Free Your Software, Free Yourself

Mon, 29 Apr 2024

The unethical subjugation and abuse enabled by proprietary software are well-documented. Proprietary software, by definition, limits user control and the inability to modify, share, or fully understand the software running on your devices creates a fundamental power imbalance. Plenty of examples are written about how proprietary software subjugates and mistreats people on https://www.gnu.org/proprietary/, and many more examples likely go undocumented. Today, I won't rehash that. Instead, I want to focus on a peculiar phenomenon: The tendency of the victimes of this power dynamic to excuse and rationalize the very behaviors that hold them captive.

I've seen it continue even after explaining the problem of proprietary software. Why is it that someone, even while recognizing the harmful impact of proprietary software, might continue using it? It's tempting to dismiss such behavior as mere ignorance or lack of willpower, but a more nuanced explanation might be found in the psychological condition known as Stockholm Syndrome.

Stockholm Syndrome is a psychological phenomenon where hostages or abuse victims develop sympathy, even positive feelings of loyalty and affection, toward their captors. They form misplaced attachments to their abusers and develop a distorted perspective where they justify, excuse, or even defend their abuser's actions. They rationalize the abuse as a survival mechanism, a way of coping with a situation marked by powerlessness and control, or a desperate bid to regain some semblance of control. While drawing a direct parallel may be an oversimplification, there are unsettling commonalities in the relationship between users and proprietary software. Here's where Stockholm Syndrome offers uncomfortable parallels with users of proprietary software justifying the very things that subjugate and control them:

Rationalization: To quell cognitive dissonance, people may minimize the problems of subjugation and abuse, telling themselves, "It's not that bad," and focus on the perceived "benefits" of proprietary software. They might convince themselves the trade-offs are necessary or unavoidable.

Illusion of Benefits: Extolling minor conveniences or specific features readily available in free software can overshadow the broader picture of freedom and control being surrendered. Proprietary software developers often disguise restrictions such as SaaSS as perks, redefining captivity as a convenience.

Learned Helplessness: Years of being told you can't do something with your devices erodes self-efficacy. When users repeatedly encounter manipulative tactics like limited control or forced upgrades, they may develop a sense of powerlessness, believing change is futile, and internalize a belief that they lack the aptitude for a world beyond proprietary software.

Sunk Cost Fallacy: Investing time, money, or data into proprietary software can make it harder to leave, even if it actively harms them. This perpetuates a bad relationship out of irrational commitment, not merit.

Identification with the Abuser: In extreme cases, people adopt the rhetoric of their abuser, defending their practices and dismissing those who advocate for free software.

Recognizing these patterns is not about blaming the victim. It's about identifying the psychological barriers that make breaking free from proprietary dependence difficult. The first step to overcoming any problem is recognizing it. In this case, recognizing and understanding the psychological manipulation is the first step toward liberation and empowerment. Let's flip those harmful beliefs:

"It promotes 'innovation'": The assertion that stifling user freedoms breeds innovation is counterintuitive. True innovation flourishes in environments where collaboration, modification, and knowledge-sharing are encouraged - not stifled.

"Companies need proprietary software to make money." This mindset perpetuates a harmful cycle. It posits that profit must come at the expense of user freedom and autonomy. The idea that only proprietary software can make money for someone is absurd. Countless developers and businesses thrive on free software; this is not exclusive to proprietary software. A productive and ethical company can make money without exploiting its customers.

"Everyone uses proprietary software; it's the standard." This appeal to popularity ignores each user's power to influence change. 'The standard' can and does shift when enough people demand it. Popularity doesn't equate to being ethical; as part of Stockholm Syndrome the "everyone does it" excuse perpetuates and excuses the abuse.

"There's no good free software": This myth is dangerously persistent. For many use cases, powerful, free software exists. It may require a bit of exploration and a willingness to adapt, but the rewards of freedom and control are immense.

"The support is better": Proprietary "support" is not inherently superior. Free projects often boast vibrant communities that provide excellent help and are driven by passionate individuals and companies offering professional services. In comparison, proprietary software usually enables a monopoly for help and support. Someone thinking they're being treated better by their abuser can also be an example of Stockholm Syndrome.

These rationalizations and more share a worrying theme: prioritizing perceived convenience or necessity over the fundamental rights of software freedom. It's akin to a hostage praising their captor for the occasional decent meal, ignoring the imprisonment itself.

Excusing the abuses of proprietary software isn't just a personal surrender. It perpetuates a harmful system, normalizes the behaviors that free software seeks to change, and weakens the collective voice, demanding better digital rights and the freedom to understand, control, and modify the software we rely upon.

It takes courage to defy entrenched systems. But doing so is an act of self-preservation in the digital age. Proprietary software isn't about features but a power dynamic that undermines user rights. The transition to free software may be challenging. It requires a willingness to learn, perhaps stepping outside your comfort zone. But the rewards far outweigh the challenges. Every person who escapes the confines of proprietary software weakens the system's grip. It's personal liberation and contributes to a more ethical, user-centric technological future.

Embrace free software. It's an ecosystem born from the ideals of ethics, freedom and control. Reclaim your agency, and most importantly, refuse to be a captive. Choose liberty. Choose free software.