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When the “Open Wash” comes with “Open Everything”

The landscape of open projects has expanded substantially, it was (partially) internationalized and became more complex, and different positionings about the future are in dispute among digital technologists vis-à-vis their “non-technical” users/others. This sea-change not only promoted a massive shift toward a business vision and prospect for Free Software, but also undermined a narrative that was anchored on the conceptualization of collaborative software development as a form of practical ethics.

June 2017
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At Paris Open Source Summit, I found myself standing next to a car parked inside the convention center just to hear, in amidst an attentive crowd, a highly enthusiastic engineer describe various bits and pieces of open technology it featured. Walking past more traditional companies, projects, and organizations in the Free and Open Source landscape, I reached an auditorium across the expo pavilion which looked like something from a TV show. Loud music, an entertainer, and a stylish stage with bright pink chairs in front of a gigantic screen where presentation slides and videos were displayed. Passing every ten minutes on stage one after another, guest speakers would present everything from open humanitarian tech to experimental blockchain-based economies, from national associations for French companies to the example of Lyon as a pole of open innovation avant la lettre in the 19th century.

Persuasive narratives of “openness” have become unavoidable in contemporary technopolitical debates. In an accelerated time not very distant from ours, everything started to be rebranded as “open” almost two decades ago. Researchers in humanities and social sciences took heed of this sociotechnical event with keen interest but not without a considerable delay which characterizes the careful work we must do: some of us went to explore the history of standards in the computing industry as an early example of openness; others found deep connections between openness as a means for privatization of public goods as well as for animating gift economies and renovating political projects; while many others attested that Open Source had finally won the corporate world. The evidence? As one of the main historical narratives goes, Free Software – as both an ethical and technical standpoint – morphed over time into an argument to convince corporate managers about the economic benefits of Open Source. In the span of a decade, it became an infrastructural reality in the corporate sector, mainly propelled by Internet companies such as Yahoo, Amazon, Google, and, later, Facebook, among several others which followed suit. Their infrastructural “secret,” so to speak, has never been much of a secret for the Free Software community.

Interestingly but not surprisingly, the Paris Open Source Summit attested to a veritable explosion of open and not-so-open projects in various areas: as an ambiguous term for development models and sets of legal devices for rending software shareable, “open source” has become a quasi-object circulating across highly heterogeneous professional fields. Former US intelligence agent, Robert David Steele, has even coined a “Open Source Everything” manifesto, followed by the publication of an influential book, in which he argues for the revolutionary potential of open source-based governance. There are now “open” and “open source” projects, products, and services for everything, including electric cars, artificial intelligence, farming, banking, innovation, biology, democracy, design, etc. Unforeseen examples of the “open” now include curiously Boing's collaboration in the development of an open cloud platform, Tesla with its purportedly “open” patent portfolio, and, more recently, Microsoft, joining the Linux Foundation with a public statement accompanied by a heart-shaped icon, hopping on the wagon of high tech giants such as IBM, Intel, Hitachi, Samsung, Oracle, and many others. As the saying goes in the Free Software community regarding the antagonist computer industry of a recent past: “First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, and then you win,” rehashing the expression attributed to Gandhi. To which one could also add, “and then they try to become more like you” as in the example of Microsoft for its transformation into a cloud platform whose revenue depends, at least, 25% upon Free and Open Source technologies.

While “openness” seems to have become a desirable rubric for anything, the question regarding its appropriation and misuse is still very much with us. What does it mean to be “open” across varying fields of practice which are very heterogenous, such as the automobile and the agricultural industry, the aeronautical and the educational sectors? Recent appropriations of the “open” ring as an unjustice if we take into consideration the collective labor that goes into keeping a vibrant economy of Free and Open Source alive. Truly alive and thriving, it is true, but mostly invisible as Free and Open Source technologies are taken to be infrastructural when they are not misused for marketing. The evidence of a wide dispersion of “open” projects begs us to take into consideration all that invisible work that goes into supporting digital platforms for businesses. Who in their right minds would bet on this prospect in the tech industry just twenty years ago? We must not forget that for Microsoft, Free and Open Source technologies were, in the words of their top executives, a “communistic cancer.” There was very little corporate love for Free and Open Source back then.

