March 10, 2010

A Cultural Alibi of Sorts

Category: Academic,F/OSS,Geek,Gender,Politics — Biella @ 7:08 am

There is an interesting conversation over at about the “nature” of peer production, and “crowd” based production over at PBS. Thankfully folks right off the bat noted that the types of activities they are addressing—that range from 4chan to open source—are so freaken distinct that perhaps it is not all that useful to use one moniker for them.

The comments I am most fascinated by are danah’s who notes:

“”We” assume that the collective voice will be populist and, more importantly, that it will reflect the diversity of the populous. Yet, as we’ve seen time and time again, certain values and attitudes and voices are over-represented in crowd-sourced activities. Who is looking out for those who aren’t represented? In what ways are we reinforcing structural inequalities? What are the implications of this?”

And then Clay’s response:

So, to re-ask your question in a non-rhetorical way, under what
circumstances would we want to make the population of Deviant Art,
say, less white, or Linux less male, and if we wanted to do so, what
would need to happen?

What I find interesting about this discussion (and will be talking about this topic here, next week) is there not enough recognition of two related things: 1) the efforts are there (more on this soon) 2) that perhaps hacking and F/OSS in particular are not fully accessible to all and everyone because they are full-fledged, full-bodied, cultural worlds —and all cultural worlds—are to some degree not fully accessible and transparent for there are built on particularities, often invisible and unarticulated, forms of value. That is, just as some norms and values of Indo-Guyanese to take one random example, are not of my world, so too is hacking partially inaccessible for the fact that it is culturally configured.

But I am starting to suspect that the “culture-ness” of these domains are often overlooked because they are overwhelmingly white, male, and chock full of computers (and so economically lucrative). All three, I suspect are (incorrectly) seen as lacking culture, as domains of rationality. (I stand rightly corrected and also forget this very fact, though I know it well from all the Brazil/Latin America Debconfs, as this diversity gets a bit lost from a pure US-European perspective, which I was assuming).

Other historical factors have also produced certain distortions that don’t allow us to see (easily at least) these worlds as culture-full. First is the fact that so many folks—outside of this world—lobbed onto F/OSS for being radical (and this is partially right in so far as its challenge to intellectual property can be seen as radical). But the portrayal or mere suggestion of these worlds as uber-democratic and populist, made people expect these groups to behave as radical egalitarian collectives. For the most part, they don’t and yet never portrayed their own politics and forms of organization as such (openness comes in the form of code and technical merit).

But this vision stuck and when some folks realized that larger projects, for example are very organized (which many people addressed only very late), have hierarchies (which are flexible and also allow them to function, which is I think is a good thing), and are not as diverse, there was deep disappointment that they did not conform to the sense that there was something extremely radical going on as opposed to a cultural group really into producing free software.

But if I am offering a cultural alibi of sorts—in which barriers to participation are to some degree a function of culture, one of the great things about the norms, values, ideas that compose culture is that there are dynamic and changing. They are alive and historical. They are pushed and pulled upon by insiders and outsiders based on wider social values.

And there is an answer to these questions about diversity for there has been a dramatic, noticeable, and noteworthy push within this world, one that really started to coalesce I would say in the last year or so, to address these issues and it ranges from Python’s mammoth efforts at addressing diversity (and I have been told that there was a great speech on the topic at Pycon recently), the geek feminism wiki, and smaller but increasingly common efforts such as Libre Planet’s women’s caucus and their funding of women to participate.

So while I do think that culture goes at least part of the way to explain why these worlds are not fully open—for culture limits—this very domain has grown dissatisfied with its representational make-up and are leading some efforts for cultural change.


  1. The assertion that the FOSS community is predominantly white men comes, perhaps, from the eye of the beholder. That is, people who mostly keep themselves within social circles (or, “cultural worlds”) where predominantly white men are the FOSS experts would certainly have this perception.

    If the beholder were to step out of this social circle and into other cultural worlds, they would see a completely different FOSS community.

    For example, Latin America is probably the region where FOSS is most integrated into mainstream society.

    The FOSS community looks a lot different in any one of the tens of thousands of free software telecentros in Venezuela, Brazil, Cuba, etc. Seeing a white male in any of those telecentros would be a surprise. And, because the telecentros are more integrated with mainstream society, they more closely reflect the demographics of mainstream society (in terms of gender, race, etc).

    This enormous community of FOSS users and FOSS developers seems to be excluded from the FOSS community as a whole when it is asserted that the worldwide FOSS community exists entirely of the “cultural world” that revolves around the US/European-centric FOSS community.

    And, Latin America is only an easy example. There is also the large FOSS community in Vietnam, or India, or Indonesia, or China, many of which have completely different demographics because of the way FOSS is integrating into those societies.

    A Vietnamese free software geek can go her whole life without ever talking to or knowing someone from the US or Europe, and yet still be as much of a dedicated FOSS geek as anyone in the US/Europe.

    Comment by m. pineiro — March 10, 2010 @ 11:59 am

  2. I recently learned of another female enclave in the standards world, “Standards Babes” — though I don’t see much of a Web presence.

    Comment by Joseph Reagle — March 10, 2010 @ 12:23 pm

  3. m. pineiro

    Thanks. I fell back to the very one sided perspective I was complaining about, so thanks for putting me back on track. very much appreciated, i have integrated your comment into the body of the post!

    Comment by Biella — March 10, 2010 @ 12:39 pm

  4. Joe: interesting. Will keep my eyes out.

    Comment by Biella — March 10, 2010 @ 12:39 pm

  5. Hi Biella

    There are some very interesting nationalist approaches to open source and floss, particularly in India. Are you familiar with Michael Truscello’s “Free as in Swatantra”?

    Comment by Amit Ray — March 10, 2010 @ 12:50 pm

  6. Hey Amit,

    I know of some of the developments in India and some of the work on the topic (by Kavita Philip) though I am more familiar with the academic work and developments in Brazil as I have been there a number of times (and am anxiously waiting for Cicero Silva and Jane De Almedia’s book on Free Software in Brrazil though I have read some of their articles on it (for ex.,

    So thanks for pointing me out to this piece, looks great.

    I wrote this entry a bit in haste this am before class and should have really gotten out of my US-Euro perspective before doing so.

    Comment by Biella — March 10, 2010 @ 12:58 pm

  7. There is also Anita Chan’s great work on nationalism and FLOSS in Latin America!

    /me should not write posts when so sick but getting this stuff out there, even patch work is better than nothing.

    Comment by Biella — March 10, 2010 @ 1:10 pm

  8. English speakers can keep up with FOSS developments in Latin America at

    in honor of Manuel Piñeiro Losada

    Comment by m. pineiro — March 10, 2010 @ 1:21 pm

  9. [...] for implementation of autonomy in the matter of appointment of statutory auditors. As per the …Interprete A Cultural Alibi of SortsComment by Amit Ray March 10, 2010 @ 12:50 pm. Hey Amit, I know of some of the developments in India [...]

    Pingback by amit ray — March 30, 2010 @ 11:38 pm

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