There’s an interesting, brief article in the Guardian Technology section today: Cloud computing is a trap, warns GNU founder Richard Stallman. In it, Richard Stallman is quoted as saying about cloud computing:
“It’s stupidity. It’s worse than stupidity: it’s a marketing hype campaign.”
Later in the article he elucidates further:
“One reason you should not use web applications to do your computing is that you lose control,” he said. “It’s just as bad as using a proprietary program. Do your own computing on your own computer with your copy of a freedom-respecting program. If you use a proprietary program or somebody else’s web server, you’re defenceless. You’re putty in the hands of whoever developed that software.”
I don’t think it would surprise anyone that I respectfully disagree with this statement. I’m very supportive of his concern about cloud computing, and I agree that it’s something that the Free Software and Free Culture communities need to address. But in rejecting all network computing, I think RMS has thrown out the baby with the bathwater. I don’t believe loss of absolute control means that you lose your autonomy completely. And I think that exchanging some control in order to participate in social, collaborative computing is ultimately enriching for individuals and for society.
Here’s an admittedly overstretched metaphor: I live in a house where I control everything* — the temperature, where the furniture is placed, how much and what kind of food is in the cupboards. I can go in any room in the house whenever I want, and I can change whatever I want. Great.
I wouldn’t want to spend any time in jail. In jail, I have very, very limited freedom, and there are hostile fellow inmates and in some jails interrogations and beatings. It is a really bad place to spend any amount of time.
But I do like to go visit my friends’ and family members’ houses. I don’t have absolute freedom to do whatever I want at their house, but I get to spend time with people I like, enjoy their hospitality, and also see the way other people live for a little while. By having an informal custom of hospitality interchange, I and my friends and social network get to enjoy more of the world than we would just in our own houses.
If friends’ houses were more like jail, I wouldn’t want to go. If a friend told me that I couldn’t talk about politics in her house (say), or another required everyone who visited to be strip-searched at the door, I’d of course not visit (and hopefully would be allowed to leave). But I usually can expect a certain level of autonomy in my person and in my effects that is acceptable and comfortable.
Going places I don’t individually control — restaurants, museums, retail stores, public parks — enriches my life immeasurably. A definition of “freedom” where I couldn’t leave my own house because it was the only space I had absolute control over would not feel very free to me at all. At the same time, I think there are some places I just don’t want to go — my freedom and physical well-being wouldn’t be protected or respected there.
Similarly, I think that using network services makes my computing life fuller and more satisfying. I can do more things and be a more effective person by spring-boarding off the software on other peoples’ computers than just with my own. I may not control your email server, but I enjoy sending you email, and I think it makes both of our lives better.
And I think that just as we can define a level of personal autonomy that we expect in places that belong to other people or groups, we should be able to define a level of autonomy that we can expect when using software on other people’s computers. Can we make working on network services more like visiting a friends’ house than like being locked in a jail?
We’ve made a balance between the absolute don’t-use-other-people’s-computers argument and the maybe-it’s-OK-sometimes argument in the Franklin Street Statement. Time will tell whether we can craft a culture around Free Network Services that is respectful of users’ autonomy, such that we can use other computers with some measure of confidence.
* For hypothetical purposes. My wife and daughter would probably dispute this claim.