As you may have heard, there was some tragic news a few weeks back, when the founder of Debian Linux, Ian Murdock, passed away under somewhat suspicious circumstances. Without more details, we didn’t have much to report on concerning his passing, but Gabriella Coleman put together this wonderful look at how Murdock shaped the Debian community, and why it became such a strong and lasting group and product.
Ian Murdock in his Own Words: “The package system was not designed to manage software. It was designed to facilitate collaboration” Ian Murdock (1973-2015).
Peering in from the outside, the Debian operating system — founded in 1993 by Ian Murdock, then a twenty-two-year-old college student — might appear to have been created with hardcore, technologically-capable power users in mind. After all, it is one of the most respected distributions of Linux: as of this writing, the current Debian stable distribution, Jessie, has 56,865 individual open source projects packaged (in native Debian parlance software is referred to as packages), and Debian itself has functioned as the basis for over 350 derivative distributions. Debian developers are so dedicated to the pursuit of technical excellence that the project is simultaneously revered and criticized for its infrequent release cycle — the project only releases a new version roughly every two years or so, when its Release Team deems it fit for public use. As its developers are fond of saying, “it will be released when it’s ready.”
But if you take a closer look, what is even more striking about Debian is that its vibrant community of developers are as committed to an array of ethical and legal principles as they are to technical excellence. These principles are enshrined in a bevy of documents — a manifesto, a constitution, a social contract, and a set of legal principles — which guide what can (and cannot) be done in the project. Its Social Contract, for instance, stipulates a set of crystal clear promises to the broader free software public, including a commitment to their users and transparency.
In 2001, I began anthropological fieldwork on free software in pursuit of my Ph.D. Debian’s institutional model of software development and rich ethical density attracted me to it immediately. The ethical life of Debian is not only inscribed in its discursive charters, but manifests also in the lively spirit of deliberation and debate found in its mailing lists. Ian Murdock, who passed away tragically last week, had already left the endeavor when my research began, but his influence was clear. He had carefully nursed the project from inception to maturity during its first three years. As my research wrapped up in 2004, I was fortunate enough to meet Ian at that year’s Debconf. Held annually, that year’s conference was hosted in Porto Alegre, Brazil, and it was the first year he had ever attended. Given his fortuitous presence, I took the opportunity to organize a roundtable. Alongside a couple of long-time Debian developers, Ian reflected on the project’s early history and significance.
By this time, many developers had already spoken to me in great (and fond) detail about Ian’s early contributions to Debian: they were essential, many insisted, in creating the fertile soil that allowed the project to grow its deepest roots and sprout into the stalwart community that it is today. In the fast-paced world of the Internet, where a corporate giant like AOL can spectacularly rise and fall in a decade, Debian is strikingly unique for its staying power: it has thrived for a remarkable twenty-three years (and though I am not fond of predictions, I expect it will be around throughout the next twenty as well).
It was well-known that Ian established the project’s moral compass, and also provided an early vision and guidance that underwrote many of the processes responsible for Debian’s longevity. But witnessing Ian, and other early contributors, such as Bdale Garbee, articulate and reflect on that early period was a lot more potent and powerful than hearing it second hand. In honor of his life and legacy, I am publishing the interview here (it has been slightly edited for readability). Below, I want to make two points about Ian’s contributions and do so by highlighting a selection of his most insightful remarks drawn from the roundtable discussion and his blog — comments that demonstrate how he helped sculpt Debian into the dynamic project it is today. …