First Monday

Democratizing software: Open source, the hacker ethic, and beyond by Brent K. Jesiek

Democratizing software: Open source, the hacker ethic, and beyond by Brent K. Jesiek

The development of computer software and hardware in closed-source, corporate environments limits the extent to which technologies can be used to empower the marginalized and oppressed. Various forms of resistance and counter-mobilization may appear, but these reactive efforts are often constrained by limitations that are embedded in the technologies by those in power. In the world of open source software development, actors have one more degree of freedom in the proactive shaping and modification of technologies, both in terms of design and use. Drawing on the work of philosopher of technology Andrew Feenberg, I argue that the open source model can act as a forceful lever for positive change in the discipline of software development. A glance at the somewhat vacuous hacker ethos, however, demonstrates that the technical community generally lacks a cohesive set of positive values necessary for challenging dominant interests. Instead, Feenberg’s commitment to "deep democratization" is offered as a guiding principle for incorporating more preferable values and goals into software development processes.


Introducing open source
Feenberg’s philosophy of technology
Social values in the technical code
The hardware question
Reproducing dominance?
Of ethics and open source





It has become increasingly evident that the proliferation of computing technologies and the concomitant growth of global information and communication networks are very significant historical movements. Parallel to these trends, a diverse body of scholars has developed convincing arguments that technologies are co-constructed with society in complex cycles of innovation and use. These analyses are often accompanied by a heightened awareness that technologies can serve a wide variety of social interests, ranging from capitalist power structures to marginalized or oppressed interest groups. Furthermore, many authors have emphasized the ways in which the relatively powerless might use certain types of technologies in active forms of resistance or "counter-mobilization" against dominant interests and forces [ 1]. Political economist Fran├žois Fortier captures this theme when he remarks, "[A]s the technology continues to evolve rapidly, new technical, organizational, political and legal tools will be needed to bypass and confront the restrictions and agendas on hardware, software and information flows that dominant groups and state authorities are now successfully imposing" [2].

Turning to the technical community, we find that some of the tools sought by Fortier already exist. Central to this paper is the argument that the open source model of software development is one such tool. In developing this thesis, I draw heavily on a philosophy of technology as best represented by philosopher Andrew Feenberg and his predecessors. I turn to Feenberg in particular because of his interest in and emphasis on technological design, an area of inquiry often ignored by the many scholars who are concerned more narrowly with the use or application of technologies. Since the open source model is a potentially liberating design philosophy, it resonates nicely with Feenberg’s work. Furthermore, Feenberg’s theory deals very cogently with the intertwined nature of the social and the technical, a point that cannot be ignored in analyzing the complex and multifaceted settings where computer technologies are developed and used.

However, it is often difficult to separate the open source software development model from the more broadly encompassing "hacker ethic" that provides a partial basis for the social organization of the open source community and the values carried and espoused by many of its members. Further analysis of this community reveals that it may lack the requisite social values necessary to achieve the sort of revolutionary agenda prescribed by Fortier and his cohorts. Turning once more to Feenberg, I argue that the full potential of the open source development model can only be achieved if it is accompanied by a thoroughgoing commitment to the democratization of technologies.



Introducing open source

In roughly three decades, the open source software licensing and distribution model has moved from the fringes of computer culture into a relatively prominent and visible position in the world of software development. While the movement was largely founded under the "free software" moniker, the phrase "open source" emerged in 1998 and has since gained widespread currency, both in cyberspace and the media at large [ 3]. To quickly orient readers to the basic tenets of the open source software movement, I offer this brief definition:

"A method and philosophy for software licensing and distribution designed to encourage use and improvement of software written by volunteers by ensuring that anyone can copy the source code and modify it freely" (Howe, 1999) [ 4].

To further clarify, open source software is not necessarily zero-cost since it may be bundled with other software and services and then resold. However, even if open source software is resold in some manner, it must remain open to modification and redistribution without restriction. These stipulations are established via a variety of terms and conditions that are compatible with, or extensions of, more generalized open source definitions [ 5].

