Our relationship with technology is largely toxic- think Volkswagen cheating, Facebook spying, Uber being Uber. Tech is ruled by the elite and we are mostly at its mercy. Free/Open Source Software movements offer an alternative to corporate, proprietary technology. And yet Free Software still has a long way to go. The missing ingredient is accountability.
Free Software means that anyone can read, use and remix the code that the software was written in. This of course helps with accountability because, unlike proprietary software, experts and community members can audit the code for security flaws and disingenuous functionality. However, there are several limitations with free software-
- Reviewing the code is only meaningful to coders.
- Changing the code or design can only be done by coders.
Only a small percentage of the world can code. An even smaller percentage have the time to write code for Free Software and an even smaller number have the time and expertise in that particular project.
As a major survey lead by GitHub supports (and comes as little surprise), the Free Software community is not diverse and heavily reflects systems of oppression. The vast majority of Free Software contributors are white, male, cisgendered, financially well off, formally educated, able-bodied, straight, English speakers and citizens of Western countries.
This means that the same groups of people designing and building proprietary software are also building Free Software. It means that despite its open licensing, Free Software is maintaining the status quo of white supremacy, patriarchy and capitalism.
For Free Software to truly be free - to be free for anyone to build and use, we need to radically restructure who owns our projects and how our software is built.
We can do this by:
- structuring the governance of our projects along democratic lines
- centering the voices, needs and desires of the most marginalized in the design and functionality of our projects
- building in ways for end users to meaningfully contribute to our projects
When we do this we create vibrant communities of passionate users and blur the lines between user and creator. It infuses much needed energy into our scrappy projects that aim to go toe-to-toe with proprietary projects backed by corporate largess. And when we’ve done this we will have technology we can truly call our own.