Free Software And Society

When I first became aware of Free Software, it was just one distribution of GNU/Linux and a few applications on a CD recommended by strangers on the Internet. I was in trouble. I had 24 students and their families who depended on me to teach them stuff to prepare them for life in a modern world. I had divided my classroom into five areas:

  1. seating/desks,
  2. a “wet” area for science experiments,
  3. a “windows” area where students could view the world measuring distance, the weather, parallax and such,
  4. a “science” area where I had a cabinet of toys, and
  5. a cluster of 5 PCs where students could actually learn at their own pace from a non-judgmental teacher…

My plans were simple, divide and conquer. The students for the most part couldn’t read or write, so I needed to fulfill the curriculum designed for city-kids while getting them to read, write, and present as if they were up to speed in all areas. Did I mention that I had Grades 9 to 11? This five-ring circus needed to function so that I could assign projects to different groups that they could accomplish largely on their own while I gave lectures or helped the many helpless individual learners. It worked pretty well. I did some of my best teaching and students did some of their best learning. One true reader spread light amongst the other students. One maths wiz also helped. Others had mature outlooks on life in the Arctic. I learned more than the kids.

The one obstacle to the smooth running of my classroom was Lose ’95. It kept losing the game, freezing and BSODing in the middle of class. It was supposed to operate well in 16MB and these PCs had 72MB. So, they were old and defective. That was the common wisdom. I knew better. These were made by HP. They made quality hardware. My old PC only failed when I tried to print or do some other function of the OS. It never failed when I ran software that I wrote. Not so with the kids’ computers, they failed just idling. People told me GNU/Linux just kept running indefinitely. I had to have it.

I picked a distro that was “easy to install” and downloaded an .iso of Caldera e-desktop over ten days of nights and weekends by dial-up. I had never burned an .iso before and the Mac lab didn’t help me do the right thing until the second try. The installation was simple but all I got was a black screen. I had to edit a configuration file with the right sweep frequencies for five different CRT monitors. Fortunately, Alta Vista came through with the data and it worked. I did one machine on a Thursday evening and the rest on Friday evening. I played hard with them all weekend and they never froze once. Oh, the browser or the word-processor (StarOffice, installed separately) would freeze and X-kill could eliminate it in a few seconds but the OS kept running. No more re-re-reboots. No more interruptions of my classes for five minutes. No more lost momentum. The students and I could progress smoothly and we did that for six months with only one failure when a student cut the power and the EXT non-journalled file-system on an 800MB hard drive lost the thread. I re-installed and kept going.

To me Free Software was my saviour and the best thing since sliced bread. I kept using it in more challenging roles every year and it always delivered: new distros, LTSP, servers of all kinds, local repositories, gigabit/s RAIDED file-serving on the LAN, databases, everything…

Only later did I read GROKLAW and US DOJ v M$ and realize that my students, schools and communities had been freed forever from the great Satan, M$, its “partners” and the many sins of non-Free software. I learned to love Free Software for what it was:

  • a brilliant concept of Richard Stallman,
  • an efficient and effective way to develop software, and
  • a boon to human beings everywhere who needed to create, find, modify and present information.

The latter was what I lived for as a teacher and lifelong learner. I soaked up technology of all kinds. I could soak up and distribute Free Software. I could not legally soak up and distribute that other OS and much of its software. I worked in remote communities in the North where there was no corner fix-it shop and no local computer geek usually. There was an ecosystem of re-re-reboots and recycled installation CDs but that was it. I showed students how to maintain and repair PCs, install operating systems and applications on those PCs all without spending much more than a download on the software or a blank CD, legally and getting better software in the process.

Students loved Free Software. They were horrified to read the EULA. You see, FREEDOM was something they understood. They were free to do just about anything in their lives: hunting, fishing, partying, playing, but they could not legally use a PC in the North because there was just no way to keep them going because the software was designed to sell more licences, not work for the user, and the EULA closed most reasonable options a non-expert could conceive, copying. They loved the GPL. If it felt right, do it. Install it any way you want and share it. That was Freedom in the North. That’s how people lived with everything else. Why not IT and PCs and servers?

All over the North of Canada, I taught students how to install GNU/Linux on PCs old and new. Students who could barely read explored the Internet, had full-text searching of thousands of books from Gutenberg Project, had local copies of Wikipedia in which they could embed local content, had the ability to turn any PC into a server with web applications and databases. They were promoted from serf to kings in a few weeks in my classrooms thanks to Free Software. They could learn using IT optimally, not restricted by the whims of some rich guys in the South. Thank you, RMS and the world of Free Software.

Free Software and Society is being celebrated by the Free Software Foundation:
“LibrePlanet is the annual conference of the Free Software Foundation and will be held in March 2014 in Cambridge, MA. This year, the theme of LibrePlanet is "Free Software, Free Society." How can free software protect journalists, whistleblowers, activists, and regular computer users from government and corporate surveillance? How can free software, or free software values like copyleft, community development, and transparency, be used by people fighting to create free societies around the world? What challenges are standing between us and our goal of free software ubiquity? With your help, we’ll tackle these questions and more at LibrePlanet 2014.”

see LibrePlanet 2014: Calling all presenters, volunteers, and exhibitors — Free Software Foundation — working together for free software.

About Robert Pogson

I am a retired teacher in Canada. I taught in the subject areas where I have worked for almost forty years: maths, physics, chemistry and computers. I love hunting, fishing, picking berries and mushrooms, too.
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2 Responses to Free Software And Society

  1. dougman says:

    With Windows you own nothing, you pay a license to use it and cannot modify it.

    With Linux you won it, can modify it, copy it and use it as you see fit. Also, you can even share it and make money off it.

  2. That_Exploit_Guy says:

    Indeed. Freedom is a powerful thing.

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