Eben Moglen on Free Software and Social Justice

Eben Moglen, lawyer with the Free Software Foundation, gave a keynote address at the October 2006 Plone conference in Seattle. The video, by Grace Stahre, the ONE/Northwest & The Plone Community, and Versant Media, can be seen at YouTube or downloaded from archive.org. (Unfortunately YouTube and QuickTime both require the use of proprietary software, so I am looking into alternative formats for the video1). He explains the economic reality and moral justification for free software, and its role in the struggle for human freedom historically and in society at large. His presentation is inspiring; I highly recommend watching it. I have also transcribed the speech below and apologize for any errors2.

Update: I have written an annotated transcript with explanations of technical terms and some commentary.

Software and Community in the Early 21st Century

I want to talk about the piece of our common lives that Paul is pointing at – these rules, these methods of living together around software. And I want to try and explain what I think their larger moral and economic meaning is. It is both a moral and an economic analysis: it has to be. It began as a moral question. It remains a moral question. But it becomes along the way also a window into the economic organization of human society in the twenty-first century.

If you think about the twentieth century economy out of which we are passing, its primary underlying commodity was steel. The making of steel was the twentieth century’s root activity, and societies measured themselves substantially by their success in producing steel. It was the first sign of the reawakening of Europe as an economic entity after the devastation of the Second World War. What we now think of as the European Union and we thought of for a while as the European Economic Commission and before that as the Common Market began, as you may recall under Jean Monnet, as the coal and iron union to bring back the European Industrial Economy. The Asian Tigers began to claim for themselves rising importance for themselves in the world economy when they began producing noticeable amounts of steel. And when Mao Zedong tried to imagine an alternative form of economic development for the People’s Republic of China in the Great Leap Forward, his best thought was backyard steel furnaces.

So that was how the twentieth century thought about collaboration in the economy: it made steel. And from steel it made the rest of what the twentieth century possessed for the exploration of the environment and the control of nature for human benefit.

The twenty-first century economy is not undergirded by steel. The twenty-first century economy is undergirded by software. Which is as crucial as the underlying element in economic development in the twenty-first century as the production of steel ingots was in the twentieth. We have moved to a societal structure in this country, are moving elsewhere in the developed world, will continue to move throughout the developing economies, towards economies whose primary underlying commodity of production is software. And the good news is that nobody owns it.

The reason that this is good news requires us to go back to a moment in the past in the development of the economies of the West, before steel. What was, after all, characteristic of the economy before steel was the slow persistent motivated expansion of European societies and European economies out into the larger world – for both much evil and much good – built around the possession of a certain number of basic technological improvements, mostly around naval transportation and armament. All of which was undergirded by a control of mathematics superior to the control of mathematics available in other cultures around the world. There are lots of ways we could conceive the great European expansion which redescribed human beings’ relationship to the globe. But one way to put it is they had the best math. And nobody owned that either.

Imagine if you will for a moment a society in which mathematics has become property, and it’s owned by people. Now every time you want to do anything useful – build a house, make a boat, start a bridge, devise a market, move objects weighing certain numbers of kilos from one place to another – your first stop is at the mathematics store to buy enough mathematics to complete the task which lies before you. You can only use as much arithmetic at a time as you can afford, and it is difficult to build a sufficient inventory of mathematics, given its price, to have any extra on hand. You can predict, of course, that the mathematics sellers will get rich. And you can predict that every other activity in society, whether undertaken for economic benefit or for the common good, will pay taxes in the form of mathematics payments.

The productization of knowledge about computers – the turning of software into a product – was, for a short, crucial period of time at the end of the 20th century, the dominant element in technological progress. Software was owned. You could do what you could afford, and you could accomplish what somebody else’s software made possible. To contain within your own organization a sufficient inventory of adaptable software to be able to meet new circumstances flexibly was more expensive than any but the largest organizations seeking private benefit in the private economy could afford to pay.

We are moving to a world in which in the twenty-first century the most important activities that produce occur not in factories, and not by individual initiative, but in communities held together by software. It is the infra-structural importance of software which is first important in the move to the post-industrial economy. It isn’t that software is itself a thing of value – that’s true. It isn’t that applications produce useful end-point activities, or benefit real people in their real lives. Though that’s true. It is that software provides alternate modes of infrastructure and transportation. That’s crucial in economic history terms, because the driving force in economic development is always improvement in transportation. When things move more easily and more flexibly and with less friction from place to place, economic growth results; welfare improvements occur. They occur most rapidly among those who have previously been unable to transport value into the market. In other words, infrastructure improvement has a tendency to improve matters for the poor more rapidly than most other forms of investment in economic development.

