Free and Open: on, in and in-between

Leaving aside the controversy around its originality, the alleged Linus Torvalds quote The future is open source everything captures a tendency which is gradually gaining ground in the collective imaginary. The constantly growing wave of translations and interpretations of the tools, practices and concepts of open source in almost all the domains of human activity, makes this quote shift from a provocative speculation to a plausible observation – not to say a realizable “project”.

In most of these cases, ranging from hardware and robotics to governance and religion (!) “Open” drifts away from its initial meaning and becomes a space for rethinking the fundamental assumptions of the way knowledge, space and artifacts (material and immaterial) are produced and used.
I particularly enjoy the understanding of words as combinators, spaces where ideas are brought together -often through misuse- and allow for the mixing of concepts which would not be directly comparable if one was to strict about them. In that sense the term “Open source” is a laboratory for the production of new diagrams and the re-conception of how we create and use within the context of the digital paradigm. It is characteristic that in many cases, practices based on free sharing and modification of the information leading to an “end product” existed long prior to their naming as “open”; from cooking, to popular medicine, and vernacular architecture.

However, this situation of semantic flux, poses the danger of labeling as “open” practices which widely differ in their philosophy and operational modes. This can result either to a misleading sanctioning of “open source” practices as inherently “free” or “democratic” and vice versa, to the reduction of practices which intend to be “free” and “democratic” to merely being “open”.
It is therefore important to disambiguate the term by placing it in its historical perspective, so as to identify its inherent tensions, questions and challenges, which can serve as essential frameworks of critique in the various acts of the termʼs adoptions and translations beyond its initial use in software.

An indicative example of the loose, merely discursive use of “Open Source” is the recent op ed article on Open Source Architecture, initiated by Carlo Ratti et al. Quoting from the current Wikipedia version: “Open Source Architecture (OSArc) is an emerging paradigm describing new procedures for the design, construction and operation of buildings, infrastructure and spaces. Drawing from references as diverse as open-source culture, avant-garde architectural theory, science fiction, language theory, and others, it describes an inclusive approach to spatial design, a collaborative use of design software and the transparent operation throughout the course of a building and city’s life cycle”
What is interesting about this quote, which is then supported by a series of more specific observations ranging from the role of the non expert and the professional to funding models, is that it shows precisely the intersection of a preexisting architectural imaginary which I discussed in my previous posts, with the growing open source culture, to produce a new ambiguous construct which conveys more the general atmosphere of a thing rather than the goals and practices of the thing itself.
This, of course, cannot be seen as different from a long tradition in architectural thought, which borrowed from new technological paradigms (in this case the network paradigm and the open sharing of information) to produce the spatial imaginaries of its time.

However if we are to truly rethink participatory practices in architecture, under the light of the digital paradigm and open source culture and not revert to the repetition of the same schemes with a false sense of innovation, it becomes important to move both vertically and horizontally in time. To investigate, in other words, both at the relations of current conceptions on “Open Architecture” with the precedents of technology mediated participatory design, as well as its relations with “Open Source”. The purpose of this post is to do the latter by looking at the term “open source” in the context of software and exposing its internal conflicts and potential discontents.

The Open Source Initiative is the prodigy child of the Free Software Movement. It was found as a California public benefit corporation in 1998 by some of the members of the FSM who to use Richard Stallmanʼs words “splintered off and began campaigning in the name of “open source”[1]. A commonly shared explanation for this is that, contrary to “Open Source”, the term “Free” was menacing for corporations and investors who found this practice too precarious or politically loaded for their taste. Given this sequence of events and the fact that “Open Source” was initially defined in response to another term condensing a set of concepts and practices, it is impossible to grasp the essence of “Open Source” without first discussing “Free”.

the GNU project icon

The Free Software Movement was initiated in 1985 by Richard Stallman, who was at the time a hacker and programmer at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. In 1984 Stallman launched GNU, a free operating system, as a response to the growing proprietarization of software and its bundling with specific hardware. This, along with the establishment of software copyright laws in 1980, subverted a common practice in the first years of software use and development which were based on the idea of software sharing and modification according to the personal needs of the users.

The Free Software movement advocated for “free software as a matter of freedom”. Quoting from the GNU project “philosophy” webpage: “people should be free to use software in all the ways that are socially useful. Software differs from material objects—such as chairs, sandwiches, and gasoline—in that it can be copied and changed much more easily. These possibilities make software as useful as it is; we believe software users should be able to make use of them”[2]
The reference to immaterial production as a par excellence field where “free” can function, not having to deal with the complexities of the material world is a statement which set the boundaries of “free” practices until recently, when groups and communities undertook the challenge of “open sourcing” the physical world. The “Open source hardware definition”, “open design” and to a next level the nascent idea of “Open Architecture” are now moving along these lines, developing layered definitions to address the material and immaterial aspects of the issue.
The most powerful implication, however, of Stallmanʼs statement is that “socially useful” applications can only emerge if users are in control of the technologies that they are using. Stallman advocates for the unmediated expression of the needs and desires of the users, by allowing them to be simultaneously producers and users of the technologies that they employ. The famous moto “Free as in Speech, not in Beer”, exemplifies the fundamental principle of the Free Software Movement, which evolves around four essential freedoms, teasingly numbered from 0-3.
■ The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).
■ The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you
wish (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
■ The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
■ The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others (freedom 3). By doing this
you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
[3]

If one was to take a step back and abstract these principles in a more generic design process of a given immaterial “thing”, then what Stallman seems to be suggesting is freedom of use, freedom of modification/redesign, sharing and common-ing. The objective of a technology for the users by the users, as a way to true freedom and social change (sharing and collaboration), along with the rupture of the FSM principles from traditional centralized economic models structured around intellectual property, expert priesthoods and proprieratization, made the idea of “free” spread in the realms of immaterial production.
Free cultural works, whose open editing phase was initiated in May 1, 2006 by Erik Moller, with the support of Richard Stallman, Lawrence Lessig, Angela Beesley, and Benjamin Mako Hill, exemplify such an act of creative translation in the world of cultural production, under the vision of culture as a participatory, collectively driven process, constantly enriched by the contributions of its receptors.

