Sabotage and Free Software

Reposted from my personal blog

Who knew that educating people in simple sabotage (defined as sabotage not requiring in-depth training or materials) could have so much in common with communicating free software values? I read the OSS Simple Sabotage Field Manual (pdf) which has been doing the rounds of management and security blogs recently, and one article on “motivating saboteurs” caught my eye enough to share:

Personal Motives

  • The ordinary citizen very probably has no immediate personal motive for committing simple sabotage. Instead, he must be made to anticipate indirect personal gain, such as might come with enemy evacuation or destruction of the ruling gov­ernment group. Gains should be stated as specifically as possible for the area addressed: simple sabotage will hasten the day when Commissioner X and his deputies Y and Z will be thrown out, when particu­larly obnoxious decrees and restrictions will be abolished, when food will arrive, and so on. Abstract verbalizations about personal liberty, freedom of the press, and so on, will not be convincing in most parts of the world. In many areas they will not even be comprehensible.
  • Since the effect of his own acts is limited, the saboteur may become discouraged unless he feels that he is a member of a large, though unseen, group of saboteurs operating against the enemy or the government of his own country and elsewhere. This can be conveyed indirectly: suggestions which he reads and hears can include observations that a particular technique has been successful in this or that district. Even if the technique is not applicable to his surroundings, another’s success will encourage him to attempt similar acts. It also can be conveyed directly: statements praising the effectiveness of simple sabotage can be contrived which will be pub­lished by white radio, freedom stations, and the sub­versive press. Estimates of the proportion of the population engaged in sabotage can be disseminated. Instances of successful sabotage already are being broadcast by white radio and freedom stations, and this should be continued and expanded where com­patible with security.
  • More important than (a) or (b) would be to create a situation in which the citizen-saboteur acquires a sense of responsibility and begins to educate others in simple sabotage.

Now doesn’t that sound familiar? Trying to convince people that free software is good for them because of the freedom doesn’t work directly – you need to tie the values of that freedom to something which is useful to them on a personal level.

“You get security fixes better because people can read the code”, “You have a wide range of support options for Linux because it’s free software and anyone can understand it”, “Sun may have been bought by Oracle, but you can continue to use the same products because anyone can modify the code, so others have taken up the maintenance, support and development burden”, and so on.

Providing (custom tailored) concrete benefits, which comes from freedom is the way to motivate people to value that freedom.

In addition, the point on motivation struck a cord – you need to make people feel like they belong, that their work means something, that they’re not alone and their effort counts, or they will become discouraged. A major job in any project is to make everyone feel like they’re driving towards a goal they have personally bought into.

Finally, you will only have succeeded when you have sufficiently empowered a saboteur to the point where they become an advocate themselves, and start training others in the fine arts – and this is a major challenge for free software projects too, where we often see people with willingness to do stuff, and have some difficulty getting them to the point where they have assimilated the project culture and are recruiting and empowering new contributors.

For those who haven’t read it yet, the document is well worth a look, especially the section on “General Interference with Organisations and Production”, which reads like a litany of common anti-patterns present in most large organisations; and if you never knew how to start a fire in a warehouse using a slow fuse made out of rope and grease, here’s your chance to find out.

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