Richard Stallman in Guayaquil

published Dec 07, 2006, last modified Jul 20, 2020

Yesterday at 18:30, I had a first-hand opportunity to see Richard Stallman live.

He came to Guayaquil, Ecuador for the first time ever to give a series of talks on Free Software. The first talk was on Free Software and the ethics and values of the movement. The second talk, due today in the morning, was about the dangers of patents in the field of software.

Laughs and smiles

I did not hear a single thing that I didn't know already. So, what was so special about the talk? In two words: the speaker.

Richard is a candid speaker. He talks very well in Spanish, may I say, albeit with a bit of an accent. He jokes -- and the audience feels the pun and laughs. He speaks to the point, not fast but rather slow and with judicious pauses, so everyone can follow him.

Listening to Richard giving a speech is something everyone intending to give speeches should do -- the down-to-earth quality of his interaction with the audience is definitely to be copied by any serious public speaker.

The obvious, spoken out loud

Richard spends a lot of time asserting obviousnesses. This is a good thing. Let me explain in depth.

Normally, a speaker stating the obvious wouldn't garner a single applause from the audience. This was not to be the case with Richard. Many of the obvious facts said by Richard are things that need to be spelled out urgently and more frequently, in a world vitiated by perverse confusion of basic concepts. Hearing someone say them is a nice refresher.

Most of these obvious assertions are basic ethical values. It's good to be good to your neighbor. It's good to share. Mind you, you should not forced to do so, but it's a generally good ethical value. Friendship is good. Freedom is good. Control of your life: good. Relinquishing control of your life to a third party: bad.

These need to be said out loud. A lot of third parties are interested in confusing these basic truths. I don't exactly subscribe to the theory of big business and conspiracy theories, but it's plain to see that big interests are working for themselves only, and poisoning everyone else in the process (intentionally or unintentionally, I don't care).

It's no surprise people got their basic ethic values completely messed up, so it's a big refresher to hear someone express the simple things in plain words.

Plain words. Richard also has a knack for explaining deeply complex issues in short words instead of convoluted analogies. The connection between the ethical platform Richard talked about and the software industry was flawless. Of course, politics was involved from the start. You'd think a speaker from the software world shy away from talking politics, but you'd be wrong with Richard: he talks politics and he makes a lot of sense.

As a side effect of saying obvious things and metaphorically connecting them very well, it is almost absolutely impossible to disagree with Richard in political terms. It's an ethically challenging talk: at the end of the talk, you need to agree with him, or risk a major conflict of values for yourself. The only possible way you could disagree with Richard is if you had a vested interest against the values he professes.

The talk and the questions: highlights

He congratulated Ecuador for having elected a president against the FTA (Tratado de libre comercio). During his talk, he briefly touched the subject, saying that FTAs are usually instruments of non-freedom. He's right: despite the name, Ecuador's FTA was about everything but free trade. Let me repeat myself: it's not about free trade at all.

I had to intervene at the end of the talk and express to Richard one sad fact of Ecuador: we've got software patents and DMCA-like provisions in our laws. I forgot to say that we also have all sorts of provisions against sharing software, music and other works of art (yes, even noncommercially). Richard said he was saddened by this fact, but expressed the possibility of nullifying these laws during the recently elected president's term.

One (I'll call him misinformed) member of the standing audience (because he couldn't find seating, I assume) expressed disagreement over Richard's views. He said, roughly, what about inventive and creative endeavors that need large amounts of money?. Richard answered: like which ones?. He said like penicillin and other medicines. I couldn't help but laugh, knowing that penicillin was an accident, which Richard promptly stated out loud, laughing again. He immediately buried his question by saying no, you're wrong, you've got all sorts of wrong assumptions that lead you to ask this question. You had to be there to feel the potency of Richard's argument against the conventional proprietarianism view.

A friend of mine asked Richard to express his point of view on the fact that, on his university (the place of the talk), only proprietary tools get taught to software engineering students. Richard said Then it'd be better not to teach any tools at all!. That brought out an explosive outburst of laughter and a very long round of continued applause (I counted: one minute).

In summary

Great talk. I certainly hope Richard comes again to our country.