Open Source: Altruism and Hidden Ideologies

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Why is that when we describe decentralized actions we automatically assume an altruistic and apolitical relationship between the participants? Why is that we are afraid to understand and point out ideological views involved in the recent disruption started by the digital economy?

Bencher (2006) explains the term “peer production” as a subset of commons-based production practices: a “production systems that depend on individual action that is self-selected and decentralized, rather than hierarchically assigned” (p. 62). For sure that decentralized collectives are in a direct opposition to centralized systems (state apparatus, large business), where the actions of many agents are cohered and effective, despite the fact that they do not rely on reducing the number of people whose will counts to direct effective action. Nevertheless, it does not mean that the agents in this collective do not follow some sort of shared principles and morals. They do not have a “boss”, but for sure they have their own convictions of good and bad, right and wrong — ideals — which drive their objectives and goals.

Thus, it is naive to think that science is an example of an autistic decentralized network. For Bencher (2006), scientists do “not operating on market signals … independently deciding what to research, bringing their collaboration together, and creating science” (p. 63). Indeed, traditional scientific research is grounded on freedom of opinion (academic tenure) usually disconnected from market influence. Despite the agency enjoyed by academic, high-level decisions still govern research priorities, including infrastructure allocation and money flows. Decentralization and collaboration are important, but it is not to disregard the vast influence (and pressure) industries make on universities to meet some sort of agreement of future development. It is not a coincidence that there is a convergence of priority on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) disciplines in many parts of the world in the beginning of the twenty-first century.

The same logic applies to free/open-source software. It is an approach to software development that is based on shared effort on a non-proprietary model: “it depends on many individuals … with a variety of motivations, and sharing their respective contributions without any single person or entity asserting rights to exclude either from the contributed components or from the resulting whole” (Bencher, 2006, p. 63). That is, it is a decentralized collective of individuals contributing to a shared goal. The model proposed by Richard Stallman in 1985 (Free Software Foundation) has a clear political statement: people are free to create, shared, and distribute software — participants retain copyrights in their contribution but license them to anyone. Bencher recognizes that this model is incompatible with a model of production that relies on property rights and markets: “If anyone can make software or share software they possess with friends, it becomes very difficult to write software on a business model that relies on excluding people from software they need unless they pay” (p. 65).

Bencher (2006) points outs to the emergence of more effective collective action practices that are decentralized but do not rely on either the price system or a managerial structure for coordination. As this model expanded, mainstream technology industry adopted its practices but did not agree with the political connotation of the movement: free software was about free freedom (free speech). Bencher (2006) argues that these new participants sought to “normalize” the practice, to render it apolitical. According to Bencher (2006), the newly coined term, “open-source software,” was chosen to define “a mode of organizing software production that may be more effective than market-based production” (p. 66).

How is that a movement calls itself “apolitical” if it has, at its core, agents that are based on and defend a certain mode of production? Free-software values (openness, shareable) is still present on open-source movement, but only as a method of production, not as an ideology. Mainstream technology industry attempted to remove any political agenda in order to make these practice accepted as a form of participation in market-oriented economies, which in turn denounces the adoption of another political agenda, more aligned to its own interests. Yet, open-source communities conserve their own convictions and ideologies, but now they have bound to other interest that at a higher level have some influence on the direction and legitimacy of what is produced.

Finally, we cannot assume any practice disconnected from its mode of production. The discourse that science and technology are built by altruistic souls and essentially political neutral agents is a clear message that something is hidden deep in its practices.

References

Benkler, Y. (2006). The wealth of networks: how social production transforms markets and freedom. New Haven [Conn.]: Yale University Press.

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