedom, it is immoral. What happens if your freedom interferes with the freedom of individuals in another domain? What happens if an individual’s lack of ability in your domain interferes with their freedom in their domain? And what happens if unfree work in your domain better supports freedom in their domain?

Imagine there was a mature Free Hardware movement that demanded that Free Software use only Free Hardware, because proprietary hardware is immoral. And imagine that although Free Hardware was readily and cheaply available, it could not support branching instructions (if…then…else) because these were of little interest to Free Hardware engineers, who preferred to work on mathematical instructions.

Free Software hackers would have to down tools and study hardware implementation for a couple of years until they could improve the Free Hardware to the point where they could use it for serious programming. Or they would have to lobby the Free Hardware engineers to stop working on more interesting projects (thus compromising their freedom) to add branching. Or they would have to use proprietary hardware in order to be able to exercise the freedom to be able to create functional works.

I am not making the usual apologies for proprietary work here. I am not a libertarian with corporate stockholm syndrome, desperate for the cultural approval and feeling of self-worth that only VC funding can give. This is an internal criticism: with separate domains, there is a conflict here.

For an artist, art is the highest calling. Preventing the realisation of art is immoral. And most current Free Software for graphics and presentations is therefore immoral. It is functionally incomplete compared to proprietary offerings. As with the imaginary Free Hardware/Free Software conflict, the artist is not immediately technically capable of working in the domain of Free Software to implement the features that they require to support freedom in their own domain. Nor it is their responsibility to do so for artistic freedom. So again they have three choices: limit their freedom by doing non-artistic work to answer the demands of others, limit a Free Software hacker’s freedom by demanding that they implement the feature, or use a proprietary alternative.

Even if a piece of artistic Free Software was functionally complete but lower quality it would be immoral to demand that artists use it. Art is not software. It is qualitative, not quantitative. The fact that a Keynote presentation looks better than a Beamer presentation is part of the work, part of its content, part of its function, not a secondary consideration.

The problem I have is that I am, non-trivially, both a hacker and an artist. I cannot fall back on protecting the freedom of my own domain, as the demands of Free Software would stop me using proprietary software, and the demands of artistic freedom would stop me throwing away functioning tools to use non-functioning ones.

Without common ideological ground, future proprietary problems or current “free” problems are both shackles on creative freedom. That common ideological ground should be a general commitment to freedom, not contained within domain limits. Even with this guiding principle, the problem of how to least compromise one’s freedom in order to least compromise the freedom of others remains. This is a historic problem of the ideal of liberty, and is not to be taken lightly.

I believe that it is a defensible position that one should not base one’s freedom on unfreedom. It is also a defensible position that one should minimise the risk of future unfreedom occurring as a result of one’s actions or failure to act, whether for oneself or for others. Therefore whilst Free Culture may not owe Free Software its fealty, it cannot take an “I’m alright Jack” attitude to exercising its own freedom whilst supporting unfreedom in another domains.

Bad art (and code) comes from the best of intentions, but good art (and code) often comes from engagement with interesting general (social, technical) challenges as (personal, creative) individual opportunities. Freedom is such a challenge^D^Dopportunity, like colour theory, tube paint, psychoanalysis and video before it.

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