Critical Histories II
April 11, 2019
Open Source, Recursive Publics, and the Maintenance of Socially Responsible Communities
Versions of the Internet have been in use since the 1960s. For many years
however, their use was fairly limited; early adopters were mostly academic or governmental organizations. By the 90â€™s, commercialization of the Internet itself and of personal computing devices had changed the picture, and the Web had transformed into something that resembles the Internet we know today. Web browsers and web apps had become very popular, and changed the way people interacted online. The expansion of Internet networks and the relative availability of personal, internetconnected devices, along with the rise of commercial social media platforms, created an environment in the US where the lives of nearly all people are inextricably intertwined with the digital software that they use. The pervasiveness of software in everyday life gives those that create and shape that software huge amounts of power. As generally happens with new technologies, narratives have been created around the Internet and media technology from both utopian and dystopian perspectives. One of the more optimistic visions of software and media is Open Source, or Free Software. The Open Source community and philosophy seek to create an open environment for software production, where all code is public, editable, and debatable, in the hopes creating better performing and more democratically motivated software. The community sees adaptability as one of its major strengths: that it can change its rules
and tenants as the world changes around it. As we approach the third decade of the 21st century, how has this vision for software production and media technology fared?
In this paper I will examine Open Source, or Free Software, and the narratives
that surround it, and argue that though the community has been successful in many ways, and remains vibrant, some of the aspirational visions associated with Open Source can overlook current problems by relying on overarching philosophies to eventually provide solutions. First, I will provide some background on the Open Source community and Open Source projects as well as the general concept of creative commons, then I will look at the community and its philosophy from several analytical perspectives. Christopher Kelty’s book, Two Bits, provides a helpful ethnographic study of Open Source. Kelty introduces the concept of a recursive public, which he says Open Source aspires to be. Paul Dourish and Genevieve Bell provide another useful lens in Divining a Digital Future. They discuss the problem of the proximate future as it applies to the concept of ubiquitous computing, but their analysis applies to many techno-optimistic visions. Finally I will discuss how we might measure the successes of Open Source considering the broadness of its aspirations. Free, open access to democratically generated information, technology, and media sounds utopian, but achieving such things in the real world is far diﬀerent than theorizing about them. The goals of Open Source are lofty considering the neoliberal, capitalist environment of the United States that it emerged out of; can it remain vibrant as the tech giants loom?
“Practices in [code] production and development that favour access to the end
product’s source materials are frequently labelled by the term ‘open source’. These
methodologies are commonly applied to the peer production development of software source code that is shared online for public collaboration and reuse as open source software (OSS) (Alonso de Magdaleno and Garcia , 369).
Figure 1: System diagram of Open Source Editing (Alonso de Magdaleno and Garcia, 371)
Open Source code is shared on the internet and modified by the public, who then contribute their code back into the public space. This process is then repeated countless times to create a public sphere of knowledge and technology that is always monitored by the public, all of whom have equal access to the technology and equal ability to modify it. Furthermore, because the medium of the Open Source communityâ€™s communication is itself software, programmers can analyze and modify the very fabric their network. The Open Source mindset extends far past the code itself, applying as well to the copyright laws that the community has developed for itself, along with countless other forms of information and technology on the internet. The community
believes in equal access to information and source code, as well as constant iteration and self analysis. Open Source applies to a massive amount of the software that exists and is the norm in many industries. Famous open source projects include Mozilla Firefox, WordPress, VLC Media Player, Audacity, Latex, Unix, Ubuntu, and many more. What unites these software projects are the communities of users and developers that engage around and with the software constantly. Furthermore they all possess designs which do not contain excessive advertisements and showy features. Though my knowledge of these programs is not comprehensive, I do have personal experience with many of them. They all tend to work well, but more importantly, they all exist outside of the flashy, advertisement riddled, commodity filled environment that exists in other free-to-use and commercial software contexts.
