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The Missing Politics of Open Source

27 May 2011

This post is based on a talk I gave with Nor at the Oxford Radical Forum

Open Source culture has given us a lot. Since Stallman's original vision in 1984 (half a decade before the internet began to function), software released under OSI-approved1 licenses has seen amazing success: Firefox is now in use on something like 45% of browsers in Europe and GNU/Linux is used on around 60% of all web servers. Although it started slowly, Larry Lessig's Creative Commons project has begun to gain traction as well, with content catalogue sites like Jamendo seeing hundreds of thousands of uploads and millions of downloads. For me, having control and active participation is a non-negotiable component of technology usage, and I think the Open Source development process beautifully demonstrates what is possible for free, in collaboration and without leaders2

So, on to the failures. Of course there's the embarrassment of every successive "Year of the Linux Desktop" (every year since 2000, for those who're counting) passing with a desktop install base of less than 1%, but the reasons for that are for another article. To me, the relatively small-scale adoption of Free software is partly a matter of time, and partly a symptom of a deeper issue than lack of paid support, poor user interfaces or poor documentation.

Technological Libertarianism

The intrinsic political nature of Open Source doesn't neatly fit into a "left/right" political spectrum, and it's easy to see serious issues in both sides' solutions to the historical dominance of proprietary software. Through the last decade, Microsoft has been dragged through the EU courts over alleged anti-competitive business practices: the bundling of Windows Media Player and Internet Explorer with Windows, for a start. Whilst the general idea (forcing Microsoft to abandon some of their ill-gotten market share) was sound, it's difficult to see a fundamental difference between MS bundling Internet Explorer and, say, Apple including Safari with OSX or even Google including their own browser on Android smartphones. Conversely, the lack of regulation around procurement in government organisations continues to lead to despicable cronyism.

So, although open source is not characterised by a particular end of the "economic" scale (as defined by the Political Compass), the surrounding discourse lands it squarely at the furthest extremes of the libertarian end of the "social" scale. A post from the then-president of OSI (Michael Tiemann) in 2007 explicitly defines the political underpinning of open source as Libertarianism. Larry Lessig, the founder of the Creative Commons alternative copyright organisation, lays into fellow blogger Kevin Kelly's description of the free culture corpus as "socialism":

It's like saying "Because Stalin set up a competition between different collective farms, it's not unreasonable to call that free market capitalism." Both statements are wrong because they point to a feature that is common, and ignore the feature that is distinctive. At the core of socialism is coercion (justified or not is a separate question). At the core of the behavior Kelly celebrates is freedom.

Freedom, indeed, is possibly the most-common word in the open source register; it appears in almost every definition of open source software, including Stallman's original statement of four freedoms3. But, like any good amateur debater or charlatan politician, open sourcerers4 never take time to unpick the simplistic "FREEDOM" war cry. Of course, individual freedom – of the sort favoured by arch-capitalists, Rand devotees and free culture bloggers – is always balanced against the collective; Simone de Beauvoir's complex "situated freedom". Making the common mistake of ignoring this opposing ethical force is a trademark of the political right – whether its prevalence in the open source movement is the cause or the result of the right-wing elements of "geek politics" is up for debate.

Make me a sammich

Predictably (and depressingly), the consequence of this one-sided approach to "freedom" is an egalitarian movement that actively resists egalitarianism. The open source community sees itself as socially progressive because it is free, without examining the inherently prejudicial structure of a geeky, online campaign conducted primarily in English. Earlier this year, Jamie McClelland blogged "We need better metaphors", in which he argued that the historical connotations of "master / slave" warrant the replacement of those terms in software: Richard Harding commented derisively:

Let's use our brains on this stuff. If you read a db book and just seeing the term slave in print causes you emotional distress, odds are more likely that you need help of a different kind.

Richard Harding is a white, English-speaking man living in Michigan, USA – and he thinks that if you find the term "slave" offensive, you need help. It's incredibly easy for members of the open source community to hold prejudicial or blinkered views in the absence of actual participants from "minority" groups. It happens with language (discussion forums in English lament the "waste" of time, money and space on l18n), with "geekiness" (the long history of "RTFM" being a stand-out example), with internet access ("curuxz" is only one of several Ubuntu community participants who thinks Ubuntu is "wasting money" on posting free installation discs to those without speedy internet connections, forgetting that 4 billion people have no internet access at all) and, most prominently, with gender.

In April this year, a story appeared on the technology news website Slashdot about "[an] algorithm that can tell the difference between males and females", Are 625 Pixels Enough to Identify Sex. In 50 comments, there was not a single interrogation of what exactly this system claimed to identify, why two choices had been picked or whether identifications of a transgendered person as either "male" or "female" was correctly counted as a mistake by the researchers. Whilst transphobia is unfortunately prevalent in wider society5, the online world seems to be years late in absorbing even the most basic foundations of feminism: it is, for instance, still common to see "porn presentations" at technology conferences. As "russell" comments on Hacker News, in response to a particularly regrettable pornopoint:

Unbelievable. What kind of idiot makes a soft porn presentation in an age when nude calendars are banned from auto shops. I grew up when off color stories were ok with professionals so long as ladies werent present. It was ok to call women 'honey' and make suggestive remarks. I was glad to see that go, along with racist jokes.

When even comparatively non-geeky projects like Wikipedia are seeing fewer than 15% of contributions come from women, it is at once understandable and reprehensible that so few open-source contributors see feminism as a valid (let alone important) fight. Well-known grumbler and sex pest6 Nicu Buculei grinds several axes, but his favourite is against Fedora turning into a [GNU/Linux distribution] aimed at the Girl Scouts of America, and he is unrepentant about the sexism that view entails; as he puts it:

I am not in the FOSS to hook-up with women and I think it would be wrong to lower the community to "include women"

And, to finish on a topical note (given the alarming rash of high-profile sexist victim-blaming in recent months7), depressingly predictable responses to Noirin Shirley's harrowing post, describing an attempted sexual assault she suffered during ApacheCon 2010. Comments on the article itself were bad enough, but paled in comparison to a post the following day by Irish-American bigot Paul O'Flaherty, entitled (brace yourself) What About The Other Side Of The Noirin Shirley Accusation?:

Yet, while she describes her flirtatious behavior, sitting on bunch of guys laps, lying on her bed in the party she threw in her bedroom, she also absolves herself of sending out the wrong signals.

"What a sexist arsehole", you cry. But don't worry, it's not just his opinion:

I’ve talked extensively this morning with Sara [my wife] about this post…

So that's all right, then. Phew.

  1. The Open Source Initiative 

  2. Yes, yes, I'll get to that 

  3. And his famous explanation of "free software" as "free as in freedom" rather than "free as in free beer" 

  4. It was only a matter of time… 

  5. Witness, for instance, the "Male / Female" choice on any form you ever fill in 

  6. Planet Fedora Up-skirting Photo 

  7. Ken Clarke's almost-surreal comments on date rape and the "don't dress like a slut" advice given out by a Toronto cop