The obsession with “open everything” has also given space for its negative expression, the “open washing.” From the vantage of a recent history of computing politics, what we have witnessed is a veritable dispersion of “open” projects dubious practices when compared to collectively-vetted definitions of what counts as a piece of Free and Open Source technology. As much as “green washing” in sustainability debates, the number of companies “open washing” their products has risen substantially in the past two decades. Open Access (OA), for example, has seen the rise of “predatory” OA journals, as well as “predatory” acquisitions of open academic resources by big companies. “Open government” initiatives, despite their potential for creating horizontal forms of public participation, often pay lip-service for getting volunteers to do the precarious work when applying proper budgets for public works would be more advisable. In this fraught technopolitical space, “Open data” has served as a foil for advancing politics of transparency and reproducibility in the educational, research, and governmental institutions. But it also quite often happens that “open” is not open enough in the sense that contributed datasets are not useful for not being described and distributed in open formats, making them frustrating to use, when they are not full of restrictions, demanding complicated licensing processes. Even “open hardware,” one of the latest frontiers for the electronic commons, has been used as a marketing scheme whereas several products which bear the symbol are not open at all or open enough as needed for the study and replicability of hardware.

There are two particularly inter-related phenomena which, I would suggest, are imbricated in the deluge of “open everything” with recurrent waves of “open washing.” For one thing, the extensibility of the logic and the social force behind Free Software, to use an expression borrowed from the ethnological study of gift economies by Marcel Mauss, can be attributed to the recognition of a foundational aspect of sociality which is created through the means of circulating digital “things,” let it be software, recipes, music, academic papers, government or research data. This recognition has given space, however, to a veritable “open wash,” which is to say, an indiscriminate attribution of the label “open” to anything as to imply an approximation with Free and Open Source development models. Based on empirical research, my colleagues and I have uncovered that there is much more “free loading” that we wanted to believe, as well as much more loaded, discriminatory political dynamics and power concentration across ethnic, socioeconomic, and gender lines than we should accept in open projects. Before key debates about gender inequality and abuse in open projects surfaced in the past decade, the researcher Rishab Ghosh humorously suggested that the Gini coefficient of the Linux kernel project is deceptively low at 0.79. Equivalent indices can be still found for other projects, but things are changing for the better since the public debate started with the help of feminist support groups.

One of the interpretative keys for analyzing this technopolitical landscape can be found in the literature on Free and Open Source technologies. The landscape of open projects has expanded substantially, it was (partially) internationalized and became more complex, and different positionings about the future are in dispute among digital technologists vis-à-vis their “non-technical” users/others. This sea-change not only promoted a massive shift toward a business vision and prospect for Free Software, but also undermined a narrative that was anchored on the conceptualization of collaborative software development as a form of practical ethics: the moral discourse on the imperative of software sharing yielded to an overpowering emphasis on the business advantages of openness. Whereas one could trace its foundations in the Euro-American liberal tradition as anthropologists such as Chris Kelty, Gabriella Coleman, and James Leach have done, this manifestation of openness was also intimately linked with the idea of a post-communist world of liberal democracies as “open societies,” whereas, without delving into an cursive exercise in comparative politics, there was and still is as much forced “openness” going on in authoritarian regimes as there is “closeness” in mass surveillance programs in “open” Western democracies.

Amidst many uncertainities and confusing alliances in the technopolitical landscape of today, we have, at least, one undisputable truism: if you have a particular need, there is probably an “open something” for it, but beware the “open wash”!

Felipe Murillo
Post-doctoral researcher at the Laboratoire Interdisciplinaire de Sociologie économique (CNAM/CNRS)