February 5, 2013 § 6 Comments
Joseph Reagle’s recent paper on sexism within the free and open source software (FOSS) movement, ‘Free as in sexist?’: Free culture and the gender gap, makes an important contribution to our understanding of FOSS, and particularly to those who want to build a movement which is more diverse and welcoming. However, I do feel that at least one aspect of his argument needs further development. Reagle sees the movement’s ‘anarchist-libertarian ethic’ as playing a significant role in sustaining a hostile environment, outlining this ethic as follows:
This personal-freedom ethic is not only intact in the free culture movement, the movement is now its most vital and popular manifestation. For example, Richard Stallman, geek exemplar, has “campaigned for freedom since 1983” (Stallman, 2010). Eric Raymond, famous for a number of technical and cultural contributions (e.g., fetchmail and as a progenitor of “open source”), is a self–described anarchist and libertarian (Raymond, 2003; 1999). Ayn Rand’s philosophy of objectivism, which lauds the autonomy of self–interested behavior and laissez–faire capitalism, had a significant influence on American libertarianism and early Internet culture. At Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales is reported to have named his daughter after a character in one of Rand’s fictions; Larry Sanger, too, was fond of Rand’s The Fountainhead and is a self–described libertarian (Deutschman, 2007; Schneider and Sanger, 2011). Mark Shuttleworth (millionaire entrepreneur, self–funded astronaut, and Ubuntu founder) was a “fan of Adam Smith’s invisible hand, and great admirer of Ayn Rand’s vision” though he now identifies as a more tempered “fan of regulated capitalism” (Shuttleworth, 2008). In short, while there are significant differences in the political philosophies of these men — and each would be adept articulating their differences — they are creatures of the Internet’s ethos of freedom.
There are a couple of problems with this. Firstly, while key figures within the movement such as Torvalds, Raymond, and RMS certainly do play a role in shaping the movement’s politics, they don’t fully determine them. Neither their politics nor those of participants in the movement more broadly are as simply encapsulated as Reagle makes out here (as I’ve discussed elsewhere). The second problem with this is that ‘anarchism’ and ‘libertarianism’, while sharing a concern with individual freedom, are quite distinct political philosophies, and are associated with very different community ethics. Libertarians tends to privilege an extreme individualism, failing to acknowledge the role of structural oppression in creating inequality, and seeking to diminish (or extinguish) the role of the state in favour of more freedom for the market. Anarchists, on the other hand, tend to place individual freedom within the context of community, acknowledging the role of structural oppression, and critiquing both the state and the market as systems for allocating resources.
Reagle’s conflation of anarchism and libertarianism is more than a minor niggle for political scientists (and anarchists) – it also influences his discussion of potential solutions to the problem. Reagle argues, drawing on Herring’s work, that the alternative to the current open, ‘anarchic’ system is a more structured form of community, including a ‘group leader’:
the anarchic–libertarian ethic requires a significant tolerance for adversariality that may be alienating to some participants. Such participants may actually feel freer to participate under a more structured form of community governance, including community leadership or conduct guidelines. As Herring (2003) writes: “While this result may appear initially puzzling — how can women be ‘freer’ to participate when they are ‘controlled’ by a group leader? — it makes sense if the leader’s role is seen as one of ensuring a civil environment, free from threats of disruption and harassment”. (And a preference for a friendly and civil environment is not limited to women.)
This binary between ‘openness’ and governance is problematic. It’s quite possible for a non-hierarchical community to develop codes of conduct: many anarchist communities do just that, often in the form of safe spaces guidelines. It’s also not necessary for structure to imply hierarchy. Not only is it possible to build non-hierarchical structures, but some form of structure is often necessary in order to sustain non-hierarchical organisation. Anarchist communities, as well as many other communities that oppose hierarchy (including many feminist groups), have long experience with building spaces and organisational forms that are non-hierarchical (or at least, less hierarchical).
This is not to say that these experiences have gone smoothly. There are plenty of critiques of anarchist, feminist, and other supposedly non-hierarchical collectives which end up with invisible hierarchies based on race, gender, class, or even just more dominant personalities. Many groups on the left have acted to marginalise already marginalised groups: women had to (and still have to) push hard for equal inclusion within left-wing communities; women of colour have challenged mainstream white feminism; lesbians have challenged the primacy of gay men within ‘gay and lesbian’ communities.
