In search of an “open” politics

by Sebastian Benthall

The open source movement has trouble articulating a coherent politics.

On the one hand, we have people like Matt Asay. Asay does a good job of making open source palatable to the mainstream business world. But he depoliticizes it so aggressively that he sometimes misses the (elusive) point.

In his recent post, “Free software is dead. Long live open source“, Asay argues that the free software ideology is too uncompromising about proprietary software. Open source has succeeded–or will succeed (Asay waffles as to whether the victory is already manifest or merely inevitable)–because it has embraced interoperability with proprietary software.

The path forward is open source, not free software. Sometimes that openness will mean embracing Microsoft in order to meet a customer’s needs.

Free software has lost. Open source has won. We’re all the better for it.

There is a disconnect in Asay’s post between his benign praise of interoperability and the tone of his screed against the Free Software movement. Though it was likely lost on many readers, the best explanation for that tone, and for his break from his normal subjects of open source business news and strategy, is that the post (published September 25) was written in tacit response to Software Freedom Day (September 19).

As could be inferred from its “freedom” rhetoric, Software Freedom Day is an explicitly political event. It’s vision:

…is to empower all people to freely connect, create and share in a digital world that is participatory, transparent, and sustainable.

It’s objectives are to:

1. to celebrate software freedom and the people behind it
2. to foster a general understanding of software freedom, and encourage adoption of free software and open standards
3. to create more equal access to opportunities through the use of participatory technologies
4. to promote constructive dialogue on responsibilities and rights in the information society

The free software movement is alive and kicking. Meanwhile, the politics of free software have spilled out into Free Culture movement and others. The Software Freedom Law Center’s James Vasile, inviting everyone in that ideological space to NYC’s Software Freedom Day event, noted:

Our production model, our ethos, and our focus on transparency, running code and the freedom to share are spreading beyond software to other areas of culture, including government, media, science, and the arts.

In New York City, Software Freedom Day will mark the launch of a series of quarterly Open Source / Open Culture events designed to engage free software hackers, creative commons artists, open government activists, and open science innovators.

All this talk of ethics , activism, rights, and freedom gets in the way of selling open source software to businesses, which explains why Asay proclaims so vigorously that free software is dead and has lost: precisely because it isn’t and hasn’t. Asay is trying to shift discussion away from these philosophical concerns. As he explains in a later post,

The problem I have with free-software advocates like Richard Stallman is that they think freedom is the primary reason to use open-source software. It’s not. Utility is.

After all, we’re not talking about essential human rights here. We’re talking about getting work done with software.

The problem with the philosophical rhetoric is that it is not persuasive to consumers. But the problem with depoliticizing open source is that it alienates the producers, who are often politically, not monetarily, motivated to engage in the open source process.

Consider Ian Bicking’s soul-searching about what it means to be an open source programmer. He traces his 15 year history of engaging with free and open source software. His story starts with his discovery of the GNU Manifesto while poking around Emacs.

When I read [part of the manifesto] I was immediate head-over-heels in love with this concept. As a teenager, thinking about programming, thinking about the world, having a statement that was so intellectually aggressive was exciting.

It wasn’t saying: what are we not allowed to do, nor did it talk about some kind of societal injustice. It didn’t talk about the meaning of actions or their long-term effects. Instead it asked: what must we do, not as a society, not in service of some end, but what are we called upon to do as an individual, right now, in service of the people we call friends.

But after this era of moral attraction to free software, the FOSS community’s discussion shallowed and narrowed to a discussion of the production model and the particulars of licensing. FOSS ceased to be a matter of positive moral activity; rather, it became a list of things one was merely legally allowed to do.

What’s missing, Bicking goes on to explore, is the meaningfulness of identifying as an open source programmer. Acknowledging that the practical aspects of FOSS are ultimately more compelling than Stallman’s moral arguments, he asks:

The open source and free software philosophical divide: on one side practical concerns, on the other moral. And this is what I want to talk about later: can we find a moral argument for these practical concerns?

Speaking personally, I feel this dilemma. When I chose to enter the software industry, I made a deliberate political choice to work on open source software at a social enterprise rather than at a proprietary startup. And I see a similar tension among colleagues at OpenGeo, TOPP, and in the developer communities I participate in and hear about.

OpenGeo especially is aiming for commercial success, and is shifting its priorities and marketing message accordingly (heavily influenced by Asay, via our own pragmatic open source industry veteran Paul Ramsey). The question that seems to underly a lot of our internal angst and discussion is, “Are we selling out?”

The answer is, “No.” But it’s not a good enough answer. It’s not good enough because one of the virtues–both pragmatic and moral–of open source is that you don’t have to put up with the bullshit of having to say or do things you don’t mean. Part of the point of open source process is that it is open.

The solution to the problem can’t be an uneasy tension between snappy sales pitch and a hidden agenda. That undercuts both the sincerity of the pitch and the viability of the agenda. Rather, there needs to be an articulation of the open agenda that is compelling for both outsiders and participants, both producers and consumers, so that those distinctions can be ultimately extinguished.