Software is creating roadways that bring people who have been far from the center of human social life to the center of human social life. Software is making people adjacent to one another who have not been adjacent to one another. And with a little bit of work, software can be used to keep software from being owned. In other words, software itself can lift the software tax.

That’s where we now are: at that moment, on that cusp. In this neighborhood, at this moment, the richest and most deeply funded monopoly in the history of the world is beginning to fail. Within another few months, the causes of its failure will be apparent to everybody, as they are now largely apparent to the knowledgeable observers of the industry who expect trouble for Microsoft. The very engineering limits of trying to make software that you own work as well as software that the community produces are becoming apparent. It used to be suggested that eventually software produced without ownership relations might achieve superiority beyond that of software produced by proprietary producers. It used to be argued that that might eventually happen. When those of us who have some theoretical experience in this area said, “why do you only think it’s going to happen eventually – it’s happened already”, people had a tendency to point at the monopoly products and show the ways in which they are still, in one way or another, better. “You see, you can’t do it.”

The browser, as we are all aware, is a pretty crummy piece of software. It’s commodity activity now, these browsers. And Microsoft has written some browsers. And they have been working on the browser they just released for years. And now they have announced what their best browser, at present levels of engineering investment, can be. And on the day of its release, it is less good than the unowned competitor. Produced by who? What? Where? When? On the day of its release. What is being seen this week, next week, the week after about Internet Explorer version 7 will soon be seen about operating system kernels, file systems, desktop and window management, and all the other commoditized parts of a client-side operating system at which we are now operating to produce superior software at infinitely lower price. We are still – only partially of course, but we are still a capitalist society. And when someone entrenched, no matter how deeply, is producing overtly inferior goods at three orders of magnitude higher price or infinitely higher price, the event – or the outcome of the event – is obvious.

Ownership of software as a way of producing software for general consumption is going out, for economic reasons. But as I said, the economic insight that we can get from watching the transition from steel to software is far less important than the moral analysis of the situation. The moral analysis of the situation presents where we are now as, if I may borrow a phrase, a singularity in human affairs.

One of the grave problems of human inequality for everyone who has attempted to ameliorate the problem of human inequality – which is most thinkers about the morality of social life – the gravest problem of human inequality is the extraordinary difficulty in prising wealth away from the rich to give it to the poor, without employing levels of coercion or violence which are themselves utterly corrosive to social progress. And repeatedly in the course of the history of our human societies, well-intentioned, enormously determined and courageous people willing to sacrifice their lives for an improvement in the equality of human life have had to face that problem. We cannot make meaningful redistribution fast enough to retain momentum politically without applying levels of coercion or violence which will destroy what we are attempting. And again and again, as Isaiah Berlin and other late 20th century political theorists pointed out, through hubris, through arrogance, through romanticism, through self-deception, parties seeking permanent human benefit and an increase in the equality of human beings have failed that test and watched as their movements of liberation spiraled downward from the poison of excess coercion.

We do not have to do that anymore.

The gate that has held the movements for equalization of human beings strictly in a dilemma between ineffectiveness and violence has now been opened. The reason is that we have shifted to a zero marginal cost world. As steel is replaced by software, more and more of the value in society becomes non-rivalrous: it can be held by many without costing anybody more than if it is held by a few.

In the English-speaking world (and it was primarily in the English-speaking world: in Scotland, in North America, at the outer edges of the British Empire) we moved towards a system of universal public education in the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Protestant North Europe moved over a lengthier period of time in a similar direction, but universal public education still had to be conducted on the basis of knowledge that could not be indefinitely duplicated.

Books are the first mass-produced article in Western society. They are the cheapest method of making large amounts of information available by broad public access available in analog technology. And they are still grossly expensive, difficult to move, cumbersome to keep and catalog and maintain, and very difficult for people to have access to who are not already located in socially central places. They are also vulnerable, as anybody who remembers the burning of the Sarajevo library will recall vividly. It takes a day with contemporary technology to destroy the libraries it takes centuries to build. And in times of great social stress, libraries burn.

