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The role of Open Source

The actions of Aaron Swartz were argued to operate outside the law, demonstrating that there is no avenue within the domain of the network to challenge or address inefficiencies and user concerns regarding privacy and freedoms. The current legal system, as demonstrated with the Swartz case, guarantees that platforms manage and constrain the actions of users, hindering the space of potentiality of the Commons. This gives evidence of how digital platforms have become factories for the standardization and tabulation of behavior, not the enablers that they claim to be. The advocacy for protocols of production such as Open Source or Creative Commons practices precede the regulatory role of platforms. Open Source plays a role of transparency and ability for oversight as well as offering the capacity to break or expand a technological domain. Open Source antecedes the needs for Swartz’s actions, embedding into the technology' the mechanisms for their potential alteration.

Architects Carlo Ratti and Matthew Claudel’s definition of Open Source architecture centers around current understandings of projects like Wikipedia and Linux14 and how the ethos of such initiatives have been carried toward manufacturing and fabrication with initiatives such as the Fablabs at MIT by Professor Neil Gershenfeld. Ratti and Claudel also utilize Open Source examples such as the Arduino project in order to suggest a progressive shift toward cooperative design. In their model for Open Source architecture, many contributors use a versioning control software to gradually evolve designs by making small contributions, thus dissolving traditional ideas of authorship.15 Still, theorists such as Evgeny Morozov have echoed studies that question the unquestioned role of openness. Morozov refers to studies performed by UCLA anthropologist Chris Kelty who questions the merit of openness, asking if openness is a goal in itself or a means to achieving something else, and if so, what?"’ Morozov argues that the Internet has been dominated by an “openness fundamentalism, where openness is seen as a fail-safe solution to virtually any problem.”1 Morozov calls for a critical evaluation on “how openness may be fostering or harming innovation, promoting or demoting justice, facilitating or complicating deliberation.”18

Morozov refers to how the idea of openness has been hijacked by the architects of the current Internet, such as Google, to portray an image of openness,19 while the opposite is true, as has been demonstrated by the studies of Zuboff.20 Still, the idea of openness, linked to an Open Source of networks in the context of Aaron Swartz’s actions, is linked to the protection of democracy. Swartz’s actions operate as a whistle-blower who, having the technical knowledge, understands the power of networks for eroding democratic rights.

Open Source plays an important role in the development of transparent and cooperative platforms and the design of public infrastructure. Yet while Open Source frameworks construct a democratic scaffold at the core of its technological infrastructure, Open Source also trends toward collaboration between expert users. There is an important distinction between the source code and the documentation or the development of educational infrastructure to disseminate such knowledge. This was pointed out by Swartz in an interview when he was a teenager. When asked about the lack of intuitive user interfaces (UI) in Open Source software, he said:

Well, for most of these programmers UI is hard, because they don’t understand it.They see things textually, not visually.The free software culture comes very much from the Unix culture, and Unix is very much expert-oriented. Experts don’t need “good UI”—they know exactly what to do already and they just want to be able to do it as fast as they can.This is related to the other problem, which is that free software programmers code mostly for themselves. And since they completely and intuitively understand the software, it doesn’t seem like the UI is bad to them—to them, it makes perfect sense.21

This perspective allows us to separate the production of Open Source content from the production of documentation or accessibility resources.The term Open Source, associated with the idea of open access, ensures the former, not the latter. Some programmers are very good at producing documentation and learning resources but some are very bad. Many Open Source projects have literacy barriers, and do not achieve a central concern of reducing the barrier of entry or potential alteration of established infrastructure.

The example of the Processing software created by Casey Reas and Ben Fry22 and the community surrounding it can be studied to understand the importance of documentation and the production of learning paths. Processing is a free Open Source software that offers a simplified Java programming interface. The project is an Open Source effort to “design down the threshold” of programming. This is achieved because of a large number of examples and their documentation provided by the Processing Foundation and the community that creates a “literacy ladder” for Processing. This ladder is defined by how the spectrum of knowledge is populated between new, inexperienced users and experts.

In a project for the construction or fortification of the Commons, Open Source plays an important role, not because there is a goal in openness, but rather as a form of scrutiny of the digital platforms that exercise algorithmic governance. In this sense, production of the Commons defines a larger umbrella of goals, where Open Source could be discussed as one of the technical protocols of implementation. Alternatives are also welcome, as Open Source should not become a fixed truism, but rather one of the avenues for embedding democracy in technology and ensuring mechanisms for scrutiny and regulation.

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