Follow Slashdot blog updates by subscribing to our blog RSS feed

 



Forgot your password?
typodupeerror
GNU is Not Unix GNOME GUI KDE

The Battle Between Purists and Pragmatists 213

Posted by kdawson
from the driving-out-in-all-directions dept.
Glyn Moody has a thoughtful piece taking a long look at the never-ending battle between pragmatists and purists in free and open software. "While debates rage around whether Mono is good or bad for free software, and about 'fauxpen source' and 'Faux FLOSS Fundamentalists,' people are overlooking the fact that these are just the latest in a series of such arguments about whether the end justifies the means. There was the same discussion when KDE was launched using the Qt toolkit, which was proprietary at the time, and when GNOME was set up as a completely free alternative. But could it be that this battle between the 'purists' and the 'pragmatists' is actually good for free software — a sign that people care passionately about this stuff — and a major reason for its success?"
This discussion has been archived. No new comments can be posted.

The Battle Between Purists and Pragmatists

Comments Filter:
  • All I know... (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday July 24, 2009 @05:31PM (#28813175)
    All I know is that my gut says maybe.
  • Re:All I know... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by sconeu (64226) on Friday July 24, 2009 @05:34PM (#28813245) Homepage Journal

    Bloody Neutral.

    What makes a man turn neutral? Lust for gold? Power? Or were you just born with a heart full of neutrality?

  • by Roxton (73137) <roxton@gm a i l . com> on Friday July 24, 2009 @05:39PM (#28813323) Homepage Journal

    Purists are just pragmatists who believe that moral imperatives are an adequate tool for achieving effective collective bargaining.

    When the bargain fails to materialize, the purists blame a defective culture. And the pragmatists just roll their eyes.

  • by JohnFluxx (413620) on Friday July 24, 2009 @05:41PM (#28813353)

    The purist seeks to change the world to fit him, whereas the pragmatist changes himself to fit the world.

    Ergo all progress relies on the purists. :-)

  • Re:Success? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Estragib (945821) <`estragib' `at' `gmail.com'> on Friday July 24, 2009 @05:49PM (#28813465)

    My definition: Achieving what you think is right.

    Popular definition: Being rewarded by the majority.

    I like mine better.

  • by DaleGlass (1068434) on Friday July 24, 2009 @05:49PM (#28813469) Homepage

    It can backfire.

    For instance, take the whole mess with BitKeeper: The pragmatic option was to use a product with really obnoxious licensing terms, because it was good and worked at the time. Then one day Larry McVoy got really annoyed with Andrew Tridgell, and decided to refuse to even sell licenses to people associated with the OSDL, including Linus Torvalds.

    That's the problem, while it works everything seems fine, but when the rug is suddenly pulled from under you, it suddenly creates a lot of complications that get in the way of getting useful things done. I think there's quite a lot of value in making sure that you'll be able to use tomorrow something you're using today.

  • by Statecraftsman (718862) * on Friday July 24, 2009 @05:50PM (#28813477) Homepage
    Discussion is helpful to educate and to flesh out and refine arguments but frankly it doesn't accomplish as much as taking action. For example, for Free Software(and for user freedom) to get where it is today has required: Getting the word out. Providing free software to people. Installing it for them in some cases. Educating them about cases where their freedom has been limited. Writing good software and releasing it under a free software license. Helping document and support free software.

    There are so many facets that everyone can find a way to help. If debate is your thing, cool. If you can write well, great. If you can code, awesome. If you can't do any of the above, you probably buy technology from time to time. Make sure free drivers are available or that it works with free software. Just do something. Freedom is unique in that one person can not have it without a significant number of others also being able to exercise theirs.
  • Good for both! (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Prien715 (251944) <agnosticpope AT gmail DOT com> on Friday July 24, 2009 @06:00PM (#28813585) Journal

    I think that pressure from Gnome and the fundamentalists helped make Qt change their license to the LGPL.

    On the other hand, Qt's innovation list have provided the Gnome project with a lot a good ideas for feature work.