Now we live in a different world, for the first time. All the basic knowledge, all the refined physics, all the deep mathematics, everything of beauty in music, in the visual arts, all of literature, all of the video arts of the twentieth century can be given to everybody everywhere at essentially no additional cost beyond the cost it required to make the first copy.

And so we face, in the twenty-first century, a very basic moral question. If you could make as many loaves of bread as it took to feed the world, by baking one loaf and pressing a button, how could you justify charging more for bread than the poorest people could afford to pay? If the marginal cost of bread is zero, then the competitive market price should be zero too. But leaving aside any question of microeconomic theory, the moral question, “What should be the price of what keeps someone else alive if it costs you nothing to provide it to them”, has only one unique answer. There is no moral justification for charging more for bread that costs nothing than the starving can pay. Every death from too little bread under those circumstances is murder. We just don’t know who to charge for the crime.

We live there now. This is both an extraordinary achievement and a very pressing challenge. There were good reasons after 1789 to be a little doubtful about the wisdom of revolution. Because revolution meant coercive redistribution likely to spiral downward in the well-known way. In the economy of steel, people who make steel become workers. They have little individuality. They are reckoned as workers in an industrial army. And as Marx and others like him pointed out in the middle of the nineteenth century, that is largely likely to lead to the model internally of political progress through a clash of armies. We don’t live there anymore.

We find ourselves now in a very different place. You live there, I live there, my other clients live there. It’s a place in which the primary infrastructure is produced by sharing. The primary technology of production is unowned. The effectiveness of that mode of production in the broader society is now established. Plus or minus the couple more years left before Microsoft fails entirely, we have now proven either the adequacy or final superiority in crass economic terms of the way we make things. We have brought forward now the possibility of distributing everything that every public education system uses freely everywhere to everyone: true universal public education for the first time. We have shown how our software, plus commodity hardware, plus electromagnetic spectrum that nobody owns, can build a robust, deep, mesh-structured communications network which can be built out in poor parts of the world far more rapidly than the twentieth century infrastructures of broadcast technology and telephones. We have begun proving the fabric of a twenty-first century society which is egalitarian in its nature, and which is structured to produce for the common benefit more effectively than it can produce for private exclusive proprietary benefit. We are solving epochal problems.

We are introducing new possibilities based upon new technological arrangements to deal with the fundamental political difficulties that we have coped with, and our predecessors in seeking equality and justice have coped with, for generations. We are very lucky. We live at a time when technological progress and the pressure for human justice are coming together in a way which can produce fundamental satisfactions that have eluded us for centuries. But in that luck there comes responsibility. We need to get it done.

There are other people with other views. We are not everybody. The other views assume that this technology too can be shaped to support hierarchy, that it can be shaped to support ownership, that it can be shaped not only to ignore the moral question I have put forward, but to make that moral question invisible to almost everybody. Forever. The folks on the other side are also very powerful. They look way more powerful than we. They are also quite clear-sighted. They also understand that there is an epochal openness here, and they have no more intention of giving up what they claim as theirs now than they ever have had.

The dystopic possibilities of where we live are non-trivial. If you imagine, right now, a flood of billions of dollars of consumer products moving towards you in containers from the East, containing devices that use all this software we have made, but lock it down so no-one may tinker with it, so that if you try and exercise the freedoms that it gives you, your movies don’t play anymore, your music won’t sing, your books will erase themselves, your textbooks will go back to the warehouse unless you pay next semester’s tuition to the textbook publishers, and so on. The magic of this technology is that it can be used for the great ideal of capitalist distribution: never actually give anybody anything. Just as it can be used for our fundamental purpose, which is: always give everybody everything.

And so in fact, we now find ourselves in a more polarized place than usual. Not because Paris is starving. Not even because the lettres de cachet have grown so horrifying to the population. On the contrary, this population has never been less horrified by putting people in jail without charges and keeping them there forever than it ever has been in the past. The reason that we now face a more than usually polarized circumstance is that the sides that have confronted one another over equality and social justice for generations are now more evenly matched than they have ever been before.

