The future of the software freedom movement

On November 1, 2019, Eben Moglen spoke to the Software Freedom Law Center’s 15th Anniversary Fall Conference at Columbia Law School on the free software movement’s future as it turns a crucial page and begins another phase of its long march to freedom. The video is © 2019 Software Freedom Law Center and licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 License (CC-BY-SA 4.0). The following transcription of Dr. Moglen’s speech is © 2021 Paul Allen and licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 License (CC-BY-SA 4.0).

Eben Moglen: This is truly where I delay the drinks and I apologize for the fact that I’m going to delay the drinks a little bit because I’ve been having a very good time today, and I want to share a little bit of the good time with you, before we all go off and begin our weekends. …

[Dr. Moglen thanks “the extraordinary team of people who make it possible for me to show up once a year and just sort of waltz through my conference, which is a luxury I cannot describe to you at the depth with which I feel it.” His team includes:

  • Tanisha Madrid-Batista, Chief Operating Officer, SFLC
  • Daniel Gnoutcheff, System Administrator, SFLC
  • Mishi Choudhary, Legal Director, SFLC
  • Danny Haidar, VP Product & Development, FreedomBox Foundation.]

These exceptional people are just an example of the exceptional people that the free software movement has thrown up, created, made, helped, empowered, and established, all over the world. This is why we did it, this is how it worked, this is why we all got rich, or at least a few of us, this is why we made a bunch of changes in the world of technology, because people turned up, whose skills and talents were tuned to their highest by the opportunity to make things work that had never worked before, by the opportunity to invent a thing and make it sort of work, and then summon other people to help them make it better. That process – the proof-of-concept plus the badly running code that causes everybody, who wants to invent a little more, to run towards you and make it a little better, was how we got here.

But it doesn’t save freedom.

And so, we have learned two lessons, both of which I feel at the depth of my heart, as I turn 60 and think about the life that I have lived and the little bit that’s left, the two lessons that I learned were: If you let people invent, if you make it possible for them to invent, you will see wonders that you can’t believe. Every morning, the first thing I do is I sit down in front of a free software computer, and I’m still just awestruck by what we’ve invented. Everything we’ve made, everything that works together, all the power that we have, it’s like watching the Brooklyn Bridge made of piled-up bottle caps that was put there by everybody in the neighbourhood, and we run three million people a day over it, and it never falls down. It’s just extraordinary. To have participated, even peripherally, in that is to understand the kind of human experience that the human race deserves, and that it doesn’t get enough of, which is why it captures the curiosity of children, which is why it captures the enthusiasm for learning, which is why it captures the compulsive programmer’s desire to stay up just a little later, just to kill one more bug, just to trade a little more sleep for a little more neatness. An extraordinary riposte to the idea that the things we make are the things we are paid for.

This was also supposed to save political liberty in the twenty-first century, and it does not. This is a hard lesson. I spent decades of my life believing that if we did the first, we would get the second, because we were virtuous, and because we had good rules, and because the ingenuity of human children is inexhaustible, and I was wrong. So, now I find myself about ready to turn things over to another generation, and what I have in the bag is so much less than what I wanted. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t time, and it doesn’t mean it can’t be done. We are at the moment when the free software movement has to turn itself into a new life, a new generation, a new set of people. As everybody in this room is well aware, it cannot look like the generation that brought us in. It cannot look like one corner of the western world. It cannot look like everything north of the equator and west of Istanbul. And it cannot look like it has one religion, or one hairstyle, or one way of dressing, or one way of understanding what it is to be a man or a woman or something in-between. We’re going to adapt ourselves to the fact that the human race changed under us, and we’re also going to adapt ourselves to the recognition that the human race is in great danger.

We understand that our politics is going crazy. We understand that nationalism, and the “othering” of everybody, and the “me-me and not you-you” is a serious threat to the peace of the world. And, in a distant way, we understand that we were responsible for part of the tooling that makes that happen now. We made good stuff, and it was turned into ammunition against our dreams. Our means are being used against our ends. And we are about to hand off to another generation of people the hardest of all the problems, the one we didn’t solve, the thing that didn’t turn out to be easy, the thing that doesn’t come with dance music. The tough work of making freedom is still there.