    There's a give and take here...it's not so much a zero-sum battle as a mutually beneficial collaboration...without the parties believing they're cooperating;)

  • by Bruce Perens (3872) * <bruce@perens.com> on Friday July 24, 2009 @06:02PM (#28813621) Homepage Journal
    People who label themselves as "pragmatic" simply aren't willing or able to consider their own interests on a longer timeline. A lot of them tell me that they finally realized that RMS was right about something, but it took them years, including a bad experience that was their own fault, to realize.
  • by dkf (304284) <donal.k.fellows@manchester.ac.uk> on Friday July 24, 2009 @06:10PM (#28813715) Homepage

    For instance, take the whole mess with BitKeeper: The pragmatic option was to use a product with really obnoxious licensing terms, because it was good and worked at the time. Then one day Larry McVoy got really annoyed with Andrew Tridgell, and decided to refuse to even sell licenses to people associated with the OSDL, including Linus Torvalds.

    But it was pragmatists that fixed it. Indeed, purists would have kept Linux using a tool like CVS or SVN because going to a distributed versioning system would have let them to giving up their principles. It was the experience with BK that enabled the creation of git.

    I suppose that this just illustrates a deeper truth: the world needs a mix of both purists and pragmatists. It's called "creative tension".

  • by SexyKellyOsbourne (606860) on Friday July 24, 2009 @06:11PM (#28813723) Journal

    It's really a hierarchical system based on making software a commodity -- most of the technologies in the open source world began as fully proprietary, then moved into the pragmatic domain for practical use, then became implemented by purists when the ability to develop it for cheap by hobbyists existed.

    I could go into significant history of things such as UNIX, but for example, if it were not for Netscape, Firefox would not exist. Firefox would not exist in its current form if dogmatic people prevented the integration of Flash player into it. Eventually, a free and open source alternative will make a commodity of what is currently provided by Flash Player, but one able to run existing Action Script and what not. Then Firefox will finally be "pure."

    Meanwhile, true purists are likely still using links2 on Plan9, which has capabilities far more than what existed commercially 15 years ago, but are practically useless today.

    The bottom line is that with Open-Source Software, purists can only thrive because of the works of pragmatists, and the pragmatists can only thrive because of the works of proprietary systems.

  • False dichotomy (Score:5, Insightful)

    by orzetto (545509) on Friday July 24, 2009 @06:14PM (#28813763)

    There are periodically arguments of ideological integrity vs. pragmatism in all areas. I usually react by asking "which foot do you use to walk?" or "when you climb a mountain, to you look at the path to the summit or to your feet?". Both ideology and pragmatism are required. If you use only ideology, you will not get anything practical done; if you use only pragmatism, you get something done, but it may well be in the wrong direction.

  • by harlows_monkeys (106428) on Friday July 24, 2009 @06:18PM (#28813809) Homepage

    A few months ago, some usenet crackpot posted his latest mathematical research. Among the usual nonsense and ravings about a world-wide conspiracy of academic mathematicians, possibly under the control of aliens (the space kind), to suppress his work, there were some points of mathematical interest--some potentially neat patterns and relationships in how he was wrong.

    I spent a very enjoyable few weeks investigating these, using Mathematica to aid in this. I was able to find things using Mathematica that I would not have found otherwise--even using the best current free mathematical software, and those taught me a lot, both directly, and from the books I then consulted.

    The most pure purists, such as RMS, take the position that I should not have done that mathematical investigation, because I could not do it without using non-free software. I'm supposed to wait until I can do it with free software, and maybe contribute to developing said free software if I want to speed things up.

    If life were infinite, I would consider that. Life is not infinite, so I will go ahead and use the tools that let me get done the things I want to get done during this short life. I see no difference between, say, riding in a vehicle like a boat or plane where I cannot inspect and study the engine and using a piece of software where I cannot see the code. For the boat, all I care about is that it accomplishes the task I need--getting me safely to my destination. Same for software.

  • by DaleGlass (1068434) on Friday July 24, 2009 @06:21PM (#28813837) Homepage

    See, I see it differently.

    Linus tried the pragmatic way. It worked for a while. Then it blew up in his face.

    So he ended up having to do what the purist way would have required (writing a new SCM if none of the available ones were suitable), except that since events unfolded quite suddenly, there was no time for a smooth transition, and something had to be hacked up fast.

    Git is certainly interesting, but I doubt half the people who use it really understand how it works. Maybe if it was started in less a dire situation it could have been more user friendly.

  • Re:Good for both! (Score:3, Insightful)

    by ppc_digger (961188) on Friday July 24, 2009 @06:54PM (#28814155)

    I think that pressure from Gnome and the fundamentalists helped make Qt change their license to the LGPL.

    No, it didn't. The license was changed to LGPL because Trolltech's profits are pennies for Nokia and they figured they'd rather see more commercial development for Qt.