You and I, and the people who came before us, have been rolling a very large rock uphill a very long time. We wanted freedom of knowledge in a world that didn’t give it, which burned people for their relegious or scientific beliefs. We wanted democracy, by which we meant originally the rule of the many by the many, and the subjection of today’s rulers to the force of law. And we wanted a world in which distinctions among persons were based not on the color of skin, or even the content of character, but just the choices that people make in their own lives. We wanted the poor to have enough, and the rich to cease to suffer from the diseases of too much. We wanted a world in which everybody had a roof, and everybody had enough to eat, and all the children went to school. And we were told, always, that it was impossible. And our efforts to make it happen turned violent on their side or on ours many more times than we can care to think for[?].

Now we’re in a different spot. Not because our aims have changed. Not because the objectives of what we do have changed. But because the nature of the world in which we inhabit technologically has altered so as to make our ideas functional in new and non-coercive ways.

We have never, in the history of free software, despite everything that has been said by lawyers and flaks and propagandists on the other side – we have never forced anybody to free any code. I have enforced the GPL since 1993. Over most of that time I was the only lawyer in the world enforcing the GPL. I did not sue because the courts were not the place for the rag-tag revolution in its early stage to win pitched battles against the other side. On the contrary, in the world we lived in only ten or fifteen years ago, to have been forceful in the presentation of our legal claims would have meant failure even if we won. Because we would have been torn to pieces by the contending powers of the rich. On the contrary, we played very shrewdly, in my judgment now as I look back on the decisions that my clients made (I never made them). We played very shrewdly.

When I went to work for Richard Stallman in 1993, he said to me at the first instruction over enforcing the GPL, “I have a rule. You must never let a request for damages interfere with a settlement for compliance.” I thought about that for a moment and I decided that that instruction meant that I could begin every telephone conversation with a violator of the GPL with magic words: We don’t want money. When I spoke those words, life got simpler. The next thing I said was, We don’t want publicity. The third thing I said was, We want compliance. We won’t settle for anything less than compliance, and that’s all we want. Now I will show you how to make that ice in the wintertime. And so they gave me compliance. Which had been defined mutually as ice in the wintertime.

But as all of those of us who are about to live with less ice in the wintertime than we used to will soon know, ice in the wintertime can be good if you collect enough of it. And we did. We collected enough of it that people out there who had money to burn said: “Wait a minute. This software is good. We won’t have to burn money over it. And not only is this software good as software, these rules are good. Because they’re not about ambulance chasing. They’re not about a quick score. They’re not about holding up deep pockets. They’re about real cooperation between people who have a lot and the people who have an idea. Why don’t we go in for that.” And within a very short period of time they had gone in for that. And that’s where we live now. In a world in which the resources of the wealthy came to us, not because we coerced them, not because we demanded, not because we taxed, but because we shared. Even with them, sharing worked better than suing or coercing. We were not afraid. We did not put up barbed wire, and so when they came to scoff, they remained to pray. And now, the force of what we are is too strong for a really committed, really adversary, really cornered, really big monopoly to do anything about.

That’s pretty good work, in a short period of time, that you all did. You changed the balance of power in a tiny way. But when you look at it against the long background of the history of who we are and what we want, it was an immense strategic victory, and not a small tactical engagement. Now, as usual, when you win a small tactical engagement that turns out to be a large strategic victory, you have to consolidate the gains, or the other side will take them back. So we are now moving into a period in which what we have to do is to consolidate the gains. We have to strengthen our own understanding about what our community can do.

I want to go back to the thing I said at the beginning. In the twenty-first century economy, production occurs not in factories or by people but in communities. eBay is a pretty decent way of organizing a community to sell and buy stuff and empty garages, and it is doing a pretty fair job of it. MySpace, Friendster – never mind who owns, never mind what’s intended, never mind the pedophiles and all that stuff – it’s a pretty good way of dealing with an extraordinarily deep and important problem that most societies have to cope with, which is how to give old children becoming young adults some way of experiencing their independent identity in the world. How to give them a way to say, “Here I am. This is what I am. This is what I feel. This is what is going on in my life.” It has produced a lot of bad adolescent poetry. It has produced a lot of risqué photography and self-portraits in states of deshabille. But it is also dealing with a thing which has sometimes been known to cause suicide, and which shouldn’t be taken quite so lightly. It is not a small thing if you feel yourself to be a really isolated teenager living and working in a part of the world that doesn’t understand you at all to know that you can have tens of thousands of people all around the world immediately available to you, who know what you’re feeling and who can provide the kind of support that you need. That’s actually social service work of a very deep and important kind.