Currently, the Free Software community seems to be growing. Github is the
internetâ€™s most popular code sharing tool. It allows for both public and private code repositories, but a large portion of the code repositories on the site are open and downloadable. Github is used by students, hobbyists, companies and anyone who wants to share their code, and is a valuable resource for helping in coding projects, both by allowing for quick, easy collaboration and by being a vast reference of code samples. It is one of the platforms the sustains Open Source, and as of April, 2019, has over 36 million (github.com) accounts registered. This number is up from just over 28 million users in June, 2018 (github.com). Creative Commons is another successful project with ties to Open Source. From their website, â€œCreative Commons helps you legally share your knowledge and creativity to build a more equitable, accessible, and innovative world. We unlock the full potential of the internet to drive a new era of
development, growth and productivity” (creativecommons.org). They provide “free, easyto-use copyright licenses” to give people a way to share creative work while maintaining some ownership of it. Creative Commons works with many well known companies, including Youtube, Vimeo, Wikipedia, Flickr, and Bandcamp, and boasts that its licenses have been used to share over 1.4 billion works (creativecommons.org). While not as intimately tied to Open Source as Github, Creative Commons is driven by many of the philosophies that inspire Open Source. Both communities believe that openness, accessibility, and sharing of knowledge, rather than competition and secrecy, benefit us all and expand knowledge and creativity in general.
Github, Creative Commons and The Internet as a whole, exist as a common
space where users can share and collaborate on creative projects. The idea of a commons, a community space to be used by everyone, is not new, and has been famously discussed in economics. The Tragedy of the Commons is the term generally used, and refers to the idea that a group of farmers using a common grazing pasture, each acting independently in their own self interest, would necessarily be working against the common good of the group. In other words, the farmers will greedily overgraze and ruin the commons for everyone; there will be freeloaders. The alternative is then that each farmer should have their own land that they will take care of because only they depend on it. Creative Commons, like Open Source or Free Software operate similarly to classical commons with a main diﬀerence. Creative Commons do not have a finite resource which can be used up by individual actors. Or do they? James Boyle, in his essay “Mertonianism Unbound, “discusses the use of common spaces, specifically the internet, for generating scientific and cultural knowledge, and the
dependability of that knowledge. He discusses some problems he might expect to see form in an online knowledge commons (Boyle, 8). For one, free access to publication without powerful editors or peer review systems might result in a database of unreliable knowledge that is diﬃcult to parse. Second, publishing content without “the guarantee of a future legally protected monopoly called copyright, one could not attract the investment necessary to engage scores or hundreds of researchers to produce a work that could easily be copied by the first free rider to come along” (Boyle, 8). Finally, if product names are not protected, and could be used by anyone, how can consumers trust the products and information they find, “names as well as pastures can be overgrazed”? (Boyle, 8)
The surprising thing is that these potential pitfalls in the implementation of the
massive commons of the internet have been largely avoided. Though the Internet does contain massive amount of incorrect and sometimes purposely misleading information, as Boyle comments, “when is the last time you turned to the encyclopedia or the World Book rather than to the Web?” (Boyle, 8) Written in 2005, this question rightfully seems dated, and is infinitely more true today than it was then. Few people today would know where to find a World Book, and access the internet constantly. Boyle argues that original work on the tragedy of the commons overestimated its applicability and underestimated the extent to which a responsible public commons could be successfully managed (Boyle, 9). Open Source or Free Software exists as a successfully managed public commons, which is even more remarkable in capitalist America, considering that its administrators and members are volunteers, and hobbyists, and academics.
The incentives for contributing to the community have been debated.
“According to Tapscott and Williams (2006) individuals participation in peer-production would be explained by a wide range of intrinsic and self-interested reasons, basically because they feel passionate about their particular area of expertise and enjoy creating something new or better.” (Alonso de Magdaleno and Garcia, 376) Of course sharing code publicly can also build one’s reputation and improve social standing in the community as well as improve portfolios. Representing the social dynamics of such a large community that exists mainly in an online space presents a challenge. In his book Two Bits, Christopher Kelty provides an ethnographic study of the Open Source community and proposes a term which describes the type of community that Open Source aspires to be, The Recursive Public.
