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Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Politics and FOSS: Open to who and when?

I was recently doing some reading towards writing a paper that touched on the politics and philosophy of FOSS. That stands for "Free and Open Source Software." That doesn't mean free as in "no charge," although that is often also true. It's "Free as in Freedom," according to those that follow Stallman [1]. FOSS software belongs to the community of people that use and write it.

It's about sharing. You give away what you write and you give away your knowledge of how to use. Communities of users form, giving each other support and helping each other with the software. It's very easy to see this in idealist terms, and I wanted to write a paper about how progressive we all were. I was reading a paper by Olga Goriunova that analysed FOSS from a Marxist perspective. And then again from a feminist perspective. And then again from a Deluzian point of view. [2] FOSS began to look like a Rorschach blot of politics.

Indeed when some of the major players in the movement, such as Raymond, are right-libertarians [3, 4] and others are anti-captialist, then obviously it resists this kind of simple political reading.This was at the back of my mind this afternoon when, looking for distraction, I logged into the Greater London Linux Users Group channel on Freenode.

Freende is an IRC server, so this was a real-time chat, established so that people in the London area can talk about Linux; maybe network or get some help with a problem. Instead, I wandered in to a conversation where the participants were bemoaning the "wrong" kind of people having babies, by which, they meant poor people. One of the participants was talking about how a particular 14 year old girl, known to him personally, was a "slapper." (*) The conversation turned to how forced sterilisation of poor people would be a good idea. "[W]e keep coming to this conclusion, birth controll [sic] in the water in all council estates" suggested a user called hali. [5]

Meanwhile, bastubis, a woman from a working class background logged in and became upset about the content of the conversation. Bastubis noted she "lived on a council estate as a child." A few lines later hali said, "the fact the chavs(**) get pregnant in the first place is usually a misstake [sic]." Bastubis explained that she was "a chav with an education - you're talking about me." Another user, dick_turpin, chimed in shortly thereafter with, "Enforced sterilisation I say." Bastubis quickly became frustrated and left. [5]

Dick_turpin cheered her departure with a "Huzzah!", while hali celebrated with a "muahaha." [5]

Their exercise of privilege to create a hostile environment for some users is clearly not accidental. If they were unconsciously expressing privilege, that would not have been followed with a "huzzah." Given that the conversation started with both gender and class based slurs, it seem likely that their desire to exclude bastubis from the group had roots both in class and gender. As such, their intention was specifically to replicate privilege found offline and institute online to create an homogenous environment.

That privilege is expressed online as much as offline should not be surprising. FOSS communities are diverse and organised around geographical regions and or interests and sometimes identity, such as women or LGBT users. Therefore, some groups will tend to allow unchecked privilege, while others will tend to frown upon it or specifically disallow it. Simon Yuill writes that OpenLab, another London-based community centred on FOSS, specifically grew out out of a progressive squatter-based movement. Hacklabs such as OpenLab, "have provided a clear political and ethical orientation in contrast to the somewhat confused and contradictory political and social perspectives articulated in the other communities and contexts of the wider FOSS world." [6] When OpenLab's mailing list recently had a discussion about how to get more women involved, there were certainly moments of frustration, but the apparent intention was inclusion.

How is it that FOSS can create some communities that would seem to be progressive and others that would seem to want to preserve privilege over any other goal? I think my error is looking at it as a political movement. A lot of its spokespeople speak of it in a political manner, but given the widely divergent viewpoints, there is no inherent or unifying left or right ideology of FOSS. It's infrastructure. It has value to many groups of people because it avoids duplication of effort and grants them access to resources. For some groups, the fact that it also grants resources to other users is a necessary sacrifice - one that can be mitigated through hostility to undesirable participants. For other groups, the sharing is a main focal point. FOSS, itself, is political like music is political, with as many readings and intentions.

*A derogatory slang term used for sexual promiscuous females.

** A derogatory slang term used for poor people

[1] Free as in Freedom

[2] Goriunova, Olga, "Autocreativity: The Operation of Codes of Freedom in Art and Culture". FLOSS+Art (eBook) Ed. Aymeric Mansoux and Marloes de Valk. 2008.

[3] Raymond, Eric S, "I am an active Libertarian" 2003. Assessed 18 August 2010.

[4] Raymond, Eric S, Whatever happened to civil rights? 2003. Assessed 18 August 2010.


[6] Yuill, Simon, "All Problems of Notation Will be Solved by the Masses: Free Open Form Performance, Free/Libre Open Source Software, and Distributive Practice". FLOSS+Art (eBook) Ed. Aymeric Mansoux and Marloes de Valk. 2008.

1 comment:

Dan said...

Nice article. I do think the amazing achievement of FOSS has been that a fairly radically redistribution-minded movement could have created a contractual structure which embodies some of its ideals, while also being useful for - and resilient to - all kinds of dickheads.

Just thought I'd mention this article I think I got from @glynmoody a couple of weeks back, comparing feminism and FOSS.

Jewell, T. (2010) Open to Everyone: How Open Source Communities Can Benefit from Diversity Without Disunity. Open Source Business Resource.