  • by dgatwood (11270) on Friday July 24, 2009 @06:56PM (#28814183) Homepage Journal

    The purist seeks to change the world to fit him, whereas the pragmatist changes himself to fit the world.

    Precisely.

    Ergo all progress relies on the purists. :-)

    No, you have it backwards. All true change depends on the pragmatist. While the purist is seeking a way to fix everything that's wrong (because it's all or nothing), the pragmatist is adapting himself/herself enough to actually solve as many problems as is practical, one at a time.

    As Nietzsche put it (I think), before you can change the world, you must first change yourself. As long as you're on the outside looking in, you cannot effectively cause change. All you can do is spew rhetoric. Only when you come to accept that you can't save the world can you begin to save individuals within it, and in so doing, actually make the world better.

  • by spiffmastercow (1001386) on Friday July 24, 2009 @07:00PM (#28814207)

    Pragmatists are just ungrateful. Without rms and his insistence on freedom, and the years of work on GNU, there would be no fame for Linux nor Linus (whom, to this day, is ungrateful and rude to the very provider of the tools and freedom that led to his project success).

    Once they have benefited from the purist efforts, why must pragmatists be so ungrateful and rude? Why must they bite the hand that fed? Why must they whine like a free-market-Republican when the adults counter their bullshit?

    I don't hear the pragmatists whining that often.. They're too busy getting shit done.

  • by NonSequor (230139) on Friday July 24, 2009 @07:01PM (#28814211) Journal

    RMS didn't invent the collaborative software culture. He's just the leader of a sect of it.

    My broad-brush observation is that a purist who manages to win over everyone is a hero and a purist who doesn't manage to win over everyone is just a dick.There are vastly more of them in the second category.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday July 24, 2009 @07:13PM (#28814317)

    Wise men learn more from fools than fools from the wise.

  • by Chris Burke (6130) on Friday July 24, 2009 @07:41PM (#28814567) Homepage

    For instance, take the whole mess with BitKeeper: The pragmatic option was to use a product with really obnoxious licensing terms, because it was good and worked at the time. Then one day Larry McVoy got really annoyed with Andrew Tridgell, and decided to refuse to even sell licenses to people associated with the OSDL, including Linus Torvalds.

    No, all that did is show that Linus Torvalds made an error in judgment that is common among the pragmatic "use the best tool for the job" crowd: Failure to consider the license as an aspect of the tool that affects its usefulness as much as the software itself.

    I personally consider myself to be solidly in the "pragmatist" camp, and I argued against using BitKeeper not because I thought Linux development should be "pure" and only use OSS, but because I saw the BitKeeper license as a ticking time bomb that made the tool unsuitable for its purpose. It made some sense if you only thought short term, but I think that's foolish for such a long-term project. Then the bomb blew up faster than I even imagined, and in hindsight we can see it was in fact not the best move.

    The problem with pragmatism, then, is that it involves reasoning about the future, trade-offs, risk evaluation, and so on and thus people can be and often are wrong about what constitutes the "pragmatic" choice. Identifying the "pure" choice is comparatively simple. "Is it free software or not?" Pick the free one and you did it right. You may choose to follow such a principle in part because you believe it leads to better practical outcomes too, but if it turns out not to be in some instance you were still "pure" which is what you were trying to be.

    So the "purists" were right in this case because the pure choice ended up being the practical choice, but it was quite possible for a pragmatist to arrive at the same conclusion.

  • by shentino (1139071) on Friday July 24, 2009 @07:43PM (#28814587)

    Linux just beat Hurd to the punch and wound up getting the first pick at programmers.

  • by Chris Burke (6130) on Friday July 24, 2009 @08:32PM (#28814959) Homepage

    No, purity is not pragmatism. Purity is a matter of principles, as in following a pre-conceived notion of what is "right". Pragmatism is not worrying about what is "right" and worrying about what is useful and practical based on the specific tradeoffs in question. You might believe that your principle will result in useful practical outcomes, but that's not the same thing. Being a "purist" means that you have a preconceived notion of what the correct choice is in all situations, and even if it ends up not being very useful in a particular situation, you still made the "right" choice according to your principles. That's not pragmatism.

    Purity does coincide with pragmatic outcomes frequently in the free software realm, though. It's absolutely true that user freedom improves the usefulness of software, and the lack of freedom inhibits it. There are quite a few pragmatists who don't consider licensing when they're trying to be pragmatic saying 'use whatever works', and I've been trying to help get them to see how the license affects what "works" for years. It is exactly because of the powerful practical results that software libre is, eventually, going to win.

