Privilege and free software

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Jul 31, 2010 GMT
Bruce Byfield

Over at the Geek Feminism site, a discussion is going on about an article entitled, "If you were hacking since age 8, it means that you were privileged." As I usually do with anything remotely connected with computers, I immediately started wondering how I could apply the topic to free software. Specifically, is free software the product of privilege? Or does it work against privilege? My tentative answer is that free software is a paradoxical combination of privilege and resistance to privilege.

As you might guess from the title, the article on Geek Feminism points out that, anyone who is an adult today who had early access to a computer probably comes from a middle class or upper middle class family. The chances are, they are also likely to be male and white.

Once I heard this observation, it seemed so self-evident that I wondered why I hadn't noticed it for myself. After all, in the 1970s or 1980s, who except the affluent or upwardly mobile would have thought to buy their children a computer? As for being male and white, those follow naturally from the demographics.

I suspect that the observation is less true in 2010, when computers have fallen so dramatically in price and have become an appliance that you can expect to find in most homes. Even so, I suspect that that it is still largely true. The poorer the home, the less likely a child is going to have a computer of their own, and we all know that computing still tends to be a boy's club.

Centering upon computing, free software has roots in that general privilege. After all, it starts with the assumption that how we relate to computers is an important concern. But given that women are under-represented in free software compared to proprietary software, I wonder if there isn't another level of privilege serving as a filter as well.

Could it be as simple as the fact that free software is usually discovered at university, but only haphazardly on the curriculum? Even today, it is something often found informally, either by one student interacting with another, or instructors sharing enthusiasms out of class. While more women are finding their way into computer science classes, perhaps fewer are finding their way into the informal gatherings where many students discover free software?

However, if free software originates in privilege, its ongoing relationship to privilege is hostile. Admittedly, the price of hardware means that free software is not entirely free of privilege, but it is certainly freer than proprietary software. The freedom to copy, distribute or use software is not just a convenience, because it contains the assumption that everyone should be able to get the software needed to run a computer. Essentially, free software's goal is to ensure that your ability to run a computer is not determined by how much money you have. That is true on both an individual and national level.

Moreover, free software also opposes the culture of privilege that accompanies proprietary software. Instead of telling users how they can use their computer, and restricting what they do, or sending information about what they are doing without asking for permission, free software tries to return control of computing to the users.

In other words, to participate in free software -- like any form of computing -- may be a form of privilege, but it is a form that, at its best, undermines the privileges that our culture takes for granted about computing. This is not as unusual a situation as you might think: after all, founders and leaders of social change, whether revolutionaries, suffragists, or environmentalists, frequently do come from privileged backgrounds.

Nor is that the only paradox associated with free software. For all the anti-privilege implications of free software, the structure and habits of free software often seem to be efforts to establish or defend privilege. Programmers often assume -- and are given -- a privileged status. Meritocracy, which in theory gives everyone an equal opportunity, is often diluted by politics. Sometimes, too, free software participants who represent a business assume a higher status than community volunteers. In all these cases, the paradoxical result is that anti-privilege goals are sometimes advanced by those who are also very concerned about maintaining their own privilege.

In making these observations, I am neither praising or condemning -- simply summarizing what seems to happen as well as I can. Basically, I am writing as I think. There are aspects that need more consideration (most notably, what barriers of privilege in free software keep out women), but I think the perspective is worth considering. If nothing else, the idea that free software is a sometimes contradictory mixture of privilege and anti-privilege may help to explain why, at times, the movement sometimes seems its own worst enemy.


  • Source of privilege

    This is an interesting issue. I have been thinking about this for a while in my work as a sociologist. In my view, talking about privilege in general is not concrete enough to be able to elucidate this question. You are talking about, at least, two different things here. First, there is the issue of who has the ability/resources to be able to produce (understood in the broad sense of generating something of value, be it code, knowledge, or a material product). In this sense, of course, hackers have some privileges that other people do not have, just as a writer has often benefited from an education (and most likely access to a library) that someone from a lower socio-economic background is unlikely to have received (although, as always, there are notable exceptions of great writers who never had access to formal education).

    Second, and much more interestingly in the case of free software in my view, there is the issue of the consequences that the production of a certain good (in this case free software) has. Given the status quo, the current balance of power (manifested in privilege, access to resources, etc.) in society, does the production of free software contribute to empower the disempowered, free the unfree, provide resources to the resourceless, or does it maintain or deepen established inequalities? The answer to this question when dealing with proprietary software is not clear, at least not to me at this point. But when it comes to free software, I would argue that we find a clear progressive bias. This is not to say that the production of free software, as any other social process, does not contain internal contradictions and power imbalances in itself (e.g. gender inequalities). Yet I think it is undeniable that free software in general plays a progressive role in that it goes against the reproduction of privileges, as it grants access to new productive tools (both the software itself and the freedom that that software grants) to those who would not be able to have it otherwise because of the lock-in mechanisms that powerful forces in societies can usually deploy. What is fascinating to me is that, in many cases, this is an unintended and, for some actors, even an unwished-for outcome. Those who, from the open source camp, see this type of software as just an efficient way of producing code, completely miss the consequences of generating and distributing a socially valued product in a non-commodified way. This has serious consequences in a system that tends to commodify and make everything the object of monetary transactions, whether those who promote FOSS realize it or not.
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