Date Tags debian

A long time, no blog entries. What's prompted a new missive?

Two things:

  • my own hankering to get back into free software after too many years faced with daily struggles against proprietary software
  • the upcoming GR in Debian.

All the time I've worked with software and computers, the lack of diversity in the contributors has irked me. I started my career in pharmaceutical sciences where the mix of people, at university, would appear to be genuinely diverse. It was in the workplace that the problems started, especially in the retail portion of community pharmacy with a particular gender imbalance between management and counter staff. Then I started to pick up programming. I gravitated to free software for the simple reason that I could tinker with the source code. To do a career change and learn how to program with a background in a completely alien branch of science, the only realistic route into the field is to have access to the raw material - source code. Without that, I would have been seeking a sponsor, in much the same way as other branches of science need grants or sponsors to purchase the equipment and facilities to get a foot in the door. All it took from me was some time, a willingness to learn and a means to work alongside those already involved. That's it. No complex titration equipment, flasks, centrifuges, pipettes, spectrographs, or petri dishes. It's hard to do pharmaceutical science from home. Software is so much more accessible - but only if the software itself is free.

Software freedom removes the main barrier to entry. Software freedom enables the removal of other barriers too. Once the software is free, it becomes obvious that the compiler (indeed the entire toolchain) needs to be free, to turn the software into something other people can use. The same applies to interpreters, editors, kernels and the entire stack. I was in a different branch of science whilst all that was being created and I am very glad that Debian Woody was available as a free cover disc on a software magazine just at the time I was looking to pick up software programming.

That should be that. The only next step to be good enough to write free software was the "means to work alongside those already involved". That, it turns out, is much more than just a machine running Debian. It's more than just having an ISP account and working email (not commonplace in 2003). It's working alongside the people - all the people. It was my first real exposure to the toxicity of some parts of many scientific and technical arenas. Where was the diversity? OK, maybe it was just early days and the other barriers (like an account with an ISP) were prohibitive for many parts of the world outside Europe & USA in 2003, so there were few people from other countries but the software world was massively dominated by the white Caucasian male. I'd been insulated by my degree course, and to a large extent by my university which also had courses which already had much more diverse intakes - optics and pharmacy, business and human resources. Relocating from the insular world of a little town in Wales to Birmingham was also key. Maybe things would improve as the technical barriers to internet connectivity were lowered.

Sadly, no. The echo chamber of white Caucasian input has become more and more diluted as other countries have built the infrastructure to get the populace online. Debian has helped in this area, principally via DebConf. Yet only the ethnicity seemed to change, not the diversity. Recently, more is being done to at least make Debian more welcoming to those who are brave enough to increase the mix. Progress is much slower than the gains seen in the ethnicity mix, probably because that was a benefit of a technological change, not a societal change.

The attitudes so prevalent in the late 20th century are becoming less prevalent amongst, and increasingly abhorrent to, the next generation of potential community members. Diversity must come or the pool of contributors will shrink to nil. Community members who cling to these attitudes are already dinosaurs and increasingly unwelcome. This is a necessary step to retain access to new contributors as existing contributors age. To be able to increase the number of contributors, the community cannot afford to be dragged backwards by anyone, no matter how important or (previously) respected.

Debian, or even free software overall, cannot change all the problems with diversity in STEM but we must not perpetuate the problems either. Those people involved in free software need to be open to change, to input from all portions of society and welcoming. Puerile jokes and disrespectful attitudes must be a thing of the past. The technical contributions do not excuse behaviours that act to prevent new people joining the community. Debian is getting older, the community and the people. The presence of spouses at Debian social events does not fix the problem of the lack of diversity at Debian technical events. As contributors age, Debian must welcome new, younger, people to continue the work. All the technical contributions from the people during the 20th century will not sustain Debian in the 21st century. Bit rot affects us all. If the people who provided those contributions are not encouraging a more diverse mix to sustain free software into the future then all their contributions will be for nought and free software will die.

So it comes to the FSF and RMS. I did hear Richard speak at an event in Bristol many years ago. I haven't personally witnessed the behavioural patterns that have been described by others but my memories of that event only add to the reality of those accounts. No attempts to be inclusive, jokes that focused on division and perpetuating the white male echo chamber.

I'm not perfect, I struggle with some of this at times. Personally, I find the FSFE and Red Hat statements much more in line with my feelings on the matter than the open letter which is the basis of the GR. I deplore the preliminary FSF statement on governance as closed-minded, opaque and archaic. It only adds to my concerns that the FSF is not fit for the 21st century. The open letter has the advantage that it is a common text which has the backing of many in the community, individuals and groups, who are fit for purpose and whom I have respected for a long time.

Free software must be open to contributions from all who are technically capable of doing the technical work required. Free software must equally require respect for all contributors and technical excellence is not an excuse for disrespect. Diversity is the life blood of all social groups and without social cohesion, technical contributions alone do not support a community. People can change and apologies are welcome when accompanied by modified behaviour.

The issues causing a lack of diversity in Debian are complex and mostly reflective of a wider problem with STEM. Debian can only survive by working to change those parts of the wider problem which come within our influence. Influence is key here, this is a soft issue, replete with unreliable emotions, unhelpful polemic and complexity. Reputations are hard won and easily blemished. The problems are all about how Debian looks to those who are thinking about where to focus in the years to come.

It looks like the FSFE should be the ones to take the baton from the FSF - unless the FSF can adopt a truly inclusive and open governance.

My problem is not with RMS himself, what he has or has not done, which apologies are deemed sincere and whether behaviour has changed. He is one man and his contributions can be respected even as his behaviour is criticised. My problem is with the FSF for behaving in a closed, opaque and divisive manner and then making a governance statement that makes things worse, whilst purporting to be transparent. Institutions lay the foundations for the future of the community and must be expected to hold individuals to account. Free and open have been contentious concepts for the FSF, with all the arguments about Open Source which is not Free Software. It is clear that the FSF do understand the implications of freedom and openness. It is absurd to then adopt a closed and archaic governance. A valid governance model for the FSF would never have allowed RMS back onto the board, instead the FSF should be the primary institution to hold him, and others like him, to account for their actions. The FSF needs to be front and centre in promoting diversity and openness. The FSF could learn from the FSFE.

The calls for the FSF to adopt a more diverse, inclusive, board membership are not new. I can only echo the Red Hat statement:

in order to regain the confidence of the broader free software community, the FSF should make fundamental and lasting changes to its governance.

...

[There is] no reason to believe that the most recent FSF board statement signals any meaningful commitment to positive change.

And the FSFE statement:

The goal of the software freedom movement is to empower all people to control technology and thereby create a better society for everyone. Free Software is meant to serve everyone regardless of their age, ability or disability, gender identity, sex, ethnicity, nationality, religion or sexual orientation. This requires an inclusive and diverse environment that welcomes all contributors equally.

The FSF has not demonstrated the behaviour I expect from a free software institution and I cannot respect an institution which proclaims a mantra of freedom and openness that is not reflected in the governance of that institution.

The preliminary statement by the FSF board is abhorrent. The FSF must now take up the offers from those institutions within the community who retain the respect of that community. I'm only one voice, but I would implore the FSF to make substantive, positive and permanent change to the governance, practices and future of the FSF or face irrelevance.