The Coming Post-Open Source World

By Don Goodman-Wilson

Postmodernism is essentially just giving up on straightforward, simple narratives of progress.

(This post is a preview of my upcoming talk “Thoughts on a Post-Open Source World”, to be given at the first State of the Source Summit in September. You can read the full text of the talk here.)

Open source, as a mindset and a set of legal constructs, used to be a grassroots movement that so very cleverly co-opted the legal framework of intellectual property to create a space for radical anarchic liberty, a place where anyone was welcome to contribute to a growing body of software designed to undermine corporate oligarchs and empower individuals with powerful new tools.

Today, open source is being transformed into a tool for consolidating power. Authoritarian government entities rely on open source to power their operations; large businesses extract far more value from the pool of open source software than gets returned to the hands of those creating it.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Open source is broken.

There’s a reaction brewing, a growing sense that this is not right, that we can do better, that (more importantly) we have a responsibility to do better. Right now, this reaction manifests in different ways, whether its the moral outrage of the #NoTechForICE hashtag, the growing Ethical Source movement, or economic manifestos like the Anti-Capitalist License: All of these different takes are part of a growing movement that I call post-open source.

What does a post-open source world look like though? It’s easier to say what it won’t look like.

What got us here was the assumption that open source required no regulation. Since open source software is inexhaustible, the thinking went, it would be wrong to place restrictions on who can contribute to or access this software. The thing is, when we explicitly refuse to regulate communities, they end up regulating themselves in ways that are usually unpredictable, and often insidious—and that’s precisely where open source ended up. Open source operates on a system of invisible, implicit rules. Rules that benefit the powerful.

A post-open source world, then, is a world in which we think very carefully about how to regulate our community and our software, instead of letting the regulations grow organically. Justice requires effort and deliberation; when we ignore the need to consciously create rules, we give up any real hope for justice. In my upcoming talk for the OSI’s State of the Source Summit, I will argue that a successful post-open source world is one where we work towards four goals:

  1. We must disincentivize adoption of software by actors unwilling to commit to basic principles of the value of humans. Oppressive authoritarian organizations (like ICE) do not deserve free, unimpeded access to our work in the name of removing freedom. Open source software must be unattractive and unwelcome to the powerful who exploit it for unjust ends.
  2. We must disincentivize extractive practices on maintainers. The people who create open source deserve to share in the tremendous value their effort creates. Again, open source software must be unattractive to the powerful who benefit from it disproportionately.
  3. On the other hand, we must incentivize the creation of software with benefit outside of the developer community, especially the benefit of at-risk populations. Too much software being produced is for the benefit of developers, and not enough is being produced for other demographics. The pool of open source software should reflect the needs of those without power.
  4. Further, and most importantly, we must incentivize a focus on outcomes and impact, rather than raw adoption rates. Raw adoption rate is a broken metric; If our goal is to make the world a better place through software, then let’s define what that better place looks like, and the kinds of technology that can get us there, and reward developers who work towards those goals.

The first two goals are distributive, which is to say they are focused on removing power from those with an excess, and explicitly returning it to those without. Open source was, after all, a movement about empowering individuals and preserving freedom; Post-open source as a movement seeks to achieve these ends too, but through action and deliberation, rather than through abdication of responsibility.

The second two goals are meant to reorient developers, who at the moment are far too incentivized to create the Javascript framework of the week, rather than tools that can help non-developers.

I hope you’ll join me as I present this argument and these ideas to the open source community.

Achieving any of these goals isn’t going to be easy. It’s going to be messy, with no clear sense of what progress even looks like. It will require organization, it will require new institutions, and it will require money. It will take an community to solve these problems, and I hope that you will join in. We need all the help we can get.