Overcoming Social Inertia
Almost two decades have passed since the combination of GNU and Linux first made
it possible to use a PC in freedom. We have come a long way since then. Now you can even buy a laptop with GNU/Linux preinstalled from
more than one hardware vendor—although the systems they ship are not
entirely free software. So what holds us back from total success?
The main obstacle to the triumph of software freedom is social
inertia. It exists in many forms, and you have surely seen some of
them. Examples include devices that only work on Windows, commercial
web sites accessible only with Windows, and the BBC's iPlayer
handcuffware, which runs only on Windows. If you value short-term
convenience instead of freedom, you might consider these reason enough
to use Windows. Most companies currently run Windows, so students who
think short-term want to learn how to use it and ask their schools to
teach it. Schools teach Windows, produce graduates that are used to
using Windows, and this encourages businesses to use Windows.
Microsoft actively nurtures this inertia: it encourages schools to
inculcate dependency on Windows, and contracts to set up web sites
that then turn out to work only with Internet Explorer.
A few years ago, Microsoft ads argued that Windows was cheaper to run
than GNU/Linux. Their comparisons were debunked, but it is worth
noting the deeper flaw in their argument, the implicit premise which
cites a form of social inertia: “Currently, more technical
people know Windows than GNU/Linux.” People who value their
freedom would not give it up to save money, but many business
executives believe ideologically that everything they possess, even
their freedom, should be for sale.
Social inertia consists of people who have given in to social inertia.
When you surrender to social inertia, you become part of the pressure
it exerts on others; when you resist it, you reduce it. We conquer
social inertia by identifying it, and resolving not to be part of
Here a weakness holds our community back: most GNU/Linux
users have never even heard the ideas
of freedom that motivated the development of GNU, so they still judge
matters based on short-term convenience rather than on their freedom.
This makes them vulnerable to being led by the nose by social
inertia, so that they become part of the inertia.
To build our community's strength to resist, we need to talk about
free software and freedom—not merely about the practical
benefits that open source supporters cite. As more people recognize
what they need to do to overcome the inertia, we will make more