We are making communities that produce good outputs and other people are looking at them as business models where eyeballs are located. Up to a point that’s acceptable, and when the tipping point is reached it isn’t anymore. And that’s the kind of activity which is now our political challenge. To understand how to manipulate those processes – as we all can because we make the technology – how to manipulate those processes so as to gain the social benefit and reduce the possibility of power discrepancies developing that neutralize the very kinds of social justice outcomes we are looking for. This is possible to do. It is not only work for lawyers.

Mary Lou Jepsen’s inventions in connection with the display of the One Laptop Per Child box will turn out to be of enormous importance to the world. The One Laptop Per Child box (which I’ve spent a lot of time helping with this past year and which everybody in this room ought to be thinking about hard, because it’s a great moment in human technological history), the One Laptop Per Child box has a few requirements that are really important for computers in the twenty-first century. One: a child has to be able to take it apart safely. Two: you have to be able to generate electricity for it by pulling a string. Three: it has to be culturally accessible to people who live in a whole lot of different places around the world, speak different languages, have different world views, have different understandings of what a computer is or might be or could be or what this thing is that their children are holding. It has to be discoverable. It has to be a place for a child to explore indefinitely and learn new things in all the time.

I just want to concentrate on the first parts: it has to be something you can pull a string to power, and it has to be something a child can take apart safely. No existing LCD panel meets those needs, because every existing LCD panel in the world uses a mercury back-light which runs on high voltage which is dangerous and which contains toxic chemicals (the mercury itself of course). So how about a display which gives you transmissive color – beautiful color – indoors, and high-contrast black and white in full sunlight, so that it can be used in every natural environment, and which consumes per unit area one tenth of the electricity used by standard current LCD panel displays. How about that it doesn’t have any harmful substances in it, can be safely disassembled and reassembled by a child down to its components so that field replacement of almost anything can occur, and is in addition cheap to manufacture. So we’re going to give an enormous gift to all the cell phone and gadget manufacturers of the world out of OLPC – which is why Quanta, the largest manufacturer of laptops in the world, and the display manufacturers throughout the Pacific Rim are screaming to be first or second sources of the OLPC display. Because the patents in there are worth sharing.

In other words, the free world now produces technology whose ability to reorient power in the larger traditional economy is very great. We have magnets; we can move the iron filings around. We can also change the infrastructure of social life. That OLPC has every textbook on earth. That OLPC is a free MIT education. That OLPC is a hand-powered thick-mesh router. When you close the lid as a kid and put it in the shelf at night, the main CPU shuts down – but the 802.11 gear stays running all night long on the last few pulls of the string. And it routes packets all night long and it keeps the mesh. The village is a mesh when the kids have green or purple or orange boxes. And all you need’s a downspout somewhere, and the village is on the Net. And when the village is on the Net, everybody in the village is a producer of something: services, knowledge, culture, art, YouTube TV.

The week that Rodney King was beaten in Los Angeles, I was on the telephone with a friend of mine who does police brutality cases in Dallas, Texas. And he said to me, “You know what the difference is between Dallas and Los Angeles?” And I said, “I don’t know.” He said, “Fewer video cameras.” That was a long time ago. There’s no place on earth with too few video cameras anymore. The gadget makers took care of that. Now what is journalism like when every village has a video camera and is on the Net? What is diplomacy like? What does it mean if the next time somebody starts some nasty little genocide in some little corner of the Earth the United States Government would prefer to ignore, that there’s video all over the place all the time in every living room. What’s it mean when children around the world are networking with one other over the issues that concern them directly without intermediation, everybody to everybody, saying, “Do you have what we need? How come you have what we need? How come we can’t do what you can do? Because your father’s rich? Because we’re dark? Because we live down here?”

Globalization has been treated up ‘till now as a force which primarily puts ownership in the saddle. Maybe. Maybe. But the One Laptop Per Child seems to me to consolidate some of our strategic gains, which is why I’m in favor of pressing hard for it and things like it.

