Blog Post

"Open" should not be closed to debate

Greetings from Lima, Peru! For the next few days, I have the pleasure of attending HASTAC 2014, the first HASTAC conference outside of North America and my first HASTAC conference ever! This is an exciting time, since it's really giving me an opportunity to broaden my horizons both academically and culturally.

Here at the conference, several of the authors of the 21st Century Field Notes (including myself) presented the work and context that went into our book on a panel discussing "Openness" and the digital divide. As anyone who knows me knows, my relationship to this group and to this topic comes from my career and training as a computer scientist. Many of the terms I hear used amongst the HASTAC crowd have a very specific meeting to me as a programmer, such as "hacker" and "open", and I feel it's very important for me to make clear what is coming behind them when I use them at this conference. As such, I started the panel off with what "open" means to me in the context of "Open Source".

Open Source refers to a methodology of building and sharing software where instead of programmers keeping the details of how their products work as a secret, they make the inner workings available to the world. When I was getting started in college in Computer Science, I found myself up to my ears in the Open Source world, and was truly able to benefit from seeing the code behind production-class software like the Mozilla Firefox Browser and the Apache Foundation's OpenOffice Suite of tools. Each time I make a change and share it on Github or my website, I am taking part in the same kind of "conspicuous learning" that makes Twitter so popular among the folks here at the conference.

Open Source is more than a publicity stunt. Many programmers - self-described hackers - don't see what they do as work. We make tools that are useful in our lives because we need them. We program to teach ourselves and stretch our limits. We don't feel like it's right to charge people to use the products of our playfulness, not only because of a distrust of the intellectual property economy but because we don't want to create a relationship based on a financial transaction (which comes with assumptions of responsibility). Instead, we use Richard Stallman's famous "hack" of the legal system to establish a "pay it forward" model of software sharing. We don't need your money, we just want to see to it that everyone else can benefit from however you decide to use our software in the same way you were able to benefit from it yourself.

This utopian model isn't perfect. There are power dynamics in play in this world of code and hackery, as brilliant people like Ashe Dryden write about. Which is why our conversation went from utopia to reality as the questions of who "open" applies to in whatever model of "openness" we seek to create. Openness means different things to different people in different contexts. My context is just one, no more "correct" or "canonical" than another.


1 comment

So excited to take a look at 21st Century Field Notes!!! I have a feeling there are amazing insights in here I can apply to the current research project I am working on. Thank you so much for the thoughtful reflection on HASTAC 2014. Really bummed to have missed it but I’m glad it was such an interesting experience.