What this history means, however, is that there’s a wide range of experience and practices to draw on when it comes to building decentralised, relatively-open communities in which there are structures in place to deal with ‘difficult’ people and behaviours, and with existing structural oppression. The problems which Reagle describes are by no means limited to the FOSS community, and in characterising them as such he neglects to draw on some of the solutions already available.
He also passes rather lightly over existing attempts within FOSS to challenge misogyny and other forms of structural oppression. Just as marginalised groups within other communities have pushed for greater inclusion, cultural change, and better processes, people of all genders within the FOSS community are pushing to create a safer and more welcoming environment. LCA 2013 was just one example of a FOSS space which had a code of conduct and a diversity officer, as well as providing childcare and taking other steps to ensure a safe and accessible space. Debian woman was founded in 2005 and was wholeheartedly embraced by the predominately male project. Python has for years an incredible diversity project and list in existence for years, and the CCC, one of the largest hacker groups also has an anti-harassment policy for their events. This is not to say that misogyny doesn’t still exist – it does, just as it does in most communities. But the answer is not more top-down control; initiatives that come out of the community and are lead by those who have previously been marginalised are far more likely to provide sustainable long-term solutions.
[Edits: I'm well aware that historically 'anarchism' and 'libertarianism' have been used interchangeably, and that people sometimes use terms like 'socialist libertarian' to mean more or less the same thing as 'anarchist'. This is a rather simplified version of a more in-depth discussion which would require more space than a blog post.
Joseph Reagle has replied here.]
January 29, 2013 § 5 Comments
After Radia Perlman’s keynote talk, I spent today at the Haecksen miniconference, which focuses on women in open source. It was great to see a mixed audience, rather than an all-woman audience.
While much of Radia Perlman‘s talk on networks was focused on technical systems that are beyond me, it was still interesting because she talked a bit about the reasoning behind the adoption of different network protocols. She emphasised that the protocols which are widely adopted are not always those that are best, and made it clear that the development of network technology doesn’t always follow a ‘rational’ path of development. I also liked that she illustrated her talk with references to her children: it’s good to have people talk about their work in ways that acknowledge that it’s just one part of their lives.
I gave the first talk at Haecksen, critiquing ‘open-source politics’: you can find my slides and the abstract here.
- Watch your language: don’t reinforce the problem, for example by saying that you’re “just” or “only” a beginner (or a researcher, or whatever it is you are); avoid “I think” – this is implied by what you’re saying; avoid saying that you “should have…” done things a certain way; you could try a ‘self-deprecating language’ jar.
- Teach what you know, even if you think you don’t know it. Explaining something will help you to realise what you know.
- Question corrections (especially nitpicking about small details, but also larger criticisms). Have faith in your own work, and remember that not all criticisms are legitimate.
- Ask questions.
- Ask for perspective checks from a friend.
- Keep a list of your accomplishments.
- Get background information for comparison: if your boss or colleague is being very critical, for example, there’s a chance that it’s not you. Talking to other people who have worked with this person might give you more of an idea of what’s going on.
- Remember that you are awesome.
Denise also talked briefly about how helping other people overcome their imposter syndrome: by providing appropriate support and encouragement, Dreamwidth has ended up with contributions from a much more diverse range of people than most other projects.
Next up, Joh Pirie-Clark gave an excellent critique of ‘cyberwar’ rhetoric, Cyberwar: Mo’ Metaphor, Mo’ Money, Mo’ problems? She argued that the analogies we use to describe the world shape how we respond, and the language of ‘cyberwar’ is problematic because it applies terms that refer to massive damage and loss of life to digital attacks which, for the most part, don’t. For example, NZ laws around “making, selling, or possessing software for committing crime” are clearly modelled around drug and gun laws, whereas it would be far more appropriate to base them on dual-use tools (like crowbars) that have legal uses. The cyberwar narrative is building a million-dollar industry, particularly in the use, and contributing to a sense of states under siege by vague and shadowy sources.
After lunch, there were a couple of talks looking at cool geeky craft stuff: Kathy Reid talked about integrating the Arduino Lilypad with knitting projects, and Ruth Ellison spoke on laser-cut jewellery (including some cool climate data visualisation jewellery).
