Open source is not about social justice

I just came across a blog post by Coraline Ada Ehmke on the potential drawbacks of seeking meritocracy in open source projects. Besides the main argument, a rhetorical question drew my attention:

why is it that we can proudly refuse to use software created by corporations whose often aggressive business policies we disagree with, but continue to adopt software written by sexists, racists, homophobes, transphobes? What makes these people immune?

There’s a quite erroneous assumption underlying this question. Open source is not about morality, nor social justice.

(or at least, not for me)

The rest of that blog post’s argument is that meritocracy is about ranking the value of things based purely on their intellectual merit, at the expense of how good people feel about and behave with each other. Or I think it is. I do not know yet whether I agree with the conclusions, but this definition of meritocracy as a starting point seems valid.

What I do not understand is why the author used the open source argument above as an introduction. It is not necessary to make the rest of their blog post strong, and this starting point is actually rather wrong!

Open source is about “providing the rights to study, change, and distribute the software to anyone and for any purpose” [1] [2].

Before Richard Stallman, people were already exchanging software for the sake of sharing, not out of spite for companies that didn’t allow sharing.

Richard Stallman then crystallized the concept of free software by highlighting the freedoms thereby offered to the user; the philosophy was that open source was empowering for both the user and user-developer, providing them with a guarantee of unencumbered freedom of reuse, modification, and sharing that they would not naturally have otherwise.

As a reminder, the “neutral” state of intellectual property culture has always been to enable power dominance via asymmetric knowledge, for which secrecy, obfuscation and general impediment from reusing ideas are the modus operandi. In the various domains of society where intellectual property restrictions were considered relevant and made useful by different mechanisms, the considerations were never about morality and (dis)respect for minority-belonging individuals; they were purely material: wealth, institutional power, influence, economics, high-level politics. This has been true for hundreds of years, ever since society kept records of who invented what. That is the culture that the proponents of open source software are working with or against!

The concerns at hand here are much older than the software industry. To me it is historically misguided, probably disingenuous, and highly disrespectful of the proponents of open source software to construe their motivation as a mere pursuit of moral revenge against relatively recent and probably short-lived (at historical scale) corporations.

To come back to the initial rhetorical question:

  • “why is it that we can proudly refuse to use software created by corporations whose often aggressive business policies we disagree with?”
    1. I don’t believe that open source contributors “proudly refuse to use software created by corporations“ because these corporations have “often aggressive business policies we disagree with.“ I believe instead we are (not proudly) simply refusing to use software whose license prevent either reuse, modification or sharing, regardless of where this software comes from.
    2. turning the argument on its head, the author could seem to suggest what one would accept to use proprietary software built by a “nice corporation“ whose business policies we agree with. This is not so true. I wouldn’t, for example, use software that prevents me from reusing, modifying and sharing, even if it was made by nice people.
  • “why is it that we […] continue to adopt software written by sexists, racists, homophobes, transphobes? What makes these people immune?”
    1. as long as a I am not aware of the individual attitude of the authors, I adopt and use software that allows me to reuse, modify and share. Also, meanwhile, I give no particular merit for the intellectual ability of the author; the consideration is whether the software is suitable for my purposes.
    2. these people are not “immune.“ I do believe, like the author probably does, that choices in life should not be made using purely material and short-term considerations. The choice to adopt and use software, like the one to invest into stock, is sometimes made purely on immediate suitability criteria; but the smart chooser also considers long-term and indirect consequences in their choices. Like I make the choice to not invest in defense and environment-unfriendly stock, I also make the choice to avoid using intellectual property produced by assholes in my public-facing projects, because that would otherwise give them unmerited visibility by advertising their stuff. And I know I am not the only one thinking that way.

Also, as a side note separate to this topic, but a response to some aspects of Coraline’s blog post, I am a proponent of emotional leverage. If I see someone behaving in a way I don’t like, I will first listen to them, engage them to make them feel like I am on their side, and only then provide feedback to indicate I would be happier if they were more careful about their ways. This strategy is not about “being nice“ or “being empathetic.” It is just so damn effective. It’s not about “adopting software written by assholes,“ it’s about “making the assholes feel they are equal to me so that they will feel more enclined to listen to what I think about them.“

[1] St. Laurent, Andrew M. (2008). Understanding Open Source and Free Software Licensing. O’Reilly Media. p. 4. ISBN 9780596553951.