November 20, 2006

Modeling Politics on the Model of Free Software

Category: Academic,F/OSS,Politics,Tech — Biella @ 7:45 am

My friend Jonah has written a provocative post that asks how the example of free software can be applied to the environmental politics as to create a free energy movement. His suggestion is a good one and it centers on the clear and accessible provision of information of labeling so as to create the conditions for meaningful choice and action.

There is a line of critique launched against free software and the free culture movement accusing it of being myopic, privileged and limited. It is composed of a lot of well educated, white (many boys), honing in on liberating a set of artifacts—software, music, movies—etc, that are seen not to have all that much consequence in the world, compared to other more pressing matters, like famine, genocide, global warming, disease etc. I think this is somewhat of a negative critique that actually misses the point about why so many folks are attracted to the free culture movement in the first place and why it should be considered in a more positive light as a model for other forms of politics not because of its content but because of its form (and this is what Jonah basically says).

In a world in which the mere thought about how to change the world is utterly paralyzing, seemingly futile, and just completely depressing, open source and free culture, by providing a set of tools along with a political message, has broken through the armour of apathy many of us are strangled by. It provided an opening to practically engage in politics, and thus allow many to taste the fruit of political action. And it is the taste, which keep people coming back to try to change the conditions of life.

So the lesson to draw from free software is less whether its politics are radical or important enought, but that it provided an avenue and framework for alternative action. And it is this abililty to build the capacity for empowerment, which is one of its greatest virtues.


  1. Being a normal user, what you describe is one of the reasons why I use Open Source software: it is the living proof that there are WORKING alternatives, able to compete and even outperform traditional models.

    However, it will be hard to adopt the FOSS principles to non-digital fields: it is the reproduction at nearly no cost once you have a “product” that makes the concept so powerful. With any physical goods, this advantage is gone. Even worse, if we try to minimize the cost per unit, we have to mass-produce, which is a problem in itself.

    Comment by aguafuertes — November 20, 2006 @ 1:02 pm

  2. Hi Aguafuertes,

    They also thought it would be hard to adopt FOSS principles beyond software, to content. As I mentioned in my free energy post it is hard to imagine how to apply FOSS principles to actual goods that obey conservation laws, but I think there is still an aspect of the maneuver that carries over. The environmental labeling scheme that I devised was one idea, which admittedly turns the problem back into an information game.

    But the kernel of the argument is that the key to the success of FOSS is the way in which it directly empowers, and in turn engages, individuals (not organizations, states, or governments) to take political action.

    Consider how the phrase “Free Software” is to the marketing of Social Justice. It’s mere utterance prompts the disambiguation of the word free, critiques a world in which “free of charge” is the only freedom that matters, and often catalyzes a conversation about the nature of freedom is itself.

    Why not Free Energy?

    Comment by Jonah — November 20, 2006 @ 2:51 pm

  3. Such pessimism about changing the world. Personally, I think there are some positive trends. Planning, dirigisme, nationalisation, and so on seem to have reached a high point (in the English-speaking world anyway) in the 1970s; now most people realise that government can’t solve all their problems, and that personal freedom and responsibility are necessary parts of the path forward.

    FOSS is a good example of this. Patents and copyrights are government created monopolies: they do serve certain useful purposes, but they are also inherent infringements of individual liberty. We are becoming more aware of the sacrifices involved, and gaining more appreciation of the freedoms of a system that doesn’t rely upon these legal restrictions. So some individuals are creating software for themselves, and many more are freely choosing to use it.

    Now if only we could lower agricultural subsidies and tariff barriers, we could really improve well-being in the developing world.

    Comment by Marc — November 21, 2006 @ 4:16 am

  4. The democratic experience is such an experiment in making politics in a (not that much) disruptive way inspired by free software.

    Comment by Frédéric — November 23, 2006 @ 3:20 pm

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