Beyond free software, F(L)OSS or open source… libre technology
Libre technology is about politics, equality, social justice, and treating our technological infrastructure (software and hardware) as a public good, recognizing it as essential to the society, and building social and legal frameworks to reflect that.
Aka “Always remember to FLOSS! …but why, exactly?”
Like many others, I am disappointed, frustrated and angry with the state of the world. An important part of that — more so every day — is the so-called “tech world”. And within that tech world, one of the many things I’m disappointed with is the “open source” and free software communities.
Open source is a buzzword. It has been co-opted and instrumentalized by corporate powers, who have carefully eviscerated any residual political dimensions. Fuck that. We need to bring back the community, we need to widen our vision, we need to sort our priorities and values, and we need to make some really major changes happen in the world.
Here’s my take: libre tech is about politics, equality, social justice, and treating our technological infrastructure (software and hardware) as a public good, recognizing it as essential to the society, and building social and legal frameworks to reflect that.
It’s not about “an efficient way to produce software”, or “a powerful method for innovating”. Or any of that stuff. Rather, it’s about leveling power asymmetries.
We need to see our technology as infrastructure for a society, and we need to demand that that infrastructure be a public good and part of the public commons.
Witholding code is witholding power. Period.
A few bullet points:
- This is about power and equality. Technology of the people, by the people, for the people.
- Witholding code is witholding power. Period. No ifs ands or buts. Call it what it is, and don’t pretend the profit motive gets to justify it.
- All software should be libre software. Lording power over others is unethical as a base rule and is only justified in certain very special situations. (Example: doing responsible disclosure for 0-days.)
- It’s not just about software. Hardware is just as important. Hence “libre technology”.
To some extent, this is what Stallman and the Free Software Foundation have been ranting about for decades. But there’s a couple differences to my rant: (1) Rarely do they pose it in explicit, meaningful sociopolitical terms. I aim to do this. The usual free software discourse is abstract inside-baseball, and it’s difficult for people to see why it matters. (2) They have been trying, and failing, to make the term “free software” really take off. So I say let’s call it a day and go with “libre technology” and see what happens. If that doesn’t work, find another term.
Why are these things important enough to rant about? For at least a couple of reasons:
- The explicit political dimensions are usually ignored, or mentioned in passing.
- We need to chart a positive path forward. We need an alternative, positive vision, larger awareness of the problems, and a movement that brings in people from all walks of life.
The “tech is not political” problem
Why open source matters for Firefox
Openness sparks innovation. If the Internet at its infancy was closed, it never would have become what it is today. In being an open network with no one entity controlling it, the web allowed anyone, anywhere to create a whole new way to communicate.
If the Internet were a closed system, it’s possible that it would have continued to be a series of independent networks that didn’t interact and wouldn’t have allowed users the freedom to find vital new voices and projects. We wouldn’t be able to surf from link to link, uncovering new information we never knew was out there waiting to be discovered.
Open source also means more interoperability. We want websites that load on any computer or phone. Without a commitment to open source and open standards, it’s possible that manufacturers would create websites and browsers that only work on their machines. That means less choice and less control.
Open source not only prevents the few from deciding for the many — it also makes Firefox better. The more people who can experience and test a set of code, the more likely any bugs will be smashed and great ideas will become part of the project. Think about it: Products made by more people leads to products that are closer to what users want. Four engineers in a room can make an amazing app. Four thousand around the world can change entire systems.
The main points this stresses are: innovation, interoperability, quality. Setting aside its use of corporate language of the “market”, capitalism and consumerism — terms like innovation, choice, products, users — there’s something missing: power. People power, and equality. The one mention this gets is: “Open source not only prevents the few from deciding for the many — it also makes Firefox better.”
WTFH? To put it kindly, this isn’t good enough. We shouldn’t be apologizing for political dimensions. Social and political concerns should be front and center. These are the things that really matter.
The “all tech is evil” problem
(Aka the no-alternatives narrative, or the primitivism false-choice.)
A New Republic article by Sarah Jones, The Year Silicon Valley Went Morally Bankrupt (December 8, 2016), took a swing at a lot of what is horrible and awful about the tech world. The article gets a lot of things right but it also gets a lot of things wrong. In particular, it (seemingly unintentionally) reasserts the usual “Silicon Valley way or the highway” / “no alternatives” narrative. It completely ignores the fact that there are and have been counter-currents within the tech world fighting back against Silicon Valley &c monothink. (Free/libre software community, hacker movement, cypherpunks, cryptoanarchists, Pirate movements…)
The resulting picture is one of no escape, no hope, and no guidance toward any positive development. No future. The no-alternatives narrative is a winning strategy for Silicon Valley every time, because people just don’t choose primitivism. (Well, a small subset do, but not at scale. It won’t go mainstream.) To the general public, the field of choice has appeared to be: the tech magnates’ way, or anti-tech reactionary primitivism. This is a false dilemma, and one that has functioned to promote the tech magnates’ way and silence dissent, because anti-tech primitivism is really a non-starter.
We need to break free of this. We can’t allow authoritarian sectors like Silicon Valley to define the terms of the debate and the vision for our societies.
I think it could be useful to craft explanations of the larger/internal “alternative” (yes it’s a loaded term now :/) picture and backstory and reach out to people like the author of that article. That author obviously knows a lot about this stuff — much more than I do in many respects — but they failed to break out of the SV no-alternatives narrative. Or, if they did break out of it themself, they failed to portray that to their audience.
These things can no longer be an issue for free-software tech “fanatics” to re-hash among themselves. This has to be everyone’s problem, because increasingly, these technologies are becoming the very fabric of our society. Putting our heads in the sand won’t help. Free/libre/open source software and hardware is essential to a free, open, egalitarian society.
Our society as a whole needs to realize that. Free software / libre technology needs to go mainstream, it needs to be political, and it needs to have explicit vision.