Thursday, 21 May 2015

Where are the women in the history of open source?

Hi – Sumana Harihareswara here. You might remember me from my April guest post about free/open source software, licensing, and codes of conduct in open communities. In that piece I took a stab at thinking about some useful vocabulary and distinctions that help us understand the political values and intuitions common to those communities. Today I’m considering where we got frameworks that we free software/open source folks often take for granted, and specifically what might have been erased from our intellectual heritage due to sexism.

As a soundtrack to this piece, consider “Erase Me” by Ben Folds Five (off The Sound of the Life of the Mind) and “Whatever You Want” by programmer Vienna Teng(off Dreaming Through the Noise; I recently heard tell that “Whatever You Want” is inspired by the film Office Space, which is amazing.)

What’s missing?

If you ask some people about the history of free software, you hear about Richard Stallman creating the GNU Public License and formulating the Four Freedoms. And if you ask some people, you hear about that, and about how it was actually a return to normalcy, because after all we’d been sharing source code freely in academia and industry and hobby groups, until it was possible to sell binary-only software to the masses, and until Bill Gates’s Open Letter to Hobbyists, and so Stallman was restoring the proper state of things.

Some people will tell you a bit about Stallman, and then discuss how Eric S. Raymond wrote “The Cathedral and the Bazaar” and articulated more pragmatic language for open source folks to use, and how permissive licenses helped popularize open source.

And some people might say, well, it wasn’t so much Raymond as it was the rise of personal internet access in the First World in the 1990s, so that instead of schlepping disks around, we could collaborate online on projects like Linux.

But in any case — where the fuck are the women?

I recently started looking back at the narrative I’ve been told about the origins of free and open source software, the male-centric narrative about Richard Stallman and Eric Raymond that I’ve repeated a zillion times as a teacher. I’ve corrected my understanding of my general software engineering heritage to correct for biases, so I’ve reclaimed a heritage that has tons of gender diversity. But what about my open source history? Approximately every field in history has suppressed or hidden contributions by women, so I figure it’s safe to assume that open source philosophy is similar, and proceed on that basis. Whom am I missing?

At the very least, I’m missing Christine Peterson, who invented the phrase “open source.” I just learned that this year. And I’m probably missing early crossovers with fandom, and feminist philosophers who had very different articulations, and the women programming in government, industry, the academy, and hobbyist groups who freely shared their work. At some point, for instance, I’m going to take a deep breath and dive into Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto. But really I don’t know. I have some ideas about where to start looking, but I don’t know their names and I don’t know what alternate visions they suggested. I’ve started talking about this with other geek feminists and (as is our wont) we started a wiki page to collate what we’ve found; feel free to pitch in.

Wild-ass speculation

I wonder: what would my communities look like, if we heard about their contributions as often as we heard about the GPL and “The Cathedral And The Bazaar”?

Men gave me the expectations I started with in 1998, of how open source citizens should act in open source communities, about what the rules are, and about the sets of expectations we have about how we talk and work with each other. And I’m wondering what a genuinely different approach would look like. I am of course not the first person to consider this — for instance, in 2010, I heard about the idea of queering FLOSS via Niels Sascha Reedijk’s perspective on HaikuOS — but my post about inessential weirdnesses in open source caused and continues to cause traffic and discussion, and has gotten me and other people asking ourselves what the essential weirdnesses are.

What would it look like if we structured a tech project, from the start, to privilege hospitality over liberty? What if — like the women practicing moral reasoning in Carol Gilligan’s In A Different Voice — we articulated our vision not as four freedoms, four rights, but as four relationships, four responsibilities? What if we decided that advancing the state of the art was absolutely not the point, because we preferred boring and stable things? What if we genuinely valued interfaces, documentations, customer support, testing, and translations over writing new tools or features, because maintaining interdependence got more prestige than self-indulgent independence? Well, we have a few examples of those (as I discuss in my recent Passionate Voices interview), but we could start thinking about going even further than Growstuff went, further than Dreamwidth could go (given its pre-existing code base which it forked from LiveJournal). I start considering Archive of Our Own’s missteps and the kernels of “interesting” inside them.

This gets very disorienting for me because I’m so used to the status quo, and the way our values and workflows feed into each other. But I’m casting about and experimenting with tossing our deeper assumptions out the window, going beyond the liberty-hospitality spectrum into something new and strange, prioritizing a specific vision of community above the product. What if a community were super chill and celebratory about people’s forks, rather than always prodding people to stop hoarding? What if they preferentially recruited the unskilled? What if they so thoroughly optimized for explicitly structured mentorship that they were fine with disappointing experts who just wanted to fix a typo? What if they did all their work in-person? What if they left the world of OSI-approved licenses and chose a “don’t be evil” license or added a “you have to send us a thank-you note” clause?

Here ends part one of a two-part post; the second part will discuss models we could borrow from the world of fan fiction and fanvids, and will go up tomorrow on the Geek Feminism blog. I’ll post a comment here with a link once it’s up.

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