A quick preface: I know sometimes I write overly long blog entries (and emails, and.. ;) but some things simply do not boil down well into short missives. This is one of those things, so instead of lobotomizing it or risking tl;dr I'm going to break it up into a few different entries. The history covered in this entry is probably familiar to many of you, but it provides the necessary starting point from where we will eventually end up. Please bear with me. :)
When I got involved with Free software, there were a few people who stood out as luminary thinkers on the topic of freedom in technology and technology in freedom. These intelligent and well educated spirits spent considerable time pondering the issues, discussing them, distilling them into writing and sharing the results with anyone who would listen. They challenged each other, they supported each other and the Free software community rewarded them all by paying attention.
I remember listening to a Red Hat founder describing the principles the company was founded upon. The idea of a company whose mission was to do more than only make money resonated deeply; why not have a for-profit group that embodied a specific set of ideals? The world did not have to be divided starkly between, for the sake of caricature, idealists creating NGOs and those setting up corporations. We could take all that interested us and create successful, coherent systems from it.
The concepts embodied by this breed of idealistic pragmatist were inspired by the writing, public speaking and thinking of the Free software philosophers. Richard Stallman and his organization, the FSF, was a center of gravity due to their central role in turning Free software into a serious movement. The idea of technology being a lynchpin to freedom was at once fascinating and obvious to me once I stumbled upon Stallman's ideas (a flavour many great ideas tend to share), and there were countless thousands of others similarly touched.
Of course, Stallman was not the only one thinking or writing about these topics. I read Eric Raymond's papers with great interest as did many others. The Cathedral and the Bazaar was something you could count on "everyone" having read in Free software circles at the time. Bruce Perens, John Hall and others were similarly extolling and spreading ideas about Free software and how it could interface with society and economics.
It was the age of philosophers in Free software: they were "the" names and they held great influence. They were speaking with national governments as well as at small Free software events; they were paving new thoroughfares for freedom right through the middle of international corporations as well as hanging out on IRC. Documentaries were made, books were written and the concepts were maturing. They had become the founding philosophers of Free software.
Linus Torvalds stood out among this crowd as he was certainly a thinker but more of a pragmatist than a philosopher. He was perhaps unique in this way among the "A-list" stars of Free software at the time and as such increasingly became the poster boy for the tangible benefits of the movement.
He was not the only pragmatist involved with Free software, of course: there were increasingly large numbers of amazing minds writing all sorts of great code, founding companies and ensuring the general spread of "open source". These efforts would end up re-shaping the global technology landscape. It would also fundamentally shift the Free software landscape.