Richard Stallman on Steve Jobs’ death: respectful, well-written, concise


On October 6, 2011, one day after Steve Jobs died, Richard Stallman (rms) posted his reaction to Jobs’ death:

Steve Jobs, the pioneer of the computer as a jail made cool, designed to sever fools from their freedom, has died.

As Chicago Mayor Harold Washington said of the corrupt former Mayor Daley, “I’m not glad he’s dead, but I’m glad he’s gone.” Nobody deserves to have to die – not Jobs, not Mr. Bill, not even people guilty of bigger evils than theirs. But we all deserve the end of Jobs’ malign influence on people’s computing.

Unfortunately, that influence continues despite his absence. We can only hope his successors, as they attempt to carry on his legacy, will be less effective.Richard Stallman, October 6, 2011
an update on the Washington quote and more on Stallman’s views of Jobs

My thoughts

I find Stallman’s reaction to be very well written: clear, respectful, concise, but most importantly it has its priorities straight:

  • Nobody deserves to have to die. No matter what people do, the dead cannot learn and become better people. Stallman’s words brought to my mind the death penalty, not because it applies here (Jobs died as a result of his pancreatic cancer) but because America has many states which do kill “people guilty of bigger evils than theirs” and Stallman’s phrasing somehow reminded me of recent state-sponsored murders (a topic which strikes me as far more important than Jobs’ death).
  • Everyone deserves software freedom. Whether Apple was building proprietary derivatives from FLOSS, supporting patent pools that threaten FLOSS users (Apple contributes patents to MPEG-LA which spreads FUD about Theora and VP8, Apple wants to patent spyware), trying to dissuade people from controlling their own computers (see also FUD), or setting up services aimed at locking users in (iTunes service has many titles with DRM): Jobs’ life work was proprietary computing. A less effective proprietor means a chance that more users will enjoy software freedom.

I feel compelled to consider death as Peter Tosh said: (but Tosh was talking about matters far more important than consumer electronics)

Let the dead bury the dead now
And who is to be fed, be fed
I ain’t got no time to waste on you, no, no
I am a livin’ man, I’ve got work to do, right nowPeter Tosh, “Burial”

I think it’s unfortunate Jobs died, but the US kills a lot of people who lived lives filled with struggle. We don’t know their names, we are encouraged by corporate media to think of them as collateral damage and not-quite-people. Jobs’ life was too short but I think it’s safe to assume he wanted for nothing and got as much treatment for his cancer as anyone can.

Reactions to rms’ post

Of all the disagreements with rms’ post I’ve read, none were written well. The best of the lot is Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols’ criticism, to which this post is mostly a response.

Regarding Vaughan-Nichols’ grandmother’s aphorism If you don’t have anything good to say, then don’t say anything at all.: Apparently she was a fan of censorship (though her rule seems to apply only selectively as Vaughan-Nichols apparently feels quite free to violate the rule by criticizing rms). I am not a fan of censorship. One of the followups to Vaughan-Nichols’ article mentions Voltaire’s quote which is far better:

To the living we owe respect, but to the dead we owe only the truth.

It’s more important to put Jobs’ life work in its proper place; Stallman did that far better and more concisely than anyone else I’ve seen.

Vaughan-Nichols says I’m glad to say that the vast majority of open-source developers don’t agree with Stallman’s myopic views: Stallman was never and is not now an open-source developer. His movement is the free software movement which is older, philosophically different, and at heart a social movement. Stallman talks about this distinction at every talk he gives as well as writing about it in multiple essays. Vaughan-Nichols isn’t alone in trying to co-opt Stallman into the open source movement but no matter how many people do it, it’s still wrong.

Vaughan-Nichols favorably compares Jobs to Walt Disney and Henry Ford: Disney is widely known for proprietary derivatives of works in the public domain. The Disney corporation is known for following suit by backing copyright extension efforts to disallow the public from doing to Disney’s movies what Disney did with the Brothers Grimm stories. Apple is currently switching compilers from GCC (licensed under the GNU GPL) to LLVM (licensed under a permissive FLOSS license). If Bradley Kuhn of “Free as in Freedom” is correct—Apple will be making their own proprietary LLVM derivative when that compiler gets to a point where it’s more useful (local copy). Apple’s entire compiler switch to LLVM is part of a larger strategy to get away from GPL’d programs. This strategy probably has roots in Apple’s GPL hatred after NeXT got caught committing copyright infringement illicitly distributing their GCC derivative years ago. Apple would later make copyright infringement against free software a habit with their app store (1, 2).

I don’t recall what Jobs did that would make him comparable to Henry Ford. The article Vaughan-Nichols links to compares Jobs and Disney. One of those points is “Disney knew about land grabs” well so did Ford—Fordlândia—Ford’s billion-dollar Brazilian rubber plantation where he could more efficiently exploit the natives through what Greg Grandin described as a combination of intense paternalism and intense surveillance. Intense surveillance is one thing that would fit Apple as proprietary software gives any proprietor an opportunity to closely track what their users do. But Ford was a nastier man than people commonly credit: he mistreated his workers and he sympathized with nazis, nazi sympathizing is something I don’t associate with Jobs. As for Ford’s chief invention, the assembly line, I can’t imagine how Jobs’ computers or his animation company are an apt comparison. The assembly-line was far more culture-changing than anything Jobs’ companies ever made.

Lots of people are poor at critical thought when they’re feeling sad. It should be an adults responsibility to see things as they really are and keep perspective, not maintain an atmosphere where people are too afraid to speak freely (like how Apple treats app store users by keeping so many things out of that store). The limits Apple and proprietary software impose will adversely affect people far longer than any malaise brought on by Jobs’ death. As people get some more time to let this pass they’ll be more willing to part with their indignation. In so doing perhaps they’ll re-read Stallman’s words and come to see how reasonable, well-worded, and appropriately respectful Stallman’s assessment was while simultaneously keeping his eye on the prize: all users deserve software freedom.

Related Links

See labor issues at Apple and Apple’s suppliers.

2 thoughts on “Richard Stallman on Steve Jobs’ death: respectful, well-written, concise

  1. When I went onto his site the first thing I though was this just reeks of “I’m right, you’re wrong, if you don’t think like me just shut it”. It just seems so arrogant, from the ‘Don’t use Facebook (It’s evil bla bla bla)’, the massive amounts of really unfounded propaganda, and the whole crappiness of the design of the site which just seems like he can’t be bothered.

    This isn’t a personal attack on him, and if he reads it don’t take it personally because I’m not saying you are like that, it’s just my impression from the info, and I understand that not all people will agree with me or might interpret it that way, but he just doesn’t sound like the sort of person I’d like to be friends with!

    • You don’t give any reason for anyone to understand how you arrived at your conclusion. You don’t quote anything Stallman actually says anywhere on his site.

      Why is it objectionable to not think like you?

      I’d like to better understand your view but without substance or backing of any kind, I’m left with no reason to believe your words are anything but an unjustified personal attack on him.

      You can understand how accusing someone of being arrogant and uncompromising and then claiming you aren’t doing that makes you appear irrational. What you call his “unfounded propaganda” so often turns out to be true, people have come to see him as well ahead of his time and cite his essays later on pointing out how he got there early. You’re using the term “propaganda” as a shorthand to imply something bad but if you take the time to read what he writes I think you’ll be hard-pressed to successfully argue against him.

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