In 2011, Marc Andreessen declared, “Software is eating the world“. Fast forward to 2016 and it has definitely eaten up mine. As a young researcher and writer, I’ve no doubt enabled the insatiable beast that is software through an increasing reliance on Information and Communication Technologies (ICT). My relationship with software could even be characterized as co-dependent. It’s hard to imagine what life was like before applications such as Netflix, Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Toggle, Asana, OSx, iOS, Uber, Fitbit, WordPress, Dropbox, Feedly (to name a few), and the affordances that the software provide.
While the aforementioned applications provide tangible benefits in my professional and personal life, I can’t help but feel a bit boxed in. While software can be useful, we users are stuck with how designers envisioned the product. Although I can use the software and applications in unintended ways, it’s clear that particular values are embedded in and govern the ways in which we use and interact with the software (examples of Facebook algorithm suppresses conservative news stories; restricted to apps that Apple has decided on to include in their store or that Google allows on their Google Play store for Android). Is this what openness on the Internet looks like? (For more on this topic, check out the podcast, “Is the Internet being ruined?”)
Free/libre and open source software, on the other hand, offers a bit more breathing room for users, more diverse software applications for diverse purposes and contexts and starts to break down the hierarchies of power in who controls the ways in which our everyday lives are being governed with online tools.
Free/libre and open source software (FLOSS) is “free” in its usage and distribution rather than in its price tag. A common example cited in academic literature is the analogy of Coca Cola and Open Cola. When one purchases a can or bottle of Coca-Cola, consumers receive a list of the ingredients but not the actual recipe that tells you the proportions of the ingredients that makes up the soda. ‘Open Cola,’ on the other hand, a start up in Toronto, sells Open Cola and provides both the ingredients and the exact recipe to make the soda. In this way, consumers have full access to the recipe to understand more of what’s in their drink, can make it at home and can even use the recipe as a base to make flavoured Open Cola (recipe for Open Cola).
In the case with software, the idea of sharing the recipe and not just the ingredients is similar. With this information we can understand the software and how it works and, if we have the technical skills or even just learning those required technical skills, we can alter and improve it and create something entirely new or new enough for our own purposes. For those just getting into coding and programming, FLOSS can be great projects to jump into. But its use goes beyond programmers as well. For users without much technical skill, finding and reporting bug fixes and implementing the software in different environments and contexts and documenting such efforts are also important parts of improving upon software.
You are probably using open sourced software without even knowing it: Some of the major ones include Firefox from the non-profit Mozilla browser, WordPress, OpenOffice and even reddit, the social news sharing site.
Nevertheless, not everyone has been on board with FLOSS. Giant tech companies want to withhold their software source code to make large profits and keep themselves competitive. For one, the business model associated with open source does not necessarily bring in the big bucks that tech companies want and think they need to incentivize innovation. Former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer stated in 2000 that open source software such as Linux is like a “cancer” that attaches itself to intellectual property and destroys it. He also stated that this “openness” is communist theft. Today, his story has changed.
I think it’s more about who owns and profits from the software – companies want to make money on their software and so patents and copyright allow them to keep the “recipe” a secret and entices software developers to innovate. However, opening up the software to diverse skill sets and imaginations can also spawn innovation. It begins the work of breaking down the hierarchy of expertise knowledge, and sets new boundaries at the same time that still limit the participation of women and marginalized folks (Lin, 2005) (i.e. still more work needs to be done to encourage the participation of women in open-source software).
The central issues related to open source software are who owns the code and who is excluded from having access to it and as users, how much control we really have in the many, many programs we interact with on a daily basis. While these issues present unique challenges, there may be real benefits for both programmers and non-programmers alike. The freedom to tinker and play with software without the fear of infringing on intellectual property rights could foster innovation in exciting and unexpected ways. For researchers who are studying the governing ways of software, opening up this “black box” is of paramount importance. The values that are encoded into the software are within this source code (see Pasquale, 2015).
What open source software are you tinkering with or using?
Lin, Y. (2006) A Techno-feminist perspective on Free/Libre open source software, Gender and IT Encyclopedia. http://www.mujeresenred.net/IMG/pdf/lin5.pdf
Pasquale, Frank. 2015. The Black Box Society: The Secret Algorithms That Control Money and Information. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.