Working together for free software: Our interview with Protesilaos Stavrou
Protesilaos Stavrou, who goes by "Prot," is a GNU Emacs contributor, philosopher and life coach, and winner of various awards, including the 2021 Free Software Award for Outstanding New Free Software Contributor. Below are Prot's responses to questions posed by Free Software Foundation (FSF) campaigns manager Greg Farough as part of our series Working Together for Free Software.
FSF: What are your motivations for working on GNU Emacs (or any of your other free software projects)?
Prot: My motivations for working on GNU Emacs are practical and ideological.
In terms of practicality, GNU Emacs provides the missing layer of interactivity on top of Unix-y tools. We have a uniform, text-centric interface to the computer, which we can configure and/or extend in a consistent way with the GNU Emacs Lisp programming language. My GNU Emacs setup gives me the best integrated computing environment I have ever had, because I can draw linkages between individual interfaces while reusing code/patterns already established for the rest of GNU Emacs. For instance, a function to indent the selected text in Vim does not automatically become available for text controlled by Tmux. Whereas in GNU Emacs editing and viewing text inside windows are part of a continuum. The consistency of the gestalt form provided by GNU Emacs is not available to the user when they piece together a system out of disparate Unix-y tools.
On the ideological front, GNU Emacs embodies the virtues of software freedom and is, in my opinion, the epitome of a GNU user-facing application. GNU Emacs works in such a way as to make the software freedoms poignant and relatable. It does not simply give us rights, but empowers us to exercise them. For example, we can read the documentation of some function and follow a link in the context straight to the source code. Changes made to the code become readily available, making it easy for the user to both modify the source and better understand the freedom bestowed upon them to make and distribute such modifications. These technicalities depend on the strong documentation culture of the GNU Emacs community, showing us the connection between technical requirements and interpersonal values. I learned to program in GNU Emacs Lisp by using its self-documenting facilities and immediate feedback loop of GNU Emacs Lisp evaluation. As such, supporting GNU Emacs is a way of demonstrating that software freedom is not confined to legal arrangements, as it extends to areas of usability. I want all my contributions to be as accessible as possible within their given scope.
FSF: Why is community and sharing so important?
Prot: The community empowers the individual. Without a community, without prior works in general, every person is forced to consider and implement everything ab initio.
There is no such thing as an individual in a vacuum. We experience individuality against the backdrop of a social-cultural milieu that precedes and outlasts us. Our in vivo daily life depends on contributions by others, from the house we live in, to the presence of infrastructure in our vicinity, to a functioning economy, to the quality of the air we breathe, to the availability of technological artifacts, to the shared corpus of knowledge we have access to, and so on.
As an example, I developed an integrated computing environment with GNU Emacs because GNU Emacs was already there thanks to the efforts of countless unsung heroes. I would have done nothing on my own.
Free software projects admit the fact that individuality and community are two facets of an otherwise singular phenomenon. This is not mere theorizing though, as such recognition changes our outlook. Once we realize that our individuality unfolds within the context of communities, we understand the importance of contributing back to the commons as a way of sustaining them while also expanding the collective potential.
FSF: Why should everyone be using free software?
Prot: To use free software is a way to understand why the community matters and why we are collectively better off when we cooperate. Software freedom provides insight into the merits of sharing and caring. "Freedom" no longer is an abstraction: we witness it in action. Every individual can use high-quality tools, such as GNU Emacs, for free and in freedom, getting a clear idea of what is possible once we work together. We may then apply those principles to our quotidian life, to be more considerate in our exchanges with others, to improve the prevailing conditions in our immediate environment, and ultimately enact political reforms that tend to the greater good.
Working together for free software
This article was submitted as part of the Free Software Foundation's Working Together series. Also, see Prot's profile at https://www.fsf.org/working-together/profiles/prot.