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Martin Paul Eve

Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck, University of London

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Every generation has its philosopher — a writer or an 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. Richard Stallman began his work in the labs of MIT, as a programmer and architect building operating system software. He has built his career on a stage of public life, as a programmer and an architect founding a movement for freedom in a world increasingly defined by “code.”

“Code” is the technology that makes computers run. Whether inscribed in software or burned in hardware, it is the collection of instructions, first written in words, that directs the functionality of machines. These machines — computers — increasingly define and control our life. They determine how phones connect, and what runs on TV. They decide whether video can be streamed across a broadband link to a computer. They control what a computer reports back to its manufacturer. These machines run us. Code runs these machines.

What control should we have over this code? What understanding? What freedom should there be to match the control it enables? What power?
What control should we have over this code? What understanding? What freedom should there be to match the control it enables? What power?

These questions have been the challenge of Stallman's life. Through his works and his words, he has pushed us to see the importance of keeping code “free.” Not free in the sense that code writers don't get paid, but free in the sense that the control coders build be transparent to all, and that anyone have the right to take that control, and modify it as he or she sees fit. This is “free software”; “free software” is one answer to a world built in code.

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I don't know Stallman well. I know him well enough to know he is a hard man to like. He is driven, often impatient. His anger can flare at friend as easily as foe. He is uncompromising and persistent; patient in both.

Yet when our world finally comes to understand the power and danger of code — when it finally sees that code, like laws, or like government, must be transparent to be free — then we will look back at this uncompromising and persistent programmer and recognize the vision he has fought to make real: the vision of a world where freedom and knowledge survives the compiler. And we will come to see that no man, through his deeds or words, has done as much to make possible the freedom that this next society could have.

We have not earned that freedom yet. We may well fail in securing it. But whether we succeed or fail, in these essays is a picture of what that freedom could be. And in the life that produced these words and works, there is inspiration for anyone who would, like Stallman, fight to create this freedom.

Lawrence Lessig, "Introduction to Free Software, Free Society: The Selected Essays of Richard M. Stallman". Available online at https://www.gnu.org/philosophy/lessig-fsfs-intro.html. Licensed under a CC-BY-ND license.