Now let me come back to the stuff we have in common in this room. Community, I have said – not an original thought – is powerful. The network makes community out of software. But some software is better at producing community than other software. GCC is a really useful thing. But it doesn’t produce community. If anything, GCC has been known to produce the opposite to community. This is not a joke about compiler guys either. The Perl interpreter, which is a fine thing, produces rather little community too, and the community it produces is, shall we say, a little inward-looking. There are other kinds of software which produce community in a very different way – and you know what that’s like because you work on one of those corners. The problem that I have with content management systems is that they’re systems for managing content, which is not very important. Community-building software, however, is very important.

I’m trying to do a little thing this year called making GPL 3, which is actually more about having a lot of discussions with a lot of very different people around the world about what they think free software licensing ought to be like and why they don’t like Stallman. The latter is not the subject I go out to talk about, it’s just what they talk about no matter what I do about it. It’s an attempt to create a kind of broad global community of people who care about a thing they all take very seriously. And they do take it very seriously: you understand when guys fly from Germany to India to participate in their second international conference on GPL 3, you know they really care.

So I’ve been talking to a lot of different people in a lot of different forms, some of them like IRC, some of them produce formal documents, some of them are telephone types. That’s all held together by Plone. That’s many different overlapping communities held together by software for making communities. It’s related to voice over IP through Asterisk, which changes my life as a lawyer completely. Those of you who haven’t discovered what free software can do to IP telephony, you have a great discovery headed your way. And we made a little bit of software of our own for dealing with a thing it turned out there was no existing tool for that we really liked – namely some austere simple interface for marking up one document in a very very very multiplicitous way with tens of thousands of possible commentators, so that everybody participating can see what everybody else has done in some manageable way, and can intervene in the process in a thoughtful fashion tied to some particular word or phrase or piece of a document that concerns them.

Before we started this activity I read lots and lots of commentary that said, as soon as FSF tries to do this it’s going to dissolve into a flame war. As soon as anybody attempts to do this it’s just going to become Slashdot all of the time. It wasn’t like that. It hasn’t been like that. Even Slashdot hasn’t been like that. That’s not the way it went. Of course there was lots of stuff said that I regret; some of it was said by very big people; much of it was said by Forbes[?]. But that wasn’t the problem. The coherence of the community – a community which includes Ubuntu users in Soweto as well as IBM, includes developers in Kazakhstan as well as Hewlett-Packard, includes people who have thousands of patents as well as people who don’t know what a patent is – that conversation has gone, I think, remarkably peaceably and quite constructively for a period now of about ten months.

Twenty years from now the scale of our consultation over GPL is going to seem tiny. The tools we use are going to seem primitive. The community we built to discuss the license is going to seem like a thing a six year-old could put together without taking more than a couple of breathers around it. And yet, that’s only going to be because our sophistication in global coordination of massive social movements is going to be so good. You do not see Microsoft out conducting a global negotiation over what the EULA for Vista should say. And even if they were minded to do it, they couldn’t. Because they’re not organized for community, they’re organized for hierarchical production and selling. I have heard a lot of stuff from people who thought that Richard Stallman was a problem. But ask yourself this: if the GPL process had been run by Steve Ballmer.

So we are learning in very primitive ways within our community how to build large globe-girdling organizations for a special purpose for a short period of time to engage people constructively in deliberation, and we are learning how to do that despite vast cultural and economic discrepancies in the assets of the participants. That’s twenty-first century politics. Plone makes it.

But it isn’t what you have. It’s what you do with it. So we have some remarkable opportunities, all of us. We have a very special place in the history of the campaign for social justice. We have some very special infrastructure. We have new means of economic development available to us. We have got proof-of-concept. We have got running code. That’s all we ever need. But we need prudence. We need good judgment. We need the willingness to take risks at the right places at the right time. We need to be uncompromising about principle even as we are very flexible about modes of communication. We need to be very good about making deals. And we need to be very clear, absolutely clear, without any variance at the bottom line about what the deals are for, where we are going, what the objective is. If we know that what we are trying to accomplish is the spread of justice and social equality through the universalization of access to knowledge; if we know that what we are trying to do is to build an economy of sharing which will rival the economies of ownership at every point where they directly compete; if we know that we are doing this as an alternative to coercive redistribution, that we have a third way in our hands for dealing with long and deep and painful problems of human injustice; if we are conscious of what we have and know what we are trying to accomplish, this is the moment when, for the first time in lifetimes, we can get it done.

