March 16, 2009


Category: Academic,F/OSS,Politics,Tech — Biella @ 4:24 am


A little over a week ago I participated in a camp/event/conference/ that threw together 12 different networked based-groups/phenomenon/organizations. They got to do what many often can’t do: spend some time working face-to-face as well as thinking about about questions of un(organizational) growth/ungrowth. Some of us spent some time learning about the nature of networked coordinations and organizations from these groups. There is a lot I could write about but, in part because I was in Amsterdam for a week, I am now playing serious catch up, but there are a few things that really struck me both of which relate to expectations, which I thought worth jotting down.

Generally present were the following types of groups: open source projects (such as Blender), tech-oriented activist projects (Dyne), non-tech oriented projects (such as Free Dimensional), artistic-tech projects (such as GOTO10), artistic projects (Upgrade), academic-activist (Edu Factory) and others which are harder to classify (such as Gender Changes, and FLOSS Manuals).

One thing that came out during the plenary sessions, which is when we got together as a large group to debate and discuss, is that technically oriented open source projects are at times singled out for not being “inclusive.” That is, people pointed out that most projects expect you to contribute technically in order to participate (and don’t necessarily offer people the training/capacity so you can participate). I have heard a version of this many many and many times before and find it to be a curious (and generally unproductive) accusation, though I understand why the confusions arises.

I say confusion because most of these projects are not overtly set up to be inclusive/technically pedagogical, and this is perhaps the key point —they don’t purport to be though many folks think this is part of their overall message/mission. Because these free software projects are open source, this, for some, somehow automatically translates into the political projects of inclusivity (that is, training folks so that they can become part of this world). And yet some other projects, such as Edu Factory and GoTo10, which are run as tight-knit of collectives, are rarely accused of not being inclusive. Why should this be?

I raise this mostly because I find it interesting, pointing to the way certain terms or phrases (Freedom, Openness) combined with the visibility of FLOSS projects, automatically generate other expectations and meanings even if they don’t actually exist. I also raise it because I think it is an unfair expectation to have of these communities only in so far as most of them are full of folks busy hacking up technology and this in and of itself, as I have written about before is worthwhile politically. And yet If one wants to make them more inclusive, then one can go ahead and bring into being such a project for most of them are quite open to various initiatives to enlarge the scope of participation. These projects can be internal to projects or external to them. That is, self-initiative goes a long way in this world, and has helped changed the terrain of participation and inclusivity and I am sure will continue to do so.

Which brings me to my second point about expectations. Many people complain that open source is not easy to use. While this was entirely, 1000% true prior to 1998, every passing day makes this statement harder to stand by. I imagine in another 10 years, there will be many many programs that are as usable for the novice user as proprietary software. They had to play serious catch-up and I think have done a decent job. In some regards, all that was and is needed is time because time has already shown that usability has improved leaps and bounds. And yet there is still something odd about the accusations, which my friend tulpje but in the following way “One would never accuse the Zapatistas for not having their military might/shit together like the US army, so why accuse open source for not being the mightiest software our there?) While I actually think that free software has already and will continue to give proprietary firms a run for their money in a way that a rag-tag guerrilla army can’t do with a national army, it is nonetheless important to couch one’s responses and accusations in terms of the constraints and realities of these projects.

That said, I still think such expectations reflect important hopes and desires. They show us just how profoundly free software/open source has, simply by virtue of its existence, inspired many to follow suite politically, turning to FLOSS as a beacon of possibility.


  1. While I actually think that free software has already and will continue to give proprietary firms a run for their money in a way that a rag-tag gueriall army can’t do with a national army

    And here I thought the quote fit so well precisely because a guerrilla army can give a large organized army a run for its money, in many of the same ways that Free Software can give proprietary firms a run for their money: decentralization, lack of a clear target to attack, decreased vulnerability to traditional tactics, fighting on unfamiliar territory, popular support, …

    Comment by Anonymous — March 16, 2009 @ 7:33 am

  2. This clarifies some of the issues I had ruminated; like what the mission of FLOSS projects like Debian are, other than making technology. I kept expecting such projects to provide remediation to non-represented groups to make them more inclusive. Something like DW doing outreach to girls in high schools. But while FLOSS groups do not go out of their ways to exclude people, they do not make attempts to remedy the issues that affect non-represented groups ability to contribute. Socio-economics affect girls and minorities knowledge and use of technology.
    And I suppose the same can be said of Wikipedia. It is about production of literate encyclopedia articles. It does not stop people for contributing, but it does not try to help unrepresented people to become literate, to improve contributers vocabulary, to become adequate researchers, to discern fact from fiction on the interweb, or other skills to become able to produce wikipedia-quality articles. People in the project who have the skills, in both instances, will help bridge some of the gaps but there is no mission to go out looking for non-included people and get folks up-to-speed to be contributers. That is not to say that some Debian folks dont work with kids to help them learn technology or that WP folks dont help kids learn to read.
    The other point was related to radical politcs. I associated folks who are involved with freedom for technology and knowledge and people who do not discriminate by sex, gender or race, at least in cyberspace, to extend those ideas to other spheres. Then I met socially conservative, sexist and republican FLOSS folks and realized it just about the technology/knowledge :)

    Comment by Kevin Mark — March 17, 2009 @ 12:04 am

  3. There are many guerrilla like tactics within the arsenal of FOSS. I think one really important reason for its success is that it is now the plumbing of the Internet and plumbing becomes a bitch to change!

    Comment by Biella — March 18, 2009 @ 5:02 am

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