    Yet it simply isn't the case that software libre is the most practical choice in every single situation that exists. The utility that freedom gives you is just one factor of the total utility of the software, and it is not necessarily enough (despite being big) to overcome any gap, nor is the burden of a non-free license necessarily enough to erase any lead. As soon as you assert that that they are, without needing to know anything at all other than that the choice is between open and closed source software because freedom trumps all then you've abandoned pragmatism. That's principles, not pragmatism.

    But hey, Freedom is a perfectly fine principle to be a purist about. And it does pay practical dividends. So I say rock on with your bad self to all the FLOSS purists out there. I'm just going to keep sitting here being pragmatic, deciding on a case by case basis, and trying to restrain from chuckling when someone tries to convince me that not distinguishing is a form of pragmatism.

  • by Runaway1956 (1322357) on Friday July 24, 2009 @08:37PM (#28814997) Homepage Journal

    I would disagree. The purist DOES try to change the world to fit his views, yes. The pragmatist doesn't just accept the world - he does what he can to improve the world, but doesn't worry himself to death over the things he can't change. Instead, he works with what he has.

    The guy who just goes along, to get along, and has few if any opinions on how things SHOULD be is just another conformist moron. That doesn't qualify him as a pragmatist at all.

    Bill Gates is a pragmatist. He takes what works and makes it work for him. He will move hell and earth, if and when he's able, but when hell doesn't budge, he walks around to the other side. The purist would sit down and cry that hell won't cooperate.

    Not that I like Gates, but we need to understand what the terms mean here.

    Few people qualify as either a purist, or a pragmatist. They haven't the imagination or the determination to qualify for either.

  • by NonSequor (230139) on Friday July 24, 2009 @09:56PM (#28815455) Journal

    RMS didn't invent the collaborative software culture. He's just the leader of a sect of it.

    He invented the tool that helped that culture survive today. He invented it, because the collaborative software culture existence was threatened.
    And he's the leader of the relevant sect of that culture.

    There was never a threat to the concept that people exchanging ideas freely could do interesting things with computers. It's a very compelling concept that creates a sense of community.

    Let's take a step back here and remind ourselves of the threat that started the crusade. RMS was using a printer with a buggy driver and was angry that the source was not made available so that he might fix it himself. As a result of this inconvenience, he started a movement that declared it a moral imperative that similar inconveniences be prevented, regardless of the other inconveniences this might cause.

    I appreciate the GPL as a mechanism for the promotion of collaboration, but I can't stand people who try to tell other people what their problems are.

  • Re:Good for both! (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Bogtha (906264) on Friday July 24, 2009 @10:02PM (#28815479)

    I think that pressure from Gnome and the fundamentalists helped make Qt change their license to the LGPL.

    I can't agree with that. TrollTech were doing nicely dual licensing Qt. They were essentially making proprietary software companies fund Free Software development. That was their business model. LGPLing it would have lost them plenty of money, and for what? The respect of GNOME fundamentalists? Their customers were already choosing Qt over GTK and the GNOME libraries, throwing away their business model might have helped their "market share" in the Free Desktop "market", but it would have lost them loads of money.

    Qt was LGPLed right after TrollTech were bought by Nokia. The licensing fees for Qt aren't significant to Nokia, they wanted a high-quality toolkit and the developers that built it. So it wasn't necessary to keep it GPLed. Then it makes sense to LGPL it to get more users/developers/market share/whatever. But before that point, the "pressure" from GNOME was insignificant compared with the pressure of bills to pay.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday July 24, 2009 @10:08PM (#28815507)

    The purist would sit down and cry that hell won't cooperate.

    Wow, what a bunch of bullshit. RMS is obviously the person most people around here think of when they think "purest". The same guy who when confronted with a closed printer driver, responded by practically single-handedly writing an entire operating system, pioneering a movement and in a singular spark of brilliance drew up the GPL, a software license that has swept the world and turned the vocation of software on its head. I would hardly call that sitting down and crying.

    You, sir, are a fool!

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday July 24, 2009 @11:14PM (#28815815)

    The most pure purists, such as RMS, take the position that I should not have done that mathematical investigation, because I could not do it without using non-free software. I'm supposed to wait until I can do it with free software, and maybe contribute to developing said free software if I want to speed things up.