Some readers may be inclined to doubt the significance or pervasiveness of the open source mode of software development. Admittedly, the design and development process typically associated with the open source model has been seriously questioned or even disregarded by many commercial software firms and information technology pundits. The origins of these dismissals are difficult to pin down, but they may emerge from a general resistance to change, inflexible organizational structures, questions about the productivity advantages of open source, and concerns about the quality of open source software. Other authors have pointed to the potential for ideological conflicts between for-profit corporations and the sort of "collectivist" approaches to software production that are sometimes associated with open source, a point to which I will return.

However, the products of the open source community have crept into corporate networks — along with the Internet at large — in very substantial ways. Apache, an open source Web server, is one of the most important and widely used software applications to emerge from the open source community. Reliable estimates indicate that around 65 percent of all Web sites worldwide run Apache. Competing Web server software produced by Microsoft — the largest commercial challenger in this realm — holds approximately 25 percent of this software market (Anonymous, 2003a). Linux, an operating system for personal computers and other devices, is another open source success story, albeit with some qualifications. In addition to frequently being used in tandem with the aforementioned Apache software, Linux has made tentative inroads into the operating system market at-large. This trend has further accelerated due to the relative ease of porting Linux to a wide variety of hardware platforms, ranging from mainframes and workstations to handheld devices and the Sony Playstation 2.

But what motivates individuals, corporations and other organizations to trust and depend on software produced by loosely organized bands of hackers, computer enthusiasts, and professionals who operate under open source mantra? Key benefits often mentioned by proponents of open source software include increased security, performance, scalability, and reduced total cost of ownership (Wheeler, 2002). For the purposes of this analysis, three additional factors stand out. First, the products of the open source movement can be obtained for free. Second, users of the software may legally obtain and modify the source-code for open source products (again, at no charge) in response to specific uses and needs. And third, there is little question that open source communities have created many software applications that are more flexible and adaptable when compared to similar offerings produced by commercial software developers. In referring to the Linux operating system, for instance, technology writer Glyn Moody notes that "flexibility is one of the great strengths of GNU/Linux; that it can be applied in the most diverse circumstances is already evident from the range of innovative devices that employ it" [ 6]. However, the implications of the open source model — both in terms of the development process and end products — go well beyond the production of cheap, adaptable software. But before discussing the open source movement in more detail, it is necessary to introduce a series of themes drawn from the work of Andrew Feenberg.



Feenberg’s philosophy of technology

While reconstructing Feenberg’s entire philosophy of technology is beyond the scope of this paper, I will summarize a number of key insights and concepts that inform my analysis. First, it must be noted that Feenberg eschews notions of technological determinism, or the idea that technologies can somehow be de-contextualized from society and viewed as self-generating. Hence, technologies in and of themselves do not determine specific outcomes in an isolated or autonomous fashion. Feenberg, drawing on social constructivist theorizing, compels us to seek out and explore how technologies are situated in particular contexts. His brief comments on computers provide an apt introduction to this non-deterministic perspective:

"[P]erhaps the computer is neither good nor evil, but both. By this I mean not merely that computers can be used for good or evil purposes, but that they can evolve into very different technologies in the framework of strategies of domination or democratization" [ 7].

Expanding on this argument, Feenberg goes on to emphasize the "contradictory potentialities" or the "ambivalence" of technologies such as computers (Feenberg, 1991). At one extreme of this potential, new technologies may be designed and deployed to achieve a "conservation of hierarchy," thereby perpetuating cycles of domination by persons or groups in power. At the other extreme of potential, Feenberg’s "principle of subversive rationalization" posits that major technological innovations are often accompanied by new opportunities for transforming and democratizating technologies. Taking advantage of such opportunities may facilitate the undermining of dominant interests and hierarchies. Furthermore, the realization of either extreme of potential is constrained and guided by social processes and values, thereby shifting our attention away from the technologies themselves and toward the ways in which society and technology are co-constructed.

Another important theme in Feenberg’s work centers on the "evolution" and "potentialities" of computers and other technologies. Both of these terms suggest that the author is interested not only in the use of technologies, but also in design. This emphasis aligns nicely with a non-deterministic outlook, for if we can proactively shape technologies during the design phase, these technologies may appear more reflexive and responsive to specific needs and values. Feenberg’s notion of technical coding — the route whereby social values are embedded in technologies vis-à-vis design processes — nicely captures this theme:

"Technical codes define the object in strictly technical terms in accordance with the social meaning it has acquired. These codes are usually invisible because, like culture itself, they appear self-evident. ... Technical codes include important aspects of the basic definition of many technical objects insofar as these too become universal culturally accepted features of daily life" [ 8].

