Matthias Kirschner, President at Free Software Foundation Europe, recently launched Ada & Zangemann: A Tale of Software, Skateboards, and Raspberry Ice Cream. This children’s book is delightfully illustrated by Sandra Brandstätter. The book is published under CC-BY-SA and can be purchased online at FSFE or here.
Kyle Rankin, President caught up with Matthias Kirschner to talk about the inspiration behind the book and the need to raise awareness about free software. Here is the snapshot of the email interview.
Kyle: Children’s literature has a long history of fables, such as with Grimm and Aesop that serve as either cautionary tales (be careful going into the forest!) or moral lessons (slow and steady wins the race). Your story takes a similar approach, but in the modern age with a modern set of lessons. What fables inspired you when writing this story?
Matthias: There are so many fables and books I have read myself which formed me during my childhood and as an adult. But there was one German fable called “The Stolen Princes” by Cornelia Funke, which triggered me. The fable is about a giantess who steals princes, and the knight “Frieda Without Fear”, who then — spoiler alert — rescues the princes, as well as other male knights who did not accomplish their mission to rescue the princes before. I love the way how the story was written, the great illustrations, and the way it questions gender stereotypes. After reading that I thought it would be great to write a tale about software freedom in a similar style. That’s how the journey started.
Kyle: The name Ada, correct me if I am mistaken, is a reference to famed computer scientist Ada Lovelace, but is there a cultural significance to the name Zangemann that English-speaking audiences may not pick up on?
Matthias: Yes, you are right about Ada, and it was already clear for me from the beginning that the character will have that name. With Zangemann it was a long process. For a long time I was writing $NAME in my scripts, and always tried out names whenever I told the story to my children. But I was not happy with the options. One day I was again telling an early draft of the story to my children, when my older son said “No, his name is Zangenmann!” (the German word “Zange” means “Pincer”, and “Mann” is “man”). My first thought was “that is a great name for him!!” my second was “how did my son come up with this great name?”. When I asked him, he told me that he had a dream about the tale and that in his dream he was called Zangenmann. In the editing process we realized that somehow in several places we wrote “Zangemann” (singular of pincer) instead of “Zangenmann” (plural). Together with my editor we then decided to go with “Zangemann” — which was also great because we did find almost nobody on the internet with this name. For the English version I deliberated with others about changing the name, e.g. to “Mr Pincer” or similar options. But we then decided that “Zangemann” is also a great name in other languages (there are many movies out there with characters who are not behaving that well toward others who have a German name).
About names in the book: many of the other names are also references to people involved in science and computer history. If you search a bit, you might learn about some people who made great contributions for our society.
Kyle: While the characters and particular situation are fiction, what parts of the story do you think are true today?
Matthias: There are governments and societies which depend on one or a small amount of entities. These entities can decide what the rest of society can or cannot do with technology. There are individuals (often very financially rich ones) with great power over such entities who for different reasons want to control how others in society can interact with technology, often also limiting how financially poorer people can live their lives. There is a large community which is helping each other to better understand hardware and software and how to us this technology in a self-determined way.
Kyle: Why do you think its important to tell the story of a famous inventor Zangemann and Ada, a curious tinkerer, at this time?
Matthias: People who control technology decide more and more how other people in the world can live their lives. In the past, discussions about how technology influences society were rare; I remember how puzzled politicians looked at me 10-15 years ago when I wanted to talk with them about it. Nowadays technology influences consumer rights, economy, sustainability, and democracy. While we distributed other powers in our society with different political institutions, courts, the executive, legislators; and implemented checks and balances, power over technology is heavily centralized. This is not healthy for democratic societies. We need a distribution of power in technology to preserve democracy, and software freedom is one piece of this distribution of power. Hopefully the book helps children and adults to think about those issues as well.
Kyle: The freedom to tinker, and the lengths that Big Tech go to, to prevent that freedom, is something that is not talked about nearly enough in the mainstream. How do you think we can spread that message beyond this particular book?
Matthias: There are many ways done by many individuals or organizations, and I consider it a strength that there are so many different approaches by organizations, companies, governments, or individuals. For example, at the Free Software Foundation Europe we work on raising public awareness on those topics with information materials, stickers, t-shirts, giving interviews and talks; help to clarify legal questions around those topics, and do policy work to help decision-makers on the many different levels to understand those topics.
As an individual: pay less for companies that treat you badly, and give more to those that treat you well. Support organizations working for software freedom, who often in their work have to counter actions by companies with huge resources. Beside that, talk with other around you about those software freedom and connected topics; also talk with those who disagree with you. Show them what you care about by living your values. Be persistent and don’t get disappointed if people first don’t care or disagree. In my talks I often include a quote my first teacher wrote down for me:
Many small people
In many small places
Do many small things
That will change the face of the world.
In the end we won’t accomplish change by a few large actions, but the change will be accomplished by the sum of many small actions many of us do in our own lives.
Kyle: Government also plays a role in this story. At first they embrace Big Tech, until the point where the people rise and protest. Ultimately popular protest combined with government intervention is what it takes for Ada to prevail over Zangemann. Outside of this story, do you think that that for Free Software to prevail over closed alternatives we need to have a similar combination of government intervention and popular protest? Or if not, what do you think is needed?
Matthias: We already have this combination, and I rather see this growing. More and more people and organizations get active in policy topics connected to Free Software. Think about the work of many people on software patents, with many people promoting “Public Money? Public Code!”
On the other hand political decision-makers get more involved in regulating technology — as the influence of technology on the rest of our lives becomes more obvious. This creates many new occasions where advocates for software freedom need to get active, and help decision-makers to better understand the impact of technology and how different options might influence our democratic society.
This can be quite complex and difficult to follow as an individual. There often organizations need to translate the developments for others in society, so they can get active. But while in the past it was hard to get Free Software on the agenda at all, now there are so many different policy developments around Free Software, that one of the biggest challenges is to prioritize which of those you work on with your limited resources to make the biggest impact for software freedom.
Kyle: What message would you most like children to come away with after reading your book?
Matthias: Be curious. Be critical and question assumptions. Be persistent. Play an active role in our democracy. And beside that it is fun tinkering with hardware and coding software, it is an important skill to shape your future, and the future of humankind. Do what you believe in!