Open Source Software - Ethics, Privilege, and Openness

Continuing the discussion from What will music consumption/creation look like in 20 years?:

This seems to deserve its own topic if we actually want to engage with these thoughts, rather than just get back to the original topic that spurred it.

I’d like to know more about why you feel like this @nutritionalzero. Based on 20+ years involved in open source projects ranging from “esoteric American art-coding” (as you called it), to operating system GUI’s, and affordable computing for schools there seems to be huge value for people all over the world, in all sorts of contexts, to open source projects.

Openness in artistic communities, both technical and otherwise, is vital for culture and learning … and for helping people develop and find their voice. Openness in this sense doesn’t negate the kind of hardship you referenced in your other post (“infant mortality, disease control issues, and religious unrest”), nor does it mean that open source projects need to be, or are, relevant for everyone in the world or solves all their problems – but I don’t see how that invalidates it or makes it less open. I’m not sure why this made you so angry in this context… do you believe no one should make art while people suffer? or that things aren’t “open” if they can’t involve everyone in all circumstances? … I’m not sure how to read it.

Open source in the non-art world has helped millions of people gain access to computing, runs most of the internet, and is a viable vocation to earn a living in many cases. And it’s how so many people learn how to make software, which is incredibly empowering. This is non-trivial. So I’m again not sure why you’d paint all of open source with the same brush, even if you think that open source art-code is irrelevant or not really “open” …

I also feel like there are a lot of assumptions in the idea that spending time on open source projects, or art, comes from privilege and/or can’t be a way to earn a living.


[deleted: long personal story, many opinions and facts. wa wa who cares.]

just… never mind, i can’t even


One thing that’s kind of a bummer about open source software is that it’s a pretty fundamentally worker-owned mode of production that capital has made some decent headway on co-opting for profit and controlling the language/culture around, so whenever I make use of a Faceglezon-controlled project thinking about that tends to harsh my fingerless-beglovèd technopunk fantasy life a little. But it is pretty darn cool that there are all these super valuable learning resources and IPs that in a (sort of, so far…?) legal sense belong to quote-unquote everyone, that produces a lot of real cultural and economic value that I’d like to believe is not just “shareholder value”. But it is a drag how a ton of interesting innovation in software design and tooling and open-source development of many a stripe is being driven basically by the scaling and automation needs of giant corporations. But it is

I feel I’ve written a post that’s less a set of productive things to say and more of a transcription of my daily thought process as I’m poking around on some string of Github issues or other.


In addition to Linux, isn’t Apache open source, and also WordPress, Kubernetes, and (most of) Android? I think of open source as part of the backbone of the internet.


I’m not entirely sure what the central point of this topic is, I’ve read and re-read the thread from which this conversation stems, but I still don’t really know what to make of it.

Unpaid technical work is categorically the product of educational opportunity, high income, and leisure time.

I feel there might be a bit of a misunderstanding as to what open source actually is? Or maybe this quote itself was unrelated to open-source.

I’ll tell you exactly how many people in India care about this esoteric American art-coding trend: absolutely fucking zero.

I feel this post might have been written in bad faith and might not be the best way to start a conversation about open-source.


Considering the $billions poured into open source projects by the likes of IBM, I think that’s quite possible. Lots of open source projects are the fruits of paid technical work.


How much in the arts is also academic research?


To me the tragedy of open development is the swift response of capitalism to sublimate the product of it into it’s own continuum. Large scale I have seen this in the maker movement which has gone from a kind of idealistic almost punk movement into something corporately dominated. It’s hard not to get cynical, when hard work and community is commodified and sold back to us. In the synth world, I think it’s similar to some criticism Emilie of Mutable Instruments has expressed recently. I think in order for Open Development to survive trust and respect is paramount.


Might be slightly offtopic here but it really bums me out that a lot of companies expect IT candidates to have contributions to OS while not allowing them to do so during work time even if it would fix a bug in OS library that they used.
I think that the fact that we have open source projects is a really nice thing which gave a lot of good things to the world (free software, affordable computing etc) and I would rather criticise corporations that missue them by gathering a lot of profits giving nothing in return but it is hard for me to come up with nice solution to this. Maybe licenses like „anyone but Oracle” :D?
One of the things that I guess might be bad is that by doing work for „free” we are limiting the available pool of things to do and in theory someone else could be paid to do so, but I am not sure it would hold true in real world.


Loads of people get paid to write open source. In 2015, just 11.8% of kernel contributions were from non-professionals. People at my work get paid to contribute to open source projects.

