Spiritual software

Lviv Latin Cathedral, Lviv, Ukraine. Photo by John-Mark Kuznietsov.

Most people consider software some soulless blips and bleeps, something that you grind out in dark caverns to churn some bureaucracy, make the wheels of business turn the ponderous globe. And it’s true, a lot of software makes money, pays bills, buys you Prada and Tesla and nice things. And there is also software that comes from love. How can the two be the same?

Recently at SeaGL 2015, I heard Richard Stallman speak for the first time. I had given up on a lot of software idealism, because it seemed to not matter; it wouldn’t help me with grad school research, it wouldn’t help me start a startup, it didn’t seem like it would ever generate a lot of wealth. In all my years at MIT, in the same buildings where RMS and Free Software was headquartered, I had never encountered him or sought him out. Condescending beardy Unix elder wandering the halls of CSAIL, ranting about software freedom, splitting hairs over ideological debates. I’d heard the folklore, hell, I’d even spread the folklore. How he wanted an optimizing portable compiler for C that worked across all the Unixes, and he just fucking wrote one. Same for a debugger. And a text editor, which for reasons both mysterious and obvious, is the linchpin of the GNU religion.

The talk was at an unassuming sports bar in Capitol Hill, near Seattle Central where most of the conference was held. It was standing room only. Suspend disbelief when I say it’s possible to feel strangely excited to hear about software freedom, when you already know the intellectual content of everything that will be said.

I was impressed by his talk not because it was smooth, or unveiled great technology. He had said this stuff thousands of times. It was incredibly not-sexy, not sexy in the way that audiences of Apple keynote addresses are used to. not-sexy would be its lisp name if it were a function. It was incredibly sexy in the way that it held amazing emotional congruency. He said things for the thousandth time, and still believed it, and wanted you to understand why it was important to him.

We learn from the teachings of Tony Robbins that political candidates can win if they are visually pleasing (aka they look hot), auditorally pleasing (aka they sound hot), or kinesthetically pleasing (aka they feel hot). All of these actually mean that they make you, the political consumer, feel hot about the candidates. It makes you like them, and most people vote for people they like, even if they come up with intellectual reasons based on the issues. Being kinesthetically pleasing could mean two things: either that candidate moves in a compelling way, or is emotionally congruent. Someone who is emotionally congruent means what they say and says what they mean, 100 percent, like Bernie Sanders or Ross Perot or Horace hearing a who.


So I began to ask myself, why are decisions difficult? Why do millenial snake people experience such angst in choosing which software company to work for, and change jobs every few years? Probably the paradox of choice: with so many options, there is fear of making the wrong choice, fear of missing out on the next big thing. And I, for one, don’t want to live in a world where someone else makes the world a better place better than I do. A bigger part is that we are searching for companies, or rather, their software, that has deep ideals.

How can we examine the effect of deep ideals in a long, drawn-out metaphor. When the economic weather is good, and there is plenty of rain, most valleys and low spots and landscape indentations will hold water. It will appear to be a lake, a center of life and wealth and prosperity. People will come drink from it, build their houses on it, tow their boats to it and sail on top of it. Maybe the lake is even deep, or is fed from a sustainable source like a mountain stream or a glacier, so it becomes vast and famous, a so-called Great Lake or a Caspian Sea. These are industries, and water is economic value, and the rain that sustains it is money.

When people discover or develop industries, they hope it will be sustainable, a stable lake that will last despite fluctuations in the rainfall. What they really want is the ocean, the biggest lake in the world, the immense bath that represents all value. But oceans are far away, and most people want to stay close to home, and so they are willing to settle for a proxy. A business may not represent deep, everlasting value, but it could be deep enough; it could be connected via some tributary or distribution channel to true value.

People will force a lake to exist sometimes, for tourism or industry or fishing or decoration. The fake lake could be so popular that it attracts development, it attracts other fakers to come make the lake even bigger. Then more people come, more houses and boats and tourism, and pretty soon, people kinda forget that it is not a real lake but they get nervous anyway because it is taking over a bunch of land that was not meant to be a lake. And the lake fakers are getting kinda intense and hysterical. At some point, expanding the lake is not ecological. A dam bursts, or it drains away, or there is a drought and everyone realizes there was no real source of water replenishing the lake. The lake dries up.

When you first work for a big software company, you are learning a bunch of new stuff. Any job is a good job. You’ve found your first lake! You don’t even care that the company is making technology that slaps puppies, or that you have to descend deep into some mines with cubicles and fluorescent lights to work. It pays a bunch of money, and after all, those puppies were probably asking for it. And look, there is a snack room with some free sparkling water and some canaries that will fall over from RSI. After a year or so, you learn how everything works. Your boss tells you just to fix bugs. You are maintaining technology, not creating it. Everyone tells you you should be happy, because you have a stable job. But you become strangely listless and dissatisfied.

At this point, you can do one of several things to satisfy this urge. You can switch to a newer, smaller team, one working on technology where you can learn and grow in your career, or you can leave the company for a different company, probably a smaller, newer one, maybe even those upstarts, and write new software. You have discovered the bottom of your lake. It’s still deep (enough). Maybe it will never run out of water. But it’s finite, and you know its limits. It’s like when Truman climbs the stairs and discovers the painted dome that is his sky, or when you find out Santa Claus isn’t real, or that your religion is actually a cult and is less than 500 years old. These things can still be useful, and people can choose to live there. But if you leave, you might be looking for deeper ideals, a deeper lake. If you are extremely idealistic, or fanatical, or taken by madness, you may keep looking until you find the ocean.

But it is hard living on the ocean of deep values. Sure, RMS can live on a raft and commune with seagulls, but can you? There is clearly tons of water around for the taking, but increasingly difficult or pointless to gather it up and draw boundaries. It’s just all ocean, and oceans don’t bother comparing sizes and measuring like lakes do. The Free Software Foundation, Electronic Freedom Foundation, Linux Foundation, Mozilla, any of these foundations live on this ocean. Most people think they’re crazy, but you know, necessary for science and stuff, monitoring shit and making standards and thinking on a planetary scale. So these corporations that have their own lakes, they pass around a hat and kick in a few million to keep McMurdo Station running on the Antarctica of software development.

The ocean is effectively bottomless, and effectively immune to changes in economic rainfall, and it grapples with the technological issues that ultimately all software has to grapple with, just not as dressed up in marketing. It is the grappling.

So when you ask a religious technology founder a question, they answer fairly quickly, and they are self-consistent. They tend not to move from job to job very frequently. They are backed by deep ideals, and you cannot flood them with money because they live on the flood. And they write spiritual software.