The author subsequently points to telephones, automobiles, refrigerators, and bicycles as a few of the countless technologies that are defined by technical codes. He adds that we easily and instinctively recognize and accept such technologies so long as they fall in line with widely accepted cultural understandings. Feenberg adds:

"But there is nothing obvious about this outcome from a historical point of view. Each of these objects was selected from a series of alternatives by a code reflecting specific social values" [ 9].

Such comments push us to explore how the dominant images of technology are both socially constructed and historically contingent. That is, we may take for granted the form and function of telephones, bicycles, and perhaps even computers, but the ongoing evolution of these and other objects remains at least nominally — and in some cases substantially — open to alternate pathways of development.

Yet there remain questions, not only about the extent to which we might guide the design and use of technologies, but also regarding the selection of preferable values and goals that would undergird such efforts. As suggested in the passages above, Feenberg places a great deal of emphasis on democratization as a guiding value, particularly with respect to technological design processes. He argues, "the design of technology is thus an ontological decision fraught with political consequences. The exclusion of a vast majority from participation in this decision is the underlying cause of many of our problems" [ 10]. Following this line of reasoning, we are compelled to search out both the social values that are overtly or covertly hidden in technologies and the processes that facilitate these cover-ups. I return to the topic of software development, using the concept of technical codes as a springboard for further analysis.



Social values in the technical code

As revealed by the work of scholars such as Feenberg, it has become increasingly difficult to argue that technologies are entirely — or even largely — disconnected from social values or goals. But as noted above, Feenberg points out that many of the key social values that are embedded in technologies are difficult to uncover. Turning more specifically to the realm of computing, author Gisle Hannemyr adds that it is difficult find authoritative evidence regarding the larger intentions and purposes that lie behind the creation of a given piece of computer technology, especially when we look beyond the limited information offered in product documentation or promotional materials (Hannemyr, 1999). Yet the connections between software development and the logic of the market are sometimes unmistakable, as evidenced by the ongoing proliferation of advertising systems, user activity tracking mechanisms, and various methods for encouraging consumers to register software or purchase upgrades. Scholars have also revealed a wide variety of social values that are more subtly concealed in the design of computer hardware and software. For instance, a number of studies have explored the relationships between gender and software design, while other authors have critically analyzed the cultural assumptions that underlie the ubiquitous "desktop"computer interface [ 11].

In a paper about the hacker community, Hannemyr compares and contrasts software produced in both open source and commercial realms in an effort to deconstruct and problematize design decisions and goals. His analysis provides us with further evidence regarding the links between social values and software code. He concludes:

"Software constructed by hackers seem to favor such properties as flexibility, tailorability, modularity and openendedness to facilitate on-going experimentation. Software originating in the mainstream is characterized by the promise of control, completeness and immutability" (Hannemyr, 1999).

To bolster his argument, Hannemyr outlines the striking differences between document mark-up languages (like HTML and Adobe PDF), as well as various word processing applications (such as TeX and Emacs verses Microsoft Word) that have originated in open and closed development environments. He concludes that "the difference between the hacker’s approach and those of the industrial programmer is one of outlook: between an agoric, integrated and holistic attitude towards the creation of artifacts and a proprietary, fragmented and reductionist one" (Hannemyr, 1999). As Hannemyr’s analysis reveals, the characteristics of a given piece of software frequently reflect the attitude and outlook of the programmers and organizations from which it emerges.

