Home > Freedom, GNU/Linux > Free Software at the Farmer’s Market

Free Software at the Farmer’s Market

This weekend I’ve made trips to two events that really got me thinking about who we should promote free software to. The first stop was the Durham Farmer’s Market, and the second was a benefit concert for a cooperative preschool in Chapel Hill. I have been thinking for a long time about the “organic food crowd,” particularly because I’m a biology graduate student, and most of my fellow graduate students buy organic food or shop at farmer’s markets. They seem to have values in common with me, yet few of them use free operating systems. A lot of my fellow graduate students know about certain free software, like Firefox, R and Python. However, mostly they use Window$ or McIntyre operating systems.

I really think somebody needs to get the idea of free operating systems to people at the Durham Farmer’s Market, Whole Foods and events like the concert I just attended. Obviously that could be me, and I could just go and talk to the vendors at the farmer’s market. That would be easy. There are a few problems, chief among them the assumptions I’m making. I automatically assume that these people who I seem to have a lot in common with are very different from me. I assume that they are making their decisions from a fashion-inspired reflex. I think I feel this way because I have come to my own values my own way, and not because of fashion. However, I know my conclusion is not justified. I don’t actually have good data about the “organic food people,” and probably at least ten percent of them do indeed use free software. Probably more than ninety percent of them at least know about Firefox, even if they don’t know what’s actually good about “open source.” I do know that pretty often I see cars like the one I saw driving back from Chapel Hill: bumper stickers saying “When words fail, music sings,” alongside an Apple sticker.

The other problem is just what I would say to them? Would I recommend a particular distro? Would I recommend that they read GNU Philosophy? Would I recommend that they learn about the issues on Wikipedia? These were all helpful things for me. However, it’s best to get across the ethical essence of the idea by simply giving people a persuasive argument. That almost always gets people’s attention, but you need to give them at least a step to get going. Another good first step is to recommend the film Revolution OS, but that’s starting to seem a bit dated. Perhaps it’s time for another documentary, like Patent Absurdity.

The third challenge is to remember is that promoting freedom is not a race to get the most users. People in the software press seem to always be concerned about numbers, about “desktop share,” and about “killer apps.” That’s really not the point. The point is to demonstrate that ethical motivation is enough to create a working operating system. In other words, whether the GNU/Linux operating system was created for freedom and fun, it was not created for money. Often the first thing people tell me when I give them my persuasive argument is “but programmers have to make money!” as if money were the only reason that anybody ever does anything. The point of free software (and Wikipedia) is to show skeptics that there are people who have different values.

Ultimately, I believe, that ethical motivation will prevail and one way or another, whether they know it or not, people will end up using ethics-promoting software. It doesn’t matter how many Windows users we “convert” or how many Mac users we tell the truth about much of the software they’re using. It doesn’t matter that we “conquer the world” or anything like that. What matters is that those of us who care about our freedom now do what we can to continue to improve our ability to live our lives without using ethics-compromising software. The more we can do that, the better demonstration we make to people who finally decide that they want to make the effort to preserve their freedoms. We will do our best, and others will see it and make their decision.

  1. AF
    January 17, 2012 at 05:55

    I’ve happily used and hacked on Linux, Emacs, Vim, Octave, Python, etc., for many years but while ethics and integrity in the pursuit of academic truth have always been on my mind, I never thought about my software tools in that way. So your linking of organic farmers’ commitment to food integrity to “ethical software” (a concept I’m still digesting) was very interesting!

    I’m only an interested consumer of the organic foods/natural farming/permaculture movement (including what Joel Salatin calls “beyond organic”), but were I in your shoes, I’d wonder how highly food integrity growers in the US ranked the ethical aspect of their product.

    Next, I’d wonder, why stop at ethical software. The hardware that runs most farmers’ computers, wireless motes, GPS devices, etc., is closed. Some might ask whether a commitment to “ethical software” would require them to embrace “ethical hardware”, i.e., trade in their Intel/nvidia/Tomtom devices for Arduino or Chumby. Where does the idea of ethical tools end?

    I’ll definitely continue thinking about this, and do give an update on your activities on this front.


  2. eric_bowen
    October 30, 2012 at 13:35

    I am super excited to have accidentally stumbled across this post. I’ve been using Linux since I was 13 (Redhat 5.3 I think, purchased on CD at BEST BUY of all places) and I’ve been a student/practitioner of sustainable agriculture since 2006. I can’t respond directly to whether we need to convert people from ethically questionable software, but I think ethically questionable software can help us get away from ethically questionable food. I’m working on bringing this online farmers market to Durham NC and spent a lot of time looking for open source software package, but didn’t find one.

    I have a post about how the #neweconomy could help move local food forward: http://wp.me/p1IVme-3P

    There’s a lot to be said about these topics and I’d love to have some conversations about it.


    • October 31, 2012 at 11:13

      Hi Eric,

      The commonality that I’ve found between the food movement and the free software movement basically boils down to control of production, or rather freedom from control of production. If your goal is to feed yourself well and enjoy it, why get your food from people with entirely different goals (e.g. profits and war)? If your goal is to enable communication and learn then why buy software from people with entirely different motivation (e.g. profits and war)?

      The problem I’ve encountered is that often the “Linux people” I know are concerned with those questionable goals, i.e. they are just using it as a cheap tool to enable their own profit-making. I don’t think most people I’ve encountered at the Farmer’s Market have that perspective on food: they’re doing it because they love food, farming and they have values and opinions about how people eat in this country. The other problem is that if someone is too wrapped in free software idealism, they may dismiss someone who has the same values manifested differently, for example a Mac user who shops at a farmer’s market. In other words, those people already get the idea behind free software and even if they don’t all choose to use it, we still have something in common.

      I would love to talk to you more about this.


  1. October 25, 2011 at 12:18
  2. February 14, 2012 at 11:09
  3. March 29, 2012 at 09:49

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