Home' Technology Review : June 2005 Contents 48
We entered the youth camp that morning by passing down a
long, white gravel road and under a wooden gate. Spread to one
side, and for as far as you could see, were rows and rows of tents.
In front were scores of showers, with hundreds of kids in swim-
suits milling about, waiting to rinse. It felt like a refugee camp.
In a sense, it was. More than a hundred thousand had descended
upon Porto Alegre, Brazil, to attend the World Social For um, a
conference intended to o er a progressive alternative to the much
smaller, and much more famous, World Economic Forum meet-
ing at Davos, Switzerland (see "Letter from Davos," April 2005).
Just past the showers was a sprawling collection of wooden
huts, connected by a canvas spread across their roofs. This was
the free-software lab. To the right, there was a training room,
with more than 50 PCs arranged along long tables. At the far
end was a large screen, where 20 to 30 kids were watching an in-
str uctor explain the workings of some video-editing software.
Every machine was running free software only---GNU/Linux as
the operating system, Mozilla as the browser, and a suite of me-
dia production software, most of which I had never seen on any
The room was being prepared for what seemed like a disco.
Three DJ-like characters were huddled over a table full of ma-
chines, testing sound and twiddling fantastically elaborate con-
trols. They were not DJs, however, but VJs: video jockeys who
were preparing a demonstration of the tools they had built (as
they described it) for "recycling culture." The music would, for
all I know, not have been out of place in the coolest New York
dance club; but the images were a collage of television and color
presented in a way that I had never seen before, anywhere. As the
music played, video samples were scratched across the screen.
The VJ operated a turntable-like controller, which drove power-
ful digital video equipment designed to mix images, not records.
In another room, the yellow light ltering through the canvas
roof bathed another 50 machines.
John Perry Barlow, former lyricist
for the Grateful Dead and co-
founder of the Electronic Frontier
Foundation, sat stooped over his
PowerBook chatting with some-
one. He looked up with a smile.
"It s [New York Times writer John]
Marko at Davos." Obviously, Wi-
Fi bathed the room as well.
Inside the room, a group of ve
or six Brazilians was waiting there to meet us. A lm crew waited
as well. They were shooting a documentary. The Brazilians were
our guides, and I was there to understand what a "free software
lab" was all about.
Stallman s Good GNUs
Everyone who reads Technology Review must have heard of
"free software." It was on MIT s campus twenty years ago that
the Free Software Foundation was born; it was an MIT re-
searcher, Richard Stallman, who presided at its birth. Free soft-
ware is code that carries a promise. Actually, it carries five
promises (four explicitly, and one by implication), according to
the foundation s de nition of free software. Geekily numbered
starting with zero, the promises are
(0) The freedom to run the program for any purpose;
(1) The freedom to study how the program works and
adapt it to your needs;
(2) The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help
(3) The freedom to improve the program and release
your improvement to the public, so that the whole
The rst and third freedoms imply a nal, and equally impor-
tant, freedom: access to the source code of the program. Soft-
ware that o ers anyone these freedoms is free; software that
compromises any of them is not.
Stallman launched his movement as a reaction to changes in
the environment within which software was written. In the
world he had known, programmers were a sort of ethical scien-
tist. Coders worked on common problems; they shared the
knowledge that their work produced. More than 60 years ago,
sociologist Robert Merton said of science, "Incipient and actual
attacks upon the integrity of science have led scientists to recog-
nize their dependence on particular types of social structure"; so,
too, did Stallman believe that the freedom of programming faced
"incipient and actual attacks." Its defense, he be-
lieved, would depend upon "particular types of
social structure." He thus set out to build one: a
social structure that would help coders preserve
the integrity that he thought their discipline
should have. The foundation of this structure
would be a "free" operating system, inspired by
Unix, but not actually Unix (and thus cleverly
named GNU---GNU s Not Unix).
At the time, Stallman s ambition seemed to
many unachievable. No single person, and no col-
lective of volunteers, had ever succeeded in nishing a software
project on the scale of a complete operating system. There was
no reason to believe Stallman and his followers would succeed.
But they began with rst steps---the tools and sca olding with
which everything else could be built. These included some of the
most important bits of GNU, like its compiler, the GNU Com-
piler Collection (GCC), and some of the most beautiful, like the
Emacs editor. And each bit was wrapped in Stallman s single
most brilliant idea: a license that would assure that the code he
was building would forever remain free.
Campsite, World Social Forum, Porto Alegre, Brazil, 2005
AP PHOTO/NABOR GOULART
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