You are what you run
You are what you eat is a popular slogan in many parts of the world used by groups encouraging people to change their eating practices. It is used to promote vegetarianism, to discourage “junk food,” to campaign against foods containing genetically modified ingredients, and more.
These campaigns do not all agree with each other. The slogan common between them is an attempt at motivating us to more closely examine what it is we are putting in our bodies. No food movement argues everyone needs to be, or should endeavor to become, a Michelin star chef. Everyone acknowledges that people choose to spend different amounts of time and energy learning about preparing and eating food.
But a certain very basic level of food literacy is widespread. We take many of the basics for granted. Even if you do not have advanced culinary skills, you know that hamburgers do not grow on trees (yet), that food in general is prepared by taking ingredients from different places and combining them, often with heat, and that if ingredients are not stored or handled in certain ways, some of them can make you sick.
You know that with the same or similar ingredients, you can prepare a meal at home, or you can have the meal prepared for you at a restaurant. You know that if you do not like the way it is prepared at a restaurant, you can prepare a different version at home. You know that even at a restaurant, if your food is not salty enough, you can add more salt yourself. You know that preparing a single meal can involve several people working together. You know that, while a meal is presented on a very specific plate in one restaurant, the same meal can be presented elsewhere on a different plate while still tasting the same and having the same nutritional value.
Because every healthy human has to eat, and eat every day, every human has to know something about food in order to pursue basic happiness. Food-focused movements start from these basics and ask people to learn more, in order to convince them to change habits and make different choices.
When it comes to advocating free software, we often find ourselves stuck on the basics. Try re-reading the above “you know that” statements, substituting software for meals. Within the sizable portion of humanity now using or interacting with computers on a daily basis, how many people know those basics? How many people know that they could replace the operating system (meal) on an iPad or a Microsoft Surface tablet (plates), if those devices were not arbitrarily locked down? How many people know that their “smart” thermostat is running computer programs written by programmers (chefs) who may have failed to follow basic code security (sanitation) practices? How many people know that when they visit a Web site, their computer is given programs to execute locally behind the scenes, and that these programs may be doing all kinds of things they do not want? How many people know what source code is, or that programs are usually transformed from human-readable into machine-only formats?
More and more often at the FSF, we are finding our advocacy efforts running into challenges related to a widespread lack of fundamental computer literacy. This is not because people lack the ability to understand, or that they are doing something wrong. It is just a fact that we need to address. It is difficult, because others are very happy with the current state of affairs. There are billions of dollars from proprietary software and service operators pouring into marketing materials along the lines of, “we know you don't want to have to care about how your computer works, you just want it to work.”
Ironically, when computers are delivered in new formats – cars, flat, round, handheld, goggles, whatever – they are often accompanied by advertising campaigns by these same companies portraying them as something so radically new that we should of course expect them to come with new rules. This is how people who have been installing whatever software they want on their laptops for years initially accept the idea that Apple can tell them they cannot install software on their iPad from anyone but Apple, or that if they want to switch to Android they have to buy a new phone instead of just flashing their current iPhone.
As user freedom advocates, we should get more involved in doing and encouraging basic computer literacy education. This does not mean asking people to write their own software, or to concern themselves deeply with complex software systems. As with food when we eat out, or when we buy prepared meals or produce at the grocery store, we trust others to do all or some of the work and detailed understanding for us – we just have general knowledge about the processes they are using, and that general knowledge empowers us to protect ourselves.
A little bit of knowledge goes a long way toward putting people in the position to make much better, more ethical choices. Just knowing the basics will not make people automatically support free software. But knowing a little more will make it much easier for them to give it a fair hearing. If we are successful, we could start advocacy campaigns with the slogan, “You are what you run.”