We do not need revolutions in which the have-nots dispossess the haves right now. But we’re under pressure. There are a lot of people in the world. There is not a lot extra to eat. There is not a lot of excess clean water to drink. Minds are being thrown away by hundreds of millions in a world where people are trapped in a subsistence crisis that is now avoidable, and their ability to think and create and be is stunted forever. The climate is changing beneath our feet, the air is changing above our heads, and as the fossil fuel system decays, the inequalities and power discrepancies and authoritarianisms that grew up around the oil business in the twentieth century are going to do us real harm. So we have great opportunities, we have great challenges. The upside is the highest it has been in generations and the downside is not too pleasant. That means there’s a great deal of work to be done. Oddly enough, it’s not painful. It consists of doing neat stuff and sharing it. You’ve been successful at it already beyond anybody’s expectations and beyond most people’s dreams. More of the same is a good prescription here. But a little more political consciousness about it and a little more attempt to get other people to understand not just “what” but “why” would help a lot. Because people are getting used to the “what”.

“Oh yeah, Firefox, I use it all the time.”


“Why, cuz Internet…”

“No no no no no. Not why do you use it, why does it exist?”

“Oh I dunno, some people did it.”

That’s the moment, all right, that’s the moment, that’s the one where that annoying Stallman voice should enter the mind, okay. Free As In Freedom, Free As In Freedom. Tell people it’s free as in freedom. Tell them that if you don’t tell them anything else. Because they need to know.

We’ve spent a long time hunting for freedom. Many of us lost our lives trying to get it more than once. We have sacrificed a great deal for generations, and the people who have sacrificed most we honor most when we can remember them. And some of them have been entirely forgotten. Some of us are likely to be forgotten too. And the sacrifices that we make aren’t all going to go with monuments and honors. But they’re all going to contribute to the end. The end is a good end if we do it right. We have been looking for freedom for a very long time. The difference is, this time, we win.

Thank you very much.


1 I would be grateful for the help if anyone is aware of an Ogg version of the video.

2 I have fixed errors as I discover them. Thanks in particular to Michael Fötsch for detailed corrections. I have also altered my introduction, particularly with regards to other formats for the speech.



I just attended a session about microformats at Northern Voice. Following an explanation about what, there were a great deal of questions about why – and I don’t think they found the answers compelling. Let me explain why I am excited about microformats1.

This technology could enable more intelligent searches – e.g. a search for music reviews that actually found reviews, not just sites selling the CD. They could make it possible to click on an event (like Northern Voice) on a web page and have it added to your calendar automatically, to copy a full address and phone number to your desktop address book, to forward a forum posting to an email or wiki with one or two mouse clicks2.

The technology to do all of these things is straightforward. What’s needed is standards. There must be a simple, common method for indicating on a web page what’s a review, what’s a calendar event, what’s an address. With that information, it’s not very hard to add these kinds of capabilities to web browsers, search engines, or email clients.

I imagine that my annotation system, Marginalia, would not need to be integrated into a web service like Moodle. It could be used to add highlighting and margin notes to individual blog or forum posts, regardless of what site those posts are on. All that would be needed is a link on your browser’s bookmark bar to activate annotation. Or, something like my smartcopy feature could be enable automatically. Whenever you copy a quote from a blog or forum post, the title, author, and URL of that post would be included automatically.

In fact, microformats.org has standards for many of these things today. We have the technology, we have the standards, we just need people to use them.

As the group at Northern Voice recognized, that’s the key problem. It’s very difficult to persuade web page and blog authors to include the extra bit of structure needed to make microformats work. They don’t see what’s in it for them. The consensus was that the tools need to help out. I hope my examples above show that there is a benefit to authors; that once the technology gains a foothold the benefits of making that little extra effort will make it compelling.

My examples should also confirm that there is an important role for tool makers today. Much of this microformat structure information is already present in the tools. There’s no need for authors to specify the title, author, and date of blog or forum posts: the information is already there. It’s just not structured in a standard way.

While I think my examples are valid, I don’t think they touch on the real benefit of microformats. My predictions are like the advertising for the early personal computers, which claimed the machine would help organize recipes. Like personal computers and the web before, we won’t know the power of the technology until people start playing with it and having ideas. How many people thought the hyperlink would be so powerful, the basis for accurate searches, challenges to hierarchy, and citizen journalism?