Fee Plumley‘s talk on Open Source Cities raised some interesting points about how we think about cities, diasporas, and nomadic living. I was quite uncomfortable with the use of the term gypsy throughout the talk (more about this here). I’m always nervous about raising issues with problematic language at conferences, but happily Fee was open and asked for more resources to read up on: always a good way of responding if you get a call-out, even if you ultimately don’t end up agreeing with what’s said. We all make mistakes, including me, and I’ve had some great moments of learning when people have pulled me up.
Katie Miller spoke on programs for teaching school-aged girls how to use FOSS, using FOSS programs. She had some good suggestions on specific lessons learned, including the need to break up large chunks of text and to include examples. Jacinta Richardson’s suggestions on getting your conference talk accepted had helpful tips, especially for those starting out: think about how difficult it is to get accepted to a particular conference; make sure that you write well, because organisers are likely to use this is a shortcut to guessing whether you’re a good speaker (including using clear language good paragraph structure); skip titles like “x for fun and profit” and “making x sexy”; consider asking for help from people who know the area, including people from the papers committee.
While the technical content of Mary Gardiner and Breanna Laugher’s demonstration of py.test didn’t make much sense to me, I liked the format of the talk. Breanna gave instructions to Mary (who hadn’t used py.test before) on how to use it for various tasks and Mary typed up her work on the screen. This seems like a useful way to make discussions less abstract, as well as to ensure that issues an experienced user might forget to cover are made visible.
Finally, Samantha Cheah and Lauren Hassall talked about the Robogals project, which uses university volunteers to run robotics workshops for highschool students. These workshops are designed to introduce girls to engineering in a fun way, with positive and relatable role models. The project’s been very successful, with several chapters in the Asia-Pacific (including Perth), UK, and North America.
Despite some initial worries that my knowledge base is too far away from the focus of Linux Conference, it’s been great so far. Even talks where I didn’t get all the technical detail were useful in other ways, and of course it’s lovely to meet new people, as well as meeting people in person who I usually only see online.
January 24, 2013 § 1 Comment
Next week I’ll be heading over to Canberra for Linux Conference Australia, where I’ll be giving a couple of talks. These will have a slightly less academic focus than many of my conference presentations: while they still draw significantly on my research, I’ll be giving a freer rein to my activist interests. During the main program I’ll be talking about free and open source software and activism:
Wikileaks, the Arab Spring, and the Occupy movement have made the need for user-controlled digital technologies clear, as activists have used the Internet and mobile phones to organise and to communicate with each other and with potential supporters. The consequences of failures in these systems, particularly security breaches, can be extreme: activists may face fines, jail time, or even death. Free and open source software (FOSS) provides one potential solution to these problems, as it is focused on users’ needs. FOSS communities also already overlap significantly with many other activist communities, and are working to develop cross-movement connections as well as useful tools. However, many FOSS communities, and particularly those defined by a commitment to open source, rather than than free, software, are reluctant to take overt political stands. Similarly, many activists on both the left and the right have an aversion to digital technologies for both ideological and practical reasons. This means that there are frequently significant barriers to increasing the links between FOSS and progressive political movements. This presentation explores the connections between FOSS communities and the broader activist landscape. It looks at the politics of FOSS, the ways in which global movements and FOSS communities are building links, and the potential benefits of actively seeking cross-fertilisation of ideas and politics between FOSS and progressive movements.
I’ll also be speaking at the Haecksen mini-conference that runs alongside the main programme. Haecksen, organised by the Oceania Women of Open Technology group, will “feature women speakers and panellists on technical and community topics related to free software and women in free software.” I’ll be talking about feminism, anarchism, and FOSS:
The language of open software is increasingly being applied to politics, as people talk about and develop “open government” projects. However, much of this discussion does not unpack the politics of “openness”, instead taking for granted that it involves a technologically-enhanced model of existing liberal democratic ideals. However, there are other ways to interpret what free and open source politics might look like. One is to more thoroughly apply the politics espoused by key figures within the free and open software movements, such as Stallman and Raymond. Another, more radical, route is to take the commitment to decentralisation of power that lies at the heart of free and open source software and apply it not only to an analysis of politics, but also to the existing free and open source software movement. This route demonstrates that there are useful lessons to be learned from looking at the interaction between free software principles, anarchism, and feminism.