    If life were infinite, I would consider that. Life is not infinite, so I will go ahead and use the tools that let me get done the things I want to get done during this short life. I see no difference between, say, riding in a vehicle like a boat or plane where I cannot inspect and study the engine and using a piece of software where I cannot see the code. For the boat, all I care about is that it accomplishes the task I need--getting me safely to my destination. Same for software.

    Say you are a sea on a boat and it breaks down. Say also, that the engine compartment, electronic navigation system, etc are all locked shut in a way that you cannot look at how the system works, let alone repair it. Say also that the radio is malfunctioning, and you cannot call for a rescue.

    How do you feel about your boat now?
    --
    DK

  • Re:All I know... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by genner (694963) on Friday July 24, 2009 @11:16PM (#28815827)

    Bloody Neutral.

    What makes a man turn neutral? Lust for gold? Power? Or were you just born with a heart full of neutrality?

    If I don't survive tell my wife I said....hi.

  • by keeboo (724305) on Friday July 24, 2009 @11:16PM (#28815829)
    Though I'm aware that there are shades between, I say that the ones who are clearly identifiable as pragmatists - the way I see them at least - are just opportunistic people.

    Idealists are the ones who bring innovation and true progress to mankind, the ones who make things interesting.
    Pragmatists... Well, they just take advantage of what others fought for and use for their own purposes.
    A pragmatist will say XYZ is impossible until an idealist proves him/her wrong, and after that the pragmatist starts taking advantage of the progress done by the idealist. The sad part is that before that happens often the pragmatists often have no problems bashing the idealist for his/her crazy ideals.
    Idealists live. Pragmatists vegetate.

    I believe, though, that pragmatists are a necessary mediocrity.
    We also need, too, a certain level of stability do solidify the gains brought by the idealists.

    There are people who hate ones like Stallman, who inspires lots of people (feel free to replace Stallman with your favorite hero, that's just an example).
    Think what you want about the man (crazy, radical, smelly etc), but the fact is: were FSF controled by a Kofi Annan-like moderate person, how strong do you think free software would be today?
  • by Spewns (1599743) on Saturday July 25, 2009 @12:13AM (#28816065)

    Without rms and his insistence on freedom, and the years of work on GNU, there would be no fame for Linux nor Linus (whom, to this day, is ungrateful and rude to the very provider of the tools and freedom that led to his project success).

    BSD doesn't exist.

  • by techno-vampire (666512) on Saturday July 25, 2009 @01:33AM (#28816399) Homepage
    A pragmatist will say XYZ is impossible until an idealist proves him/her wrong, and after that the pragmatist starts taking advantage of the progress done by the idealist.

    I hate to be the one that breaks it to you, but the word "pragmatist" [reference.com] doesn't mean anything like what you think it does. In fact, to one who does know what it means, what you wrote is little more than gibberish.

  • by extrasolar (28341) on Saturday July 25, 2009 @01:56PM (#28820113) Homepage Journal

    I personally consider myself to be solidly in the "pragmatist" camp, and I argued against using BitKeeper not because I thought Linux development should be "pure" and only use OSS, but because I saw the BitKeeper license as a ticking time bomb that made the tool unsuitable for its purpose. It made some sense if you only thought short term, but I think that's foolish for such a long-term project.

    You seem to be a smart guy, but please notice the contradiction here as I see it. You say you're in the "pragmatist camp" because you don't think GNU/Linux should use only OSS/free software, yet when you look long term you notice that e.g. the Bitkeeper license was unsuitable for this purpose. Now look at the free software definition [gnu.org]. We purists, as you like to call us, believe that all software that doesn't meet these four criteria our unsuitable for our purpose.

    As it turns out, purists are just pragmatism who look at everything in terms of the long term. "From the perspective of eternity," as the philosophy Spinoza wrote. But really, this purist/pragmatist thing is a false dichotomy, it's false that purists aren't pragmatists too. People are making out that purists don't get anything done, even though the free software movement itself is an example of just the opposite. That so many self-described pragmatists are using GNU/Linux today just goes to show you that the purists have indeed accomplished a great deal. Why would anyone use a different operating system than the one they are used to if the old one could accomplish the task?

    GNU/Linux is about idealism, even if the participants are seeking after different ideals. I even put Linus in this camp, he doesn't care about software freedom, but you know there are other things that he indeed cares a great deal about.

"If people are good only because they fear punishment, and hope for reward, then we are a sorry lot indeed." -- Albert Einstein

Working...