1 Here’s a brief explanation of microformat technology. Web pages are already structured: they have titles, paragraphs, lists, links, and so on. This information is useful – for example, when you create a bookmark, your browser uses the title of the web page as the bookmark text. When you click on a link, the browser knows where to take you. Search engines follow links in order to figure out how popular pages are. But the structure of standard web pages can only take you so far. For example, there’s no way of indicating that a web page contains a movie review, or the title of the movie being reviewed. Similarly, there’s no way to indicate a calendar event or a blog post. Microformats are a way of adding this kind of structure to a page. This is semantic web technology, and there are other standards that could be applied. The advantage of microformats is that they are simple: they require nothing more than HTML, i.e. no no changes to the existing technological infrastructure.

2 What these examples have in common is that they give power and choice to people, rather than to central organizations. (There is no guarantee that this will remain the case; people may still choose to develop or use centralized applications. But at least there is no requirement to do this.)


XML Abuse Considered Helpful

I have heard too many complaints from people who don’t grok XML. XML isn’t just a standard data format: t has turned out to be one of those rare technologies which really does add to the basic platform on which we build much of our software. The key is scripting.

Many people react badly to XML. They complain that it is wordy, not particularly human-readable, and overly-complex. They are right. XML is only close to the perfect solution for a narrow range of problems. But it is also a pretty good solution for many more. Above all, it is free: nearly every programming environment comes with XML handling built-in or readily available.

The reason this is so wonderful is that it gives us free parsing. Free parsing isn’t just a neat trick. It’s incredibly, irreplacably useful – right up there with regular expressions, associative arrays, and garbage collection. This because it reduces the cost of one of the most valuable techniques for software development, which I will call toolmaking.

Toolmaking is the principle that the best way to solve a problem is often to write a new language for that class of problem, and then use that language to solve the particular problem at hand. The benefits of this are obvious and proven. It breaks a problem cleanly into two well-understood and well-separated pieces. The results are more maintainable and adaptable.

Toolmaking is is deeply embedded in the Unix tradition, which in the old days involved using yacc and lexx. More recently, Perl has become the engine of choice. Today, I believe, the balance has shifted to XML – not because XML is more powerful (you can do anything with Perl or yacc) or prettier (XML can be dense and incomprehensible) but because it is easier. Toolmaking becomes affordable for a whole new class of problems.

There are two approaches to toolmaking. The first is the data-driven approach, in which the problem is captured in a data format; XML is clearly well suited for this. But some problems don’t fit neatly into the data-driven paradigm. For these, the solution is the second approach: scripting. Here, XML can serve also, although using XML for scripting smacks of abuse. But it has an ally, one which is also free: XSLT, itself an example of just such abuse. Together, XML and XSLT provide the core of a powerful scripting engine which is standard across platforms and languages.


In Defence of Polling

There was a recent discussion on Slashdot about the problem of too many RSS aggregators fetching their feeds on the hour every hour and overloading the server. The common accusation levelled at syndication technology is that it depends on polling – the client checks periodically for new content even when there is none. The obvious solution, Slashdotters felt, was to notify the client when the feed changes. They are dead wrong. RSS is a success precisely because it doesn’t work this way.

I think this is a common misconception about syndication, and it should be put to bed. Concerns about polling are narrowly focused on technical efficiency. In the end, the technology has to do something for people – and not just Slashdot people. RSS is a success for the same reason that HTML is a success: both hit the 80/20 point of simplicity. Creating an RSS feed requires nothing more than writing a file far simpler than an HTML web page. There is no special software required on the server – or, heaven forbid, a special protocol1. If syndication had required special software, we wouldn’t be worrying about its efficiency because no-one would be using it.

Many people (Tim Bray, Eric Raymond) have said this before, but it bears repeating: the best technologies are simple, with just enough complexity to do something useful. Their ranks include HTML, XML, HTTP, UNIX pipes, even poor pathetic DOS meets this criterion. Worse is Better. Polling is fine.2


1 Update: I originally said “or, heaven forbid, on the client” – which is of course incorrect.

2 Gabriel’s brilliant Worse is Better argument is in section 2.1