This will be my first time at Linux Conference, and the mailing list has made it clear that the conference has a vibrant community around it. I’m also really happy to see that Linux Conference has a great Code of Conduct and is offering free childcare. While I don’t have kids, things like this seem like a good sign that the conference organisers are taking active steps to being an inclusive space that allows space for parents and supports groups that might otherwise be marginalised. I wish more academic conferences did this. If you’re going, please feel free to say hi to me!
October 28, 2012 § 2 Comments
Presenters at the Anarchism Today workshop will, along with others, be included in an upcoming publication from Routledge. In the meantime, if you’re interested in more reading you may want to check out Anarchist Studies (which, oddly and sadly, is not open access) or Anarchist Pedagogies: Collective Actions, Theories, and Critical Reflections on Education.
Carl Levy began by giving a brief outline of how anarchism has influenced the humanities and social sciences, including the interaction between anarchism (and particular anarchists) on the development of Marxism, post-war sociology (including Daniel Bell‘s work), sociobiology (such as work looking for the ‘altruistic gene’, which draws heavily on Kropotkin), and fiction authors like Thomas Pynchon and Ursula Le Guin (I’d also recommend Kim Stanley Robinson and Marge Piercy).
Mohammed Bamyeh followed, talking about the Arab Spring (with a focus on Egypt) as his first experience of anarchism in practice: what it actually felt like to be amidst a society which was organising itself. Bamyeh argued that although most of the Arab Spring uprisings were largely liberal in intention, their methods were anarchist, with a suspicion of leadership (there was no ‘party of the revolution’); a knowledge system based on intuitive understandings of what would work and what wouldn’t; a unity based on opposition to the existing regime, conviviality and discussion rather than commitment to a particular ideology; individual creative expression and the use of multiple slogans and hand-made, rather than mass-produced, signs.
I also liked Bamyeh’s description of Egypt as a revolution of conversations: when people went out to Tahrir and said they would stay there until the regime fell, well, what was there to do while waiting except for talk to each other? The debates that happened were never concluded, but showed a willingness to work together to develop the movement’s demands rather than having them come prepackaged. Finally, Bamyeh emphasised that the Arab Spring revolutions were based on links between revolutionaries and reformists, because once they had begun reformists recognised that the instability they feared would come with revolution was there anyway, and only a change in regime would offer safety.
David Graeber, who got a gentle ribbing for mainstream media’s focus on his role in Occupy, talked about the relationship between his academic career (as an anthropologist) and his activism. He’s tried to separate the two, and as part of this hasn’t applied for grants or submitted work for peer review when writing about activism, not wanting to taint his activist work with the logic of academia. However, it’s clear that his anthropological research has informed, and been informed by, his anarchism. For example, he talked about his fieldwork in Madagascar as something which he recognised later as giving him experience of anarchism in practice: although government officials were around, they had no power and the state had basically withdrawn, facilitated by the creation of alternative, community-based institutions and practices.
Graeber also talked about his experience with activism following the emergence of the Northern global justice movement since 1999, saying that while reading anarchist publications might give the impression that all anarchists are either Zerzanites advocating the destruction of civilisation as we know it or syndicalists, there are many ‘small-a anarchists’ who are working at the community level and who don’t fit these stereotypes. He argued that ‘small-a anarchists’ are good at self- criticism, but don’t do enough to tell others about what we do right, and what works well with anarchist practices.
Chris Rossdale critiques security studies (in a similar, but more fully theorised, vein to my paper on human security and the global justice movement), arguing that anarchism provides a useful way to overcome the problems with seeing the state as both the key guarantor of security and the main referent. Instead, anarchists refuse the myth that security should be ‘done’ by the state to secure national borders, and instead see security as a constant process that communities must engage in. This involves not only dealing with internal issues (such as inequality and sexist and racist violence) but also resisting the violence of the state by trying to disrupt militarisation and war.
Saul Newman rejected the idea (happily not one put forward by anyone at the workshop) that anarchism needs to be homogenous; anarchism should be heterodox, and need not be limited by trying to work within the scientific paradigm of claims about ‘absolute’ human nature.
Ruth Kinna, current editor of Anarchist Studies, talked about the relationship between anarchism and political science (and, beyond this, to the model of the natural sciences). Kinna cited Acklesberg‘s recommendation that anarchists should be concerned with our exclusion from academia because we need to transform mainstream thought if we’re ever going to succeed. We should follow Kropotkin in using clearly-worded, well-framed questions to drive our research, engaging with the dominant frameworks of debate in order to gain space for our ideas.