So, what is going to happen, now, to the free software movement? We’re going to turn the page. We’re going to lose some old friends. And we’re going to lose some old ways of working. And we’re going to lose some sense of who we are. And we are going to be, for a moment, in the creative turmoil of gestation, birth, and infancy. And we’re going to try and do that in a way which also has some wisdom in it, some age, some experience, some forms of being, which can lead from among, as well as in front, as long as they learn how, and we have a little time, those of us who are old now, to learn how.

Over the next year or so, I believe that we’re going to refashion the institutions of the free software movement. I think we’re going to change the organizations. I think we’re going to make them look different. I think we’re going to make them fundamentally younger. I think we’re going to change the distribution in the world, of languages, and types, and places that we live, and ways that we like to work. We’re not just going to diversify, we’re going to become the people we were waiting for.

Speaking in the Hall of Peoples’ Deputies in what had been East Berlin in 2003, I gave a talk about the non-Utopian politics of the free software movement, a talk about why it was that proof-of-concept plus running code was a safer kind of revolution than the Utopian imaginings which had governed our politics in the West, the politics of progressivism and freedom of thought, for damn near a thousand years. Utopianism, an effort to go someplace we had never seen before, but which we were assured was perfect, and which generation after generation, if we were lucky enough to get a start, became a trap, in which we cycled down into disappointment, violence, and ruin of our own revolutions. I said that I thought that the free software world could break out of that cycle, that we could use our different, more incremental style – the proof-of-concept and the running code, and the please-come-and-help – we’re never going anywhere we’ve never seen before, we’re always following some prototype, it just isn’t any good, help us make it better. Why I thought that that could make a politics for the twenty-first century that would get us out of both the trap of oppression and the trap of Utopian romanticism. And there again I was wrong.

But I was right about one thing that day. I said, standing there, watching what it was the GDR had turned into, in a new and free Berlin, I said, “We’re just keeping dinner warm until the kids come home.” And we were. And that’s now. And those kids have grown up, and they are our future, and they’re the people upon whom we are going to depend, and they’re the people around whom we are going to restore our movement, and get the freedom that we meant to have. I want to help find and train and bring those people to the front. I then want to serve under their leadership for all the days that the days I have left. I want to see us pass along both our triumphs and our tragedies, and I want to show that continuity is possible in the midst of absolute change. But this is risky. It’s uncertain. We didn’t know how to do this, and we didn’t know we were going to have to. We thought we were going to achieve it in our time. A great mistake. It was lovely. I wish it had been true. But we didn’t understand that we, too, were going to have to plod forward, generation after generation, in order to get what we wanted. We were not inventing so perfectly, as we believed.

And so, now, as with so many other things around me, I recognize that what is left to me is teaching, what is left to me is the chance that others who come after will accommodate themselves to what we did, will adjust to what we taught, will see the value of what we made, even if it didn’t work, and will improve it, and go on. So, to them, for what I believe they’re going to do, my deepest and most heartfelt thanks.

To my comrades in the Ambedkar Community Computing Center in the Sudarshan Layout in Bangalore, to my embattled colleagues in the Beijing Linux Users Group, to my comrades, the young in the streets of Quito and Santiago, to the people who know in their heart of hearts, that if they do not keep their moment in Hong Kong, they will lose everything forever. To all those people who understand, now, that the corporations that use our stuff, and for whom they work, and who have given them the chance to invent and improve, our colleagues at Facebook and at Google and elsewhere, who now see that the billionaires they work for have melted the truth and will drown the planet, if they don’t do something about it. To all of them, who are the beneficiaries, to be sure, of what we made, but even more who benefit us by taking up the cause. That’s the future of the free software movement. Either we pass it on or freedom dies.

Thank you for coming here, and being with us, as we turn that corner. Thank you for your support, your help, your counting on us, your money that you made from us, the beautiful businesses that you built from what you did, thank you for all of that. Now, help us find the young people, who are going to fix what we did not. Find us all those young inventors, all those women and men and other people out there in the world beginning to yearn for something we tried to build. They know it could be there. They know there’s something wrong with the politics around them. They can feel, as David Carroll feels, that something has gone deeply wrong, but they don’t know what to do about it. We almost succeeded in showing them. We almost got it right. But we fell short, and the world is aching for what it was that we wanted to do, and they may complete for us. Help us find them. We can teach them. We can support them. We can help them. You have resources. We have resources. We can teach, and learn, and grow together, but we have to find them, and we must find them now. We don’t have another generation to wait. But I’ll see you next year, I hope, God willing and the creek don’t rise. Let’s go have a drink and toast to freedom.

Thank you very much.