In Two Bits, Kelty argues that the Open Source movement was a response to the
dramatic reorganization of knowledge and power that came along with the rise of the internet and of information technology. The dramatic increase in the speed of information transfer due to the internet, created an environment where vast amounts of information are constantly available to those that have technology. This is generally overwhelming to the society, as Jameson argues in his essay on postmodernism, because a rapid supply of information prevents the society from being able to create a strong foundation of knowledge. Jameson cites Lacan’s account of schizophrenia to explain himself, “Very briefly, Lacan describes schizophrenia as a breakdown in the
signifying chain, that is, the interlocking syntagmatic series of signifiers which constitutes an utterance or a meaning.” (Jameson, 71) In other words, an excess of information and change can can cause a disconnection between things and their
meanings, thereby obscuring the senses, and in today’s world there is always an excess of information because of The Internet. Kelty see’s Open Source as a response to this inundation of information, arguing that the community can be described as a Recursive Public, because it is open access and is self-modifying in every way (Kelty, xi). It provides a method to cope with large amounts of information without committing itself to a certain criteria for knowledge. The very criteria by which knowledge is evaluated is always up for debate.
This term ‘Recursive Public’ is one of Kelty’s own creation, and is important in
understanding his view of Open Source, so what are they? Kelty defines a Recursive Public as, “a public that is constituted by a shared concern for maintaining the means of association through which they come together as a public.” (Kelty, 28) On the internet, this means that everyone in the public has a ‘shared-concern’ for internet infrastructure. Members of the Open Source community were very worried about losing net neutrality, for example. The internet, and its openness, are absolutely vital to any sort of Open Source community to flourish, and so Kelty argues that those communities must be always concerned and critical about the platforms on which they communicate and share data. This point does not yet even reach the content that these publics produce. Rather it concerns the malleability of the infrastructure on which they produce it. For example, a recursive public using SoundCloud would not only be concerned about the openness of particular songs to be edited and used, but it would also desire the website’s source code, and curation algorithms, and everything else about it to be up for debate and revision.
After that, a Recursive Public would be concerned with the openness of the
content it seeks to produce. To continue the SoundCloud example, all songs should be publicly owned and publicly editable. In Kelty’s view, the open development of individual songs, as well as the progression of music as a whole, relies on a recursive system where songs are shared with the public, debated, edited. Methods used in creating the song are shared so that more people can use them, and sections of the actual song can be remixed to create new songs. If the community decides it would be a good idea, then new kinds of copy-write rules can be written, debated and revised. All this supports a democratic evolution of the musical landscape.
The final piece of the puzzle is open-access: the idea that the access to
SoundCloud would be available to absolutely anyone, and that no single person’s, or group of people’s, edits or opinions would be valued above the rest’s. As with the other aspects of Open Source, this part is critical, as it prevents the general swaying of the discourse in a certain political direction. However it also presents a complicated problem when viewed in our real would context. It relies on the provision that the Internet is freely accessible. But in order to access the internet in a consistent and reliable way, to the extent that one could engage in the Open Source community, requires money. Furthermore to engage with the community requires foundation of technological knowledge that is not necessarily equally accessible, and also requires money. One could argue that the knowledge required, how to code for example, is freely accessible on the internet, but this view overlooks the social knowledge required to be aware of the Open Source community as well as the desire to join it. To a large
extent, The Internet is open access, but it might not always be, and that must be taken into account when evaluating the validity of Kelty’s argument.
The function of these aspects of Kelty’s “Recursive Public” is to create a
democratic environment that has the ability to readily modify itself to fit its circumstances. The key point here is that rules that recursive publics are written to solve potential problems instead of to solve current problems, and this strategy always places the ideal public in the proximate future. In many ways this strategy makes sense; it allows the public to adapt and solve its own problems. However, this view can also tend to neglect problems of the now. The general and idealistic rules of the public can be too heavily relied upon, and issues can be overlooked as implementation issues that will be ironed out eventually. To prevent this requires an active and committed community of users who resist complacency, and truly question the nature of their discourse.
