Ethics of Free Software

Last week as I was wrapping up a project, I found myself reading an article by Gabriella Coleman [1] about ethical systems and free software/open source development communities (pdf link). It's a great article that helped me connect a few desperate projects, and I think it also provides a very useful foothold into talking about the ideologies of free software without getting encumbered by free software's internal ideological "drama." In turn:

Before I got absorbed into open source and free software stuff, I was interested in issues around the construction of individual's identity in reference to group-based cultural scripts about identity. For example how "gay men" think of themselves in relation to gender/sexuality/race, and how they made sense of the social constructed-ness of these categories. But the underlying structural question applies to all sorts of people and groups ("people who knit" and "communities of knitters;" immigrants/refugees and "Americans"/national identities; etc). There were a lot of reasons why that didn't work out (on top of some stuff about my background): the biggest one is that there isn't a good field [2] to do this kind of work. In retrospect, It's a good thing that it didn't work out for these and many other reasons.

Nevertheless, even as I've been "reinventing" myself and my interests in the last year I've discovered that my interests in open source development and free software, have a strong parallel, as I'm interested in collaboration and shared creation in the context of open source projects. This time I have a bit more going for me, of course.

So how does this connect? Well, I read a bunch of literature the first time around on "moral development," and it turns out (I would have never guessed this before) that there's a lot of very cool recent work on how social factors (like communities and group membership) contribute to the development of moral systems, that isn't "Kohlberg-esque" (and thus decontextualized in harmful ways). Before someone pushed me to read these articles, I don't know that I would have sought out the connection between "ethics" (moral systems) and group identities, but it's there. Reading this article addressed ethics of free software communities strengthen these connection for me, and I think is a great starting point for thinking about free software projects as a entities onto themselves. I have some more thinking to do here, of course, but there are some cool possibilities.

So about ethics and software freedom, anyway.

The article explores the ways that the Debian Project is not only rooted in a strong "software freedom" ethical tradition (the DFSG, the close alliance with the FSF [3]) but also--as the article explores--promotes and develops this ethic in amongst its many developers. That while Debian attracts a certain predisposition toward free software and open source, participation in this project reinforces a shared set of ethical perspectives. We talk about "copyleft" licenses in free software as being "viral" because the mandate that derivative works be distributed under their terms (and thus spread in "viral ways,) but really they're also viral in the way that they shape the ethical systems of developers who use them.

That's kind of awesome. It's also, I suppose not ground breaking (I think you can see echos of this in some of rms' essays, for instance) but it does let you (or me) talk about the ideologies of free software without participating in the (different, but connected) ideological debates of free software. Which is a good thing indeed.

Onward and Upward!

[1]I have a somewhat sorted history of linking to people and then musing on whatever it is they wrote on this blog, only to discover a comment the next day from the original authors. So as a somewhat preemptive measure: Hello, and I think I'll write a somewhat less public letter of introduction soon. Thanks for reading.
[2]My background has been in (developmental) psychology, and while this is a lovely field that I have a lot of fondness and respect for, the study of individual/cultural boundary pushes on an interdisciplinary space, or null void really.
[3]Debian Free Software Guidelines (the code by which software licenses are deemed "appropriate" for inclusion in the Debian project) and the Free Software Foundation (originators of the GNU GPL, and a great many other things) in turn.
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