Along the same lines of the abstractions of the principles of the Free Software Movement in any design process, the idea of user control and the priming of the collective and the social both as the “subject” who produces and uses the “goods” in question, has strong conceptual affinities with Yona Friedmanʼs reference to an architecture which moves beyond the architectʼs (authorʼs) hypotheses, allowing the users to create their own hypotheses. This brings back to the surface, from a different area this time, the discourse on the roles of the expert and the non expert in the process of decision making. In a world that becomes increasingly digitized, Richard Stallman sees software freedom as a precondition of social freedom and a ground for solidarity, collaboration and sharing. He states: “In this freedom, it is the user’s purpose that matters, not the developer’s purpose; you as a user are free to run the program for your purposes, and if you distribute it to someone else, she is then free to run it for her purposes, but you are not entitled to impose your purposes on her.” [4] The principle of transferring control to the user, however, does not only rely on the act of giving them access to the source code, but implies that the code itself is actually accessible (ie. legible and not obfuscated). The issue of accessibility as a property which can be designed into the actual “free” product rather than being taken for granted, opens the door to a two-way discussion, referring both to the design decisions which ensure this accessibility of a “product” by others, as well as the “literacy” of the users. Within that context education and technologies for learning could very well fit into this discussion, opening tangents such as the work of Seymour Papert at MIT and the architectural language studies (symbols, sketch recognition etc) which had been conducted both by the Architecture Machine Group and in various places in Europe (Friedman, Habraken). When it comes to the case of architecture, or more generally to art, which is an inherently ambiguous area, the definition of what a non-obfuscated code would be is a hard intellectual exercise, as one has to balance between overly legible -to the extend of being populistic- conceptions of art and architecture and their eclectic counterpart, which asserts certain groups of literati, by making through “difficult”, unfamiliar languages. That said, it seems that knowledge and education is a central issue in the discussion of (software) freedom. Although the different licenses and distribution models, beyond the core concept of copylefting, are essential to the Free Software Definition, their thorough description would be beyond the scope and objective of my post. What is interesting, however, is that this is the space where one can locate subtle distinctions between “Free” and “Open”.

Open Source started as a means to transcend the alleged confusion around what the word “free” denotes. Although it is difficult to identify blatant differences between the two definitions, and the former seem to consider themselves as intellectual offsprings of the latter, Richard Stallman argues that the Open Source movement has very little to do with the philosophy and objectives of “Free”.

His article titled: “Why Open Source misses the point of Free Software” can serve as a very suggestive frame of critique exposing a series of questions around the idea of “Open”. In the following paragraphs I will attempt to isolate the main points of his discussion which go beyond software per se and relate to the ideological and conceptual underpinnings of the term “Open Source”.
The first point that Stallman is making is the priming of practicality vs freedom. In their attempt to appeal to the business world, the Open Source supporters adopted a vocabulary of efficiency and convenience related to having fast, cheap and reliable software. In that sense, the “Open Source” movement adopted a vocabulary which made it a convincing business model denuding it from its political and social objectives and connotations. “Open source is a development methodology; free software is a social movement.” [5] This distinction is very valuable within the broader discussion on technology democratization, as it places technological efficiency and user freedom in opposing camps, if not in terms of practice, then definitely in terms of value systems, the one leading to capitalist completion and “better” products and the other to true social change through processes of sharing, collaboration and communication. As Stallman characteristically denotes: “A pure open source enthusiast, one that is not at all influenced by the ideals of free software, will say, “I am surprised you were able to make the program work so well without using our development model, but you did. How can I get a copy?” This attitude will reward schemes that take away our freedom, leading to its loss.” [6]

If linguistic ambiguity is framed as a danger when it comes to “free”, then the one way meaning of “open source” is even more problematic because of its overly literate meaning which cultivates the wrong common assumption that access to the source code suffices for a project to be characterized as open. This point brings us back to where we started, to the need for a disambiguation of the term so as not to act as a trojan horse for practices which not only are not open, but conflict with the fundamental principles of freedom and openness. Stallman rejects the opportunistic use of the word and its translation in other disciplines and areas of human practice, and claims that the principles of free software are specific to software.
“The term “open source” has been further stretched by its application to other activities, such as government, education, and science, where there is no such thing as source code, and where criteria for software licensing are simply not pertinent. The only thing these activities have in common is that they somehow invite people to participate. They stretch the term so far that it only means “participatory”. [7]

Besides Stallmanʼs call for caution, the imaginary of “Open Source” is forming a new culture of production and use, with constantly growing echoes in spatial theory and practices. Instead of disrupting this imaginary we should perhaps embrace it exposing at the same time the history and internal tensions of the words themselves. Along these lines, mapping flavors of openness in the spectrum from free to open source, from principle to practicality and from a vehicle for social change to a design methodology, can be an invaluable tool for reframing past practices and seeking new diagrams and interpretations.

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Notes
[1] http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/open-source-misses-the-point.html
[2], [3], [4] http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/free-sw.html
[5], [6], [7] op.cit [1]

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