As mentioned above, a recursive public positions itself as able to solve
problems not through any specific method, but instead by asserting its own ability to adapt to future environments. On the surface this seems like a democratic structure, but it can also disguise problems. This problem of proximate futures characterizes much discourse surrounding technology in general, and in their 2011 book, Divining a Digital Future, Paul Dourish and Genevieve Bell analyze Mark Weiser’s concept of ubiquitous computing within this framework. While Ubicomp and Open Source are diﬀerent visions, they rely on some of the same technological and societal factors to support their claims. Dourish and Bell analyze Weiser’s language: “The dominant tense of ubicomp writing is that of the proximate future. That is, motivations and frames are
often written not merely in the future tense, describing events and settings to come, but portray a proximate future, one just around the corner. The proximate future is in observations that ‘Internet adoption levels will shortly reach … ,’ ‘We are entering a period when … ,’ …” (Dourish and Bell, 23) One strong similarity between Ubicomp and Open Source is the assumption that access to the internet is currently expanding and will continue to expand to reach nearly everyone. The very premise of Open Source relies on open access, but Dourish and Bell remind us that envisioning equal access might mask its current state.
They present two reasons that ubicomp’s placement in the proximate future can
raise problems. “First, the centrality of ubicomp’s proximate future continually places its achievements out of reach, while at the same time blinding us to current practice.” (Dourish and Bell, 22) Almost the exact same can be said of Free Software. Though its reliance on future technological innovations is lesser than ubicomp’s, there are no tangible, achievable, stated goals of Open Source by which to tangibly judge its success. How does one value the success of something that is by definition constantly shifting its form and direction? The broad goals of democratic technology are not easy to measure oneself against. “Second, the framing of ubicomp as something yet to be achieved allows researchers and technologists to absolve themselves of responsibilities for the present…questions of usability, regulation, resistance, adoption barriers, sociotechnical backlashes, and other concerns are erased.” (Dourish and Bell, 22) This second reason applies very directly to ubicomp, and as focuses on the messiness of integrating technology with the physical infrastructures of our world. It is messy when we try to seamlessly integrate digital computation into an established
analog world. The case of Open Source can be seen in a similar way. The dreams of Open Source and recursive publics are ones that conflict with the neoliberalism and capitalism that so strongly characterize 21st century American society. While Open Source products do exist, much of open source software exists as part time work for the coders, who must have other jobs to sustain themselves. Can open source be successful if it struggles to integrate itself into a robust, capitalist economy? Creative Commons is one way that recursive publics have interfaced with Capitalism, providing users a way to share creative projects under particular copyright licenses. Youtube is one company that uses Creative Commons, generating profits from advertising, and providing almost all of its content for free. But does Youtube embody the hopes of recursive publics and Free Software? Youtube’s video suggestion algorithms muddle questions of openness, and the massive amounts of money generated for Youtube and for certain content creators might change the tone with which knowledge and content are shared. Clickbait and dishonest advertising dominate much of the environment, and directed campaigns of disinformation even attempt to sway public sentiment. The concerns that Dourish and Bell articulate, related to “questions of usability, adoption barriers, sociotechnical backlash, being erased,” (Dourish and Bell, 22) remain extremely valid for Open Source and creative commons projects as they attempt to operate in a capitalist, post-colonial environment.
The central goals of Open Source and of Kelty’s Recursive Public are access to
knowledge for all in order to build a universal collection of knowledge, but these seemingly basic ideas exist in a post-colonial world, which must also be considered. This concept was explored by Anderson and Bowry with respect to the Access to
Knowledge movement: “Our central concern is that the ‘common’ ground upon which the access to knowledge movement (A2K) seeks to tread, that is, the notion of humanity sharing a commons, is actually a fault line of significant proportions that involves colonial and post-colonial conflict, politics, power, economics and histories of human relationships. Such diﬃcult terrain has the potential to undermine the movement’s capacity to fulfill its humanitarian promise of cultural inclusion.” (Anderson and Bowrey) They express concern for the preservation of indigenous bodies of knowledge by the colonial powers that seek to establish universal sets of knowledge.