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I would guess kernel development might be kind of an outlier because there is a lot of money poured into it? Do you have by any chance statistics for other projects? Because from my personal (which might be far from the general experience) experience only one of the companies that I worked for allowed me to contribute to OS during work time, yet all of them asked about OS contributions.
I found an article that might shed a little more light into a nutritionalzero position
EDIT: I should probably have stated this clear that while I tried to understand nutritionalzero position I don’t think it justifies any personal attacks

As another example, the company I just left was an open source company that was focused on helping government organizations (and occasionally a company) expose their data to the public (“open data” for transparency). We needed to keep everything we did open-source for transparency reasons.

They were paying me to contribute to open source full time.

Also, that original commenter asking about “Openness to whom” doesn’t really know what open source is exactly. It’s not “unpaid technical work” as they state. I understand a separate discomfort with silicon valley’s general “tech will save the world” approach to things but that has nothing to do what anyone seems to have said here on a synth forum and is not an inherent aspect of open source.

My question is well what is the alternative? Time and resources not being given to open development aren’t the fault of the philosophy of the open movement but the limitations created by capitalist systems.

The solution isn’t proprietary work or corporate allegiance it is the dismantling of the system entirely. I don’t trust managers to develop a system that attributes and also freely distributes.

In my personal practice it has helped considerably to stop viewing the economic potential of my work. I think once you stop chasing profit, it can be quite freeing. There are downsides, scarcity and time


I think open development is a pyrrhic kind of work. You have to believe the efforts and product of your struggles will benefit those seeking knowledge in spite of the leeches and clout chasers


I guess it depends in how good situation you are to stop viewing your work as something for profit. I have a privilage to be in such situation where I earn enough in my day job to do things for free in my free time but a lot of my colleagues are not. But again as I said I think corporations/capitalism etc are to blame not OS.


That is extremely valid. The cracks in the open movement, and maybe the truth nutritlonalzero was approaching is how does the open movement benefit marginalized folks? Members of the community who face systemic challenges whether race, level of ability, or belief how can they be equally represented in a system that takes their work without direct compensation. That is a broad question.


open source was literally invented as a capitalistic alternative to free software. it was created and promoted by people who wanted to make money and felt restricted by stallmanesque idealism. it should surprise no one its now highly corporatized - that was kind of the point. open source to me is more of a development methodology, which is fine. the problem is that many misunderstand it as a radical or liberating ideology. this misunderstanding is amplified by individuals and organizations which stand to gain something from it.

if you think this is scary, “open science” is next. its not enough that our social and economic systems must now be latched to a networked hierarchy of capital, the same must be true for the production of knowledge itself!

these fears of mine dont even address the more material concerns of open source, like who actually does the work and who profits from it… this somewhat recent interview with stallman touches on a few subjects here. notice how he suggests the only real freedom is in building your own systems from scratch. when the interviewer presses on technical ability, stallman basically shrugs and suggests “theyll have to organize”. scary stuff indeed. dont count on technologists to solve political problems.


watching this (and the original) thread over the last day has reminded me that I don’t have the deepest or widest experience to speak authoritatively on this – but this question feels closest to productive.

I spent a few years doing youth work at a few community-based orgs in Pittsburgh. one of the orgs that mine often partnered with was Assemble, a space dedicated to engaging low-income youth in the exploration of art + tech. working at their events (and considering the Google office a mile and a half down the same street) made the criticality of developing tech literacy in all kids unignorable. and while Pittsburgh has a lot of problems, it largely follows through on the promise this groundwork makes – there are a lot of opportunities made available to these same kids as they grow into adult artists (vs their only option being that Google office).

to me (a relative outsider to the larger tech industry) the promise of open source is to subvert the commodification of our work as art + tech creators. it is to refuse the idea that people are primarily motivated by money and to prove that people are way more motivated by feeling like they contributed to something larger than themselves.

that’s why I feel so passionate about monome, which is by now wholly defined by the people beyond brian + kelli.

I think there’s something worth unpacking in why/which people are not allowed the opportunity to explore this freedom of motivations, though. and I’m really curious to learn more about how we shed some of the accidental credentials that come with being able to engage in these conversations.

if that all makes sense, any positive examples or further critical reading would be appreciated.


I agree broadly with your point, but I’m a little confused about why we should be scared about “open science.” For instance, for I think the past two decades, roughly, 99% of papers that are published in (pure?) mathematics are available (in preprint form) for free on Could you spell out your thoughts a little more here?