Allan Antliff looked at the development of Luis Jacob’s artistic practice (also citing Edward Carpenter‘s Love’s Coming of Age). Jacob has shifted towards a more open incorporation of anarchism into his artistic practice, which results in a ‘transformative tension’ with the mainstream art world. Jacob’s art presents the world as heterogenous, full of objects which connect and echo each other.
Alexandre Christoyannopolous addressed anarchism and religion, focusing predominantly on Christian anarchism.
Judith Suissa’s presentation covered similar ground to Anarchism and Education, which I read a little while ago. She argued that it’s not enough to just think about different teaching methods, instead we need to question the idea that education takes place in the classroom, and look at shifts to the education system that involve radical shifts to society, also. While she sees some free schools (particularly at the tertiary level) as offering the possibility for change, Suissa thinks that anarchists should oppose the current free schools legislation in the UK, as similar quasi-market reforms in other parts of the world have tended to widen existing inequalities, and these schools still need to work within the state’s regime of standardised testing.
Finally, Carissa Honeywell‘s ‘Social Policy and Anarchism’ drew on Colin Ward‘s work, critiquing the story of the British welfare state as a victory. Instead, Honeywell showed the community-based models of welfare provision (such as working-class mutual aid societies and schools) which might have formed the model for a different way of thinking about welfare and work.
While all the talks were interesting, I was struck by the contrast between discussions of prefigurative politics and the form of the workshop. Rather than experimenting with a more open format, it worked more or less along the usual model of expert dissemination of knowledge to the inexpert. The question time was limited, there was no attempt at a progressive stack for questions (apart from an invitation for questions “from any ladies” near the end of the day), and discussion was firmly circumscribed. While we’re always constrained by the systems we work within, I think that perhaps we can step outside existing models a little more than this.
September 16, 2011 § Leave a Comment
“An error that is too often made is believing that individualism rejects organization. The two terms are, on the contrary, inseparable. Individualism more specifically means working for inner mental liberation of the individual, while organization means association between conscious individuals with a goal to reach” – Max Baginski
All political theories and movements have to grapple with the tension between individual freedoms and the good of the community as a whole. Burning Man, as an expression of a particular political, social, and economic vision, is no exception. Perhaps the most obvious signs of this are in the ten principles, which include “radical self-reliance” and “radical self-expression”, but also “radical inclusion”, “communal effort”, and “civic responsibility”.
The balance between individual freedom and collective responsibility that the organisers of Burning Man community promote draws significantly on anarchism. The organisers differentiate between the “popular notion of anarchy”, which they see as summoning up “visions of a gutted landscape populated by violent outlaws” and “philosophic anarchism”, which is based on “cooperation and mutual aid”. They insist that Burning Man, while encouraging individual freedoms, is at the same time a community-constituted “ordered civic entity”.
The anarchist ideas that inform Burning Man are just part of the mix, of course, and there is an emphasis in Burning Man culture on encouraging participants to choose for themselves how the event is experienced and interpreted. There are limits to what individuals can do, including legal limits and social expectations of what constitutes good behaviour, but there’s a lot of flexibility involved. This means there’s plenty of room for participants to work out where their own balance lies: how much to privilege their own desires and self-expression, how much energy to give to maintaining and improving the community, and how to find the space where each of these overlap.
This doesn’t always work out well. There are people who come to Burning Man and don’t participate and/or don’t bring basic necessities like food and water. There are people who don’t respect others’ autonomy: Black Rock City is a large city, and as in the rest of the world violent assaults and sexual assaults do happen. There are probably plenty of people who come, have fun, and take back nothing of significance – positive or negative – with them.
Burning Man isn’t a perfect manifestation of anarchism in practice, despite some of the more idealistic discourse floating around. However, it does allows participants to explore different ways of being individuals as part of a community. Partly this is because of the different social environment surrounding Burning Man, but it’s also partly just because it’s a rupture with everyday life for many participants which in itself invites experimentation. This experimentation will have to involve working out how to deal with problems as well as with the pleasures involved. How might the community legislate for itself? How might it encourage adherence to community values? How might it encourage a safer environment?
And, of course, the question that keeps getting asked is: which of the experiments in autonomy and community will be taken back to participants’ communities off the playa?