Why FOSS is still not on activist agendas

On December 13th, 2006, author Bruce Byfield reflected on why he thought Free and Open Source Software (F.O.S.S.) was not on activist agendas. My interpretation of his views are that a knowledge barrier about technology makes FOSS less accessible, the insular nature of activism makes collaboration difficult, and FOSS activists reaching out to other activists with shared values should be encouraged. On December 13th, 2019, is FOSS on activist agendas? The answer is not black or white, but a gray somewhere in the middle. This is my response to Byfield’s article, thirteen years later, on what he got right but also what he left out.

Where Byfield was accurate

While I don’t agree with all of Byfield’s sentiments, he identified some key challenges that still hold truth today: a predisposition to focus on differences and not similarities, an outreach approach centered on ethics and not software, and the importance of opportunities for intersectional interaction.

Predisposition towards difference

First, Byfield notes the differing age groups of the activist communities and the tendency for viewing others by their differences first, not their similarities. He seems to attribute the tendency to view others by differences first as a characteristic of older generations; however, this is not necessarily the full truth.

As a member of the young activist community, this explanation is too simplistic of the underlying cause. There is also a political motivation by established power to sow division among the population of a nation-state. It makes community organizing more difficult and presents diversity as an issue to “solve” instead of a source of greater unity and common strength.

This is exemplified by the social media algorithms of today that reward sensational content (judged on likes, views, clicks, or other user feedback) and share it widely across a huge platform. In 2006, it was difficult to imagine the relationship social media would have in the lives of an everyday person; today, a great deal of social power is granted to those who understand how to leverage social media, either for good (e.g. social activism) or harm (e.g. deceptively persuading large parts of a nation-state’s population leading up to a national election).

The politics of division are within the fabric of our political systems; this is a challenge for modern-day activism and community organizing to overcome. In identifying this as a challenge, Byfield is correct that a differences-first approach makes it harder to share and spread the importance of FOSS in other activism circles, especially as technology becomes an increasingly relevant way of how we experience our lives and how our systems of law and justice are enforced.

Outreach on ethics, not software

Second, Byfield suggests an ethics-based approach to outreach is more effective than a software-based approach. This is also correctly noted, even if perhaps overemphasized. The jargon and language of the technology world is not accessible to the large majority of the global population. While some degree of technology literacy might be expected in some populations, much of the existing FOSS community is deeply rooted in technology. Sometimes this limited perspective is counterproductive.

This revisits the rebranding of “Free Software” as “open source” in 1997. For many subsets of the wider open source community in 2019, the default approach to open source software is merely a secondary thought for how to collaboratively work on technology. This is part of the outcome of the Open Source Initiative’s gamble in 1997 by beginning to emphasize the business sensibility and practicality of open source, and de-emphasize the social roots of Free Software (or rather, try and position itself as some sort of translator between these two “worlds”, as if they cannot be spoken of together in the same room).

As such, those who work on open source software projects are not necessarily predisposed to assume the role of an activist. Truly if Free Software is to take root outside of technology, then those who see the ethical values of Free Software need to better organize and promote the values of FOSS externally. This will contribute to the diversity of Free Software activism by helping non-technology activists add FOSS as a tool to their existing work.

Intersectional movement building is the future

Thirdly and finally, and perhaps most importantly, Byfield suggests the importance of intersectional interactions between Free Software communities and other activist communities. This is a fundamental requirement for the growth of Free Software as a social movement. Those of us in Free Software see the world around us informed by a background informed by technology; this background is emphasized in a world that is generating new, advanced technology at an unprecedented rate. However, while software and technology are important parts of the world around us, they are not the world around us. They are one part of a greater picture of fighting for a common good and welfare for all people. There are others in similar niches who have a deep understanding of their problem space and how they want to approach a challenge.

“One group may be working against child poverty, another for recycling, but the people in these organizations can almost be transferred from one to the next.”

Peter T. Brown, Free Software Foundation Executive Director (2006)

Just like a healthy garden, cross-pollination of these niches is vital to help others understand how we can help each other in accomplishing our mutual goals (this also feeds into why the politics of division explained above is so pervasive and difficult). Bringing Free Software technologists to activist communities where there is not an overwhelming Free Software background (and vice versa) is vital to building an intersectional social movement that strengthens the social impact of Free Software, not just open source.

Where Byfield didn’t go far enough

Byfield made one assumption on how activists have “their own share of insularity” and that the presence of connections between two movements does not mean they could immediately connect their existing beliefs with new ones. Fioretti’s challenge was in others understanding why they should listen to him; there was a lack of foundational knowledge of open source and technology that is normally assumed of someone who works as a software engineer.

Indeed, attention is a currency in the world of an activist. It is not enough for a FOSS advocate to expect others to listen to you on an appeal of technology. Part of the work in sharing is understanding who you are sharing with; if FOSS wants to take deeper roots in the activist community, it needs to understand the backgrounds of activist communities and be creative in how to appeal the mission of FOSS to the mission of their work. Where you can build in-roads together with others through common initiatives is the beginning of grassroots community organizing. So, while Byfield is right that there is an almost competitive nature of ideas in activism, it is not enough to write insularity off as a fixed aspect of nature. To not acknowledge this is to deny the influence of capitalist power structures in the humanitarian sector as they pertain to sustainable funding.

What are today’s challenges?

Some of today’s challenges are about inclusion and power.

Inclusion builds power

Diversity and inclusion (D&I) are important but poorly understood; not only are D&I about including people of different identities in technology, but also people with backgrounds outside of technology. FOSS stands to benefit by including more people who do not necessarily have a strong technology or engineering background. The goal is to inspire different perspectives to contribute in meaningful ways to build sustainable technology.

Instead of seeing diversity and inclusion initiatives as problematic or unneeded, D&I groups in FOSS communities stand to be the most effective people at building community and influence.

Power and governance

In the activist / humanitarian / non-profit world, there is a power struggle for sustainability as it pertains to funding. Funding models in non-profit work (usually sustained by grants, sponsors, and donors) encourage solutions that get funded, not necessarily solve problems the most effective way. Many organizations struggle with how to achieve sustainable funding without being so dependent on the expiration date of a grant’s funding.

We need more representative governance models in open source communities that reflect the interests of the communities around them, not necessarily an individual, a company, or group of companies. Building governance models that empower people within a community to make decisions and reduce the corrosive influence of money from humanitarian work.

Where do we go from here?

This blog post is an active reflection of my own thoughts and perspectives of Free Software, activism, and humanitarian work. If you are interested in pushing this conversation further, find me in Brussels, Belgium for any of the following three conferences and let’s chat further:

If you want to discuss this further, you can also drop a line in our online discussion community, fossrit.community.


Photo by Walid Berrazeg on Unsplash

1 Comment

  1. I don’t travel much but if you’re ever in Brain-Washington 😉 look me up.

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