The sharing of any cultural artifacts between people is a complex process, the
dynamics of which depend heavily on the power relationship between the two parties, “for sharing cannot be understood outside the power relations implicit in the concept of freedom, and the capacity to act within what is considered to be that freedom.” (Anderson and Bowrey) In the case of Open Source, experienced coders with a depth of knowledge about the community would clearly have more power than beginners, and certain people have more power to be able to join the software engineering community than others. Though recursive publics aspire to be open and all-inclusive, the current reality is that they are not; certain countries and certain demographics control the software that massive numbers of people use constantly, in turn giving those people even more power. Though not exactly Open Source, Youtube again provides a good example of how theoretically open communities can become hotbeds of misinformation and dishonest content when they interface with commodified systems. Power inequality escalates, and the general quality (in my opinion) of the content suﬀers. Communities that wish to remain recursive publics, as
Kelty rightly points out, must remain vigilant and critical of them selves and their openness at all times. A true recursive public might allow for pockets of alternate viewpoints; it doesn’t have to seek to develop a body of universally ‘good’ or universally applicable technology.
To accomplish this goal of self criticality, I argue that some sort of measuring
stick must be created by which to evaluate the successes of proclaimed open communities. Furthermore there must be some sort of democratic administration that monitors users. The broad rules and goals of recursive publics require that users act in good faith, and so there should be some mechanism by which bad-faith actors are prevented from influencing the common space. Alonso de Magdaleno and Garcia’s paper, “Sustainability and social responsibility reporting in open source software,” provides a technical background for open source software and begins theorizing about ways in which the community can act in a socially responsible way, “we firmly believe that an appropriate sustainability reporting framework for OSS development activities is an area to explore which would open up new lines of project management and institutional recognition; aiming straight both for industry benefits and common good through a better CPR self-governance.” (Alonso de Magdaleno and Garcia, 392) Recursive publics rely on the idea that an open community of users will produce socially responsible content, but such broad, overarching goals must be constantly monitored and actively implemented instead of relying on the proximate future to correct the current issues.
Open Source, or Free Software, finds itself in a diďŹƒcult position. Though it
seems to be thriving as the second decade of the 21st century comes to a close, it faces continued challenges: sustaining itself into the future in an environment where large technology companies threaten to monopolize the marketplace, and also maintaining an allegiance to the aspirational values of recursive publics.
The public spaces on the Internet where creative and scientific content is
generated diďŹ€er from traditional commons. Creative common spaces are created by humans, and do not depend on the existence of a finite natural resource, however they may still be vulnerable to some of the problems of traditional commons. Though they cannot be over-harvested in a literal way, they can be influenced and altered by users who act in by faith. â€œInstitutional design is essential to overcome the destruction of natural commons through self-governance processes that manage collective action. We can assume that it would be also paramount when dealing with knowledge commons. (Alonso de Magdaleno and Garcia, 392) I argue that open source projects strengthen the media landscape by providing diversity to an industry that is becoming ever more monopolized. These open communities must remain engaged and selfcritical however, because in interfacing with the capitalist environment around them, creative common spaces risk falling victim to tribalism and dishonest users. In order to accomplish this, the general tenants of Open Source and Recursive Publics cannot be relied upon. Instead, communities should govern themselves and provide some sort of institutional oversight so as to forefront the problems of the now.
1. Anderson, Jane E. and Kathy Bowrey. "The Imaginary Politics of Access to Knowledge:
Whose Cultural Agendas are Being Advanced?”. Australasian Intellectual Property Law Resources Vol. 13, 2006.
2. Boyle, James. “Mertonianism Unbound? Imagining Free, Decentralized Access to Most
Cultural and Scientific Material.” Understanding Knowledge as a Common: From Theory to Practice, ed. Charlotte Hess and Elinor Ostrom, 123–44. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2006. http://www.james-boyle .com/ mertonianism.pdf.
4. De Magdaleno, María Isabel Alonso, and Jesús García-García. “Sustainability and Social Responsibility Reporting in Open Source Software.” International Journal of the Commons, vol. 9, no. 1, 2015, pp. 369–397. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/26522829.
5. Hardin, Garrett. “The Tragedy of the Commons.” Science 162 (1968): 1,243–48.
6. Jameson, Fredric. “The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.” Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. 1-54. Durham: Duke UP, 1991.
7. Kelty, Christopher M. Two Bits, The Cultural Significance of Free Software. Duke University Press, 2008.
8. "User search". GitHub. Retrieved April 9, 2019.