i dream of being possible

FOSS exceptionalism

I’ve been getting some pretty interesting responses over my post on commodity fetishism in FOSS. A recent discussion with @jbrechtel has made realize that some expansion on the worldview expressed therein would go a long way for clarifying the post.

One of the hangups was my last paragraph of the post:

It isn’t accidental that a bunch of privileged white men created a community and economic model that, as thirty years of development have shown, mainly benefits them.

Which he interpreted as me talking about a conspiracy in FOSS to ensure that the privileged stay that way. This, of course, is understandable if you are viewing oppression as resulting from the intentional actions of individuals. While this does play in important role, as far as interpersonal instantiations of discrimination are concerned, this perspective tends to disguise the greater historical and social contexts that define and give meaning to the FOSS community.

One of the reasons why I’ve begun to criticize and explore the ethics and values of the FOSS community is due to the pervasive sense of exceptionalism that many of its adherents seem to buy into. Which ties into the other reasons why I’ve begun to criticize: this is actually a community I care about. There are many things I find thrilling and laudable about the values, ethics, and community. Pretty much exactly why I think it is worthy of my time and energy.

Nonetheless, it is pretty much clear and obvious at this point, that there are serious problems within the FOSS community. Problems, thankfully, that people seem interested in actually trying to deal with. But these problems will not go away, unless they are understood within context.

Since I’ve begun critiquing FOSS, my belief that the community, as a whole, tends to view itself with some kind of exceptionalism has only been confirmed over and over again. They well and truly believe that they are doing something unique and special. That their commitments to openness, freedom, anti-statism, etc., make the community special, in some non-trivial fashion.

Except… nothing occurs within a vacuum. Nothing. The FOSS community did not spring into existence ex nihilo, delivered unto ‘St. iGNUcius’ from the very hand of god.

So, no, there is no need to posit a conspiracy of cackling white men attempting to keep women and/or poc and/or disabled people and/or etc out of the community.

FOSS has these problems because society has them. There is a serious issues with sexism and misogyny in our culture. FOSS has inherited these. Not only do we have anecdotal evidence to back this up but we also have factual evidence. That there is sexism in the FOSS community is not up for debate.

However, this belief in an exceptional community has, I’d hazard, actually contributed to the situation the FOSS community is currently in. Wherein, as far as gender equality is concerned, it is decades behind the rest of the world. And because it has remained largely homogeneous for such a long time this fiction of exceptionalism has been really easy to maintain.

So too with the commodity fetishism. Certainly possible I bungled the details. I’m still fairly convinced that the commodity of FOSS is the community, rather than the software. But when being asked “How can FOSS change?”, I’m not quite sure how to answer.

Commodity fetishism and the other problems inherent in a capitalist system aren’t unique to FOSS. Indeed, FOSS as a community and sector existing within our current economic system, simply has inherited all capitalism’s problems. I know the community places a premium on the notion of ‘disruption’, but given what we know now, 30+ years into the whole movement, FOSS has done little to disrupt the regular function of capitalism. It benefits those already at the top and exploits everyone else.

And if the FOSS community does wish to live up to its stated ideals, it truly must begin grappling with its relationship to the rest of the world, understand its own historical context, and critically assess how its values have actually played out in the world (as in the consequences of its practices and actions). Otherwise, it is business as usual.