A recent tale about the selective incorporation of language into software operating systems brings the issue of technical coding into additional relief. Much to the chagrin of the Icelandic population, Microsoft announced that it would not offer an Icelandic language version of its Windows 98 operating system (Walsh, 1998). The official reason for this decision — the small size of the Icelandic software market — is perhaps not surprising given the primacy of profit over other values in a corporate context. In response, Iceland’s cultural authorities sought permission to translate the software into their native language, but Microsoft balked. This resistance likely stemmed from the fact that such changes would require access to the coveted source code of the Windows operating system. In response to this roadblock, enterprising hackers looked to the open source world for alternatives. KDE, one of the more common desktop environments for the open source Linux operating system, was soon developed into an Icelandic flavor [ 12]. And while subsequent releases of Microsoft’s operating systems — including a Windows 2000 multi-lingual edition and all versions of Windows XP — offered an Icelandic language option, it might not have happened without the pleading of Icelanders and the active search for alternatives. In this case, the open source model of software development facilitated a rapid reaction to specific social values and goals, namely the preservation of native culture via the Icelandic language, while the closed commercial developer lagged behind.



The hardware question

To date, open source development is most frequently associated with software projects. However, there is little question that major technical decisions — which often reflect particular social needs and values — frequently occur at the hardware level. The controversy that erupted in 1999 over Intel’s decision to embed a unique serial number in each of its Pentium III processors is but one well-known example. According to one trade journal, the ID feature was "designed to provide an extra layer of security for e-commerce transactions and aid information technology managers trying to track computers, the serial code could also be used by marketers and those with nefarious intentions to track users based on their Web behavior" (Miles and Shankland, 1999). Here we find that the interests of the market — in this case, motivated by the benefits of e-commerce and inventory control — collided with other social values, such as privacy. Intel, in tandem with various computer manufacturers who purchase and use Intel chips, responded with a means for users to disable the serial number feature. However, this alternate option was only offered by manufacturers after significant media coverage and loud protestations by consumers and advocacy groups.

The level of control that hardware manufacturers have over hardware design has led to other forms of resistance, often originating in various hacker and open source communities. Lesser-known open source hardware initiatives have been underway for many years now, with the explicit intention of wresting control of computer hardware design and manufacturing away from big corporate interests [ 13]. Furthermore, strong cases have been made in favor of open source device drivers by authors such as Eric Raymond (1999a) [ 14]. When device drivers are released as open source, it opens the door for savvy programmers to enhance and customize, fix problems (especially if the parent company goes under or drops support), and develop new drivers for alternate hardware and software platforms.

As the Intel example given above suggests, the relationship between social values and technical codes are often more direct and important than we would expect. We must remain especially wary of efforts to embed technical codes into hardware systems. When technical codes are burned onto a chip, avenues of negotiation and change that were at one time open may suddenly turn into dead-ends. Efforts to incorporate open source principles into hardware development may be a necessary and appropriate response if commercial manufacturers move toward fixing and embedding hierarchical control systems and other principles of domination in the technological artifacts themselves.



Reproducing dominance?

As the preceding analysis suggests, the open source design process — especially as employed by the hacker community — tends to produce software that in many ways is superior to the products of commercial developers. Furthermore, flexibility and adaptability are key characteristics of both the design process and end products of open source development, and these features open up great potential for subversive rationalization. But if we follow Feenberg’s reasoning, we must look at both sides of the ambivalence coin. Does the open source philosophy harbor potential for a reproduction of hierarchy and dominance, either in design or use?

In the hands of users — whether they be hacker, corporate, subversive, or otherwise — open source applications may appear more "neutral" than commercial applications, giving users flexibility to deploy them as a means to virtually any end. Author Adrian MacKenzie, building on the work of Susan Leigh Star and Karen Ruhleder, makes a similar argument by invoking the concept of in situ practices (MacKenzie, 2001). He argues that tools such as the open source model cannot be adequately studied in isolation because they take on primary significance and meaning in use. Reflecting on Feenberg’s work, we are also reminded that software tools as deployed in different contexts may be characterized by a "deepened ambivalence," thereby raising new questions about the relative merits of the open source methodology and its products.

The increasing popularity and use of Linux in China is a good contemporary example of this potential for ambivalence. Citing cost and localization concerns, along with growing anxiety over security vulnerabilities in Microsoft’s operating systems, the Chinese government has supported initiatives to develop a homegrown adaptation of the Linux operating system dubbed "Red Flag Linux" (McAllister, 2001; Michie, 2002). Not surprisingly, the response of the technical community has been mixed. Journalist Andy Goodman captures two common reactions:

"If China allows Linux to become the foundation of its technical infrastructure, the entire country could move towards a freedom of communication never before enjoyed. On the other hand, if the Chinese decide to create their own proprietary version of Linux, the rest of the world/Linux community could well reject it, and they would remain as isolated technically as they have been" (Goodman, 2000).

In addition to Goodman’s tentative — and perhaps tenuous — connections between open source software and freedom, others make the more practical claim that the huge base of programmers and users in China could be a significant boon to the ongoing development of Linux.

But other articles bolster Goodman’s latter concern. As one technology pundit remarked, "Open source gives a level of control that proprietary software from the likes of Microsoft and HP do not give ... It may be that the authorities want to keep a check on who is using computers" (Anonymous, 2002). Grappling with even deeper ideological themes, author Sam Williams adds, "[M]any debate whether the Chinese definition of freedom fits the one so carefully delineated in the Linux General Public License" (Williams, 2000). Open source proponent Eric Raymond follows this line of reasoning to a more extreme end by claiming that "the open-source movement promotes freedom, increased choice, and voluntary cooperation. Any "identification" between the values of the open-source community and the repressive practices of Communism is nothing but a a [sic] vicious and cynical fraud" (Raymond, 1999b) [ 15]. The tendency toward either outcome — communicative freedom or government control — remains uncertain. However, the in situ use of Linux in the Chinese context is a testimonial to the potential ambivalence of open source.

The potential for conflict between the open source model and other dominant values and ideologies is also apparent in other contexts. For instance, there is evidence that the "capitalist-corporate" world has remained cautious toward the deployment of open source principles as a primary method for software development. As Greg Perkins notes, some of this resistance may emerge when thoroughly market-oriented organizations grapple with the implications of adopting what appear to be collectivist approaches to software production (Perkins, 1999). This issue has probably received undue attention in recent years as a number of highly visible open source proponents have used communistic and socialist rhetoric to describe the successes of the open source and free software communities [ 16]. Such comparisons may leave hard-core capitalists wary of adopting open source as a model for designing and distributing software, but these concerns seem sufficiently reduced when it comes to simply deploying open source applications in corporate computing environments. MacKenzie’s argument that "open source software cannot be separated from open source practices of socializing" [ 17] is far from universal. Many corporations have been quite willing to utilize open source software applications while simultaneously avoiding open source principles when developing and distributing their own products [18].

But these tensions also raise larger questions regarding the relationships between the open source model, the hacker ethic, and dominant economic and political ideologies, including communism, socialism and capitalism. While this topic hasn’t received a great deal of attention, Perkins claims that individual freedom is a key, common thread that unites the open source movement and capitalism. Such arguments suggest that the open source model by itself lacks sufficient values to achieve the vision that Feenberg promotes, a vision that at times tends toward socialist ideals over others, such as capitalism and individualism. Therefore, we must turn to the wider hacker community — and perhaps beyond — in search of values that are more compatible with our vision of subversive rationalization.



Of ethics and open source

If we acknowledge that key social values are embedded in technologies via design processes, we are led to ponder what sorts of values we might selectively inject into technologies if given the opportunity. Since the open source model is the primary subject of this paper, a good starting point would be to look for some generalized values or ethics in the hacker community from which the open source methodology has emerged. The concept of a "hacker ethic" has been popularized in recent years, and may provide important insights. Eric Raymond, a key founding figure in the open source movement, offers this widely oft cited formulation of the hacker ethic: "the belief that information-sharing is a powerful positive good, and that it is an ethical duty of hackers to share their expertise by writing open-source code and facilitating access to information and to computing resources wherever possible" (Raymond, 1996). This certainly seems a worthy principle, but it appears much too narrow to stand in isolation.

Moody, in his comprehensive history of the free software and open source movements titled Rebel Code (2001), offers a more general overview of hacker values. He uses terms such as openness, sharing, cooperation, freedom, community, creation, and even beauty and joy to describe open source projects. Pekka Himanen captures a similar sentiment in his book titled The Hacker Ethic, where he identifies three ethics (work, money and network) and seven values (passion, freedom, social worth, openness, activity, caring and creativity) that are central to his more general argument that a "new spirit" is gradually spreading from the hacker community to society at large (