Notes From the Field: Richard Stallman Visits Illinois

Richard Stallman. Image courtesy of
Richard Stallman. Image courtesy of

Maddie Rehayem, Journalism

Monday was Dr. Richard Stallman’s birthday, and he spent it giving a lecture to a full Grainger Auditorium. The man, who didn’t need much of an introduction, started off by licking the powdered donut hole off of his fingers and taking a sip of one of two cans of Pepsi he had sitting on the lectern. He then went on to ask the audience not to post photos or videos of him on Facebook or Instagram as the company that owns both is a surveillance organization.

As he nonchalantly removed his socks, Stallman continued to list several other proprietary programs that are traps, restrict users, and that can also function as malware, hurting users with the content of their codes. The first item of proprietary malware he cited that most of the audience uses? Microsoft Windows. Next, “the evil genius of Steve Jobs” and his “I-things,” as well as the “Amazon Swindle,” a product which he renamed as it takes away peoples’ freedom to read and share books as they please and keeps a database of everyone who has read any book on it (a database that should be destroyed). He later remarked that the product’s original name, Kindle, was actually quite accurate because in the same vein as book burning, the company may delete books through personal devices whenever it pleases.

At this point it was unsurprising that Stallman said he did not own a cell phone due to its surveillance functions. He described our phones as “Stalin’s dream” that the oppressive ruler did not have the technology for just yet. This led him to the mention of Edward Snowden, whose name got some applause from the crowd, which Stallman caught on to and led the full auditorium in “three cheers for Edward Snowden! Hip, hip, hooray!”

But that was just a preface to the meat of Stallman’s lecture—his fight for free software. Stallman uses the word “free” as in “free speech,” not “free of charge.” By free software, he means software you can rationally trust, like the first free operating system he developed (with help from others) in 1983 called GNU. With this system, users get the human rights they deserve. You can find more information on the website.

Free software is deeply tied to ethics, right down to its name. Stallman acknowledged that he is often associated with “open source” or even called “the father of open source”—to which, he responds, that if that were the case, it would have involved artificial insemination and the use of his sperm without his consent. “Open source” does not imply right or wrong, but rather allows users to change and edit software convenience instead of ethics.

He went on to describe the alternatives that the Free Software movement has developed, and throughout the over-two hour long speech he urged the audience not only to use only free software, but to use correct terminology and encourage others to boycott non-free software was well, because “the fool and his freedom are soon parted.”

He had some good points—nobody likes to think about the surveillance state of our country or the way that money and power control all of our products including software—but Stallman is definitely at least a little bit out of his gourd. At the speech, he revealed his alter-ego to the audience: St. I-GNU-cious, donning a black gown and “halo” which had been an old computer disc in a previous life, according to him.

Regardless of his antics, Stallman is still a legend to users of free software and coders everywhere. He is an advocate for freedom, for those who want to learn as much as possible about coding without corporate restrictions. He does so in unorthodox ways, but Dr. Stallman is undoubtedly a saint, fighting the good fight in the digital universe.

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