"Just don't buy it"
Consumer choices in free software activism
John started working with GNU Press and the Free Software Foundation in 2003 and then became the FSF's first Campaigns Manager, working on outreach efforts like Defective by Design, BadVista, and PlayOgg. In 2011, John became the Executive Director after four years as Manager of Operations.
His background is mainly in the humanities, with an MFA in Writing and Poetics and a BA in Philosophy, but he has been spending too much time with computers and online communities since the days of the Commodore 64. He's become a dedicated GNU Emacs user after first trying it around 1996, and contributes code to several of its extensions.
He has been speaking regularly at free software events since 2004, including keynotes at the Libre Software World Meeting, Open World Forum, and LibrePlanet.
Prior to the FSF, John worked as a college debate team instructor for both Harvard and Michigan State University.
Movement activism often focuses on economic decisions. Buy this ethically made product; don't buy that one made by a company that funds terrible things. In free software, we encourage people to boycott (for example) Microsoft, and to instead support companies who sell machines with GNU/Linux.
It's an intuitive idea that, as individuals wanting to make the world better, we should use our willingness to spend or not spend money to reward those who do right and punish those who do wrong. Throughout history, this has sometimes been effective. But how effective? Can it be dangerous?
There is a danger of reducing activism and social change strategy to these decisions. We see this in the free software movement, when some activist campaigns aimed at persuading people to stop using proprietary software are met with responses like, "If you don't like Apple products, just don't buy them. Help make free products that are better than theirs. Why campaign against them?" or "How can you criticize proprietary software but still drive a car that has it?"
As an advocate, have you ever heard these responses, or felt like a hypocrite, or stumbled trying to explain to others why the situation is more complicated than "just don't buy it"?
How do we form a holistic movement strategy for advancing user freedom that takes consumer activism as far as possible, without overprioritizing it?
I hope those interested in effectively fighting for user freedom will join me as I share thoughts formed from 16 years of experience working on the Free Software Foundation's advocacy efforts, against the backdrop of some highlights from the history of other social movements.
- 45 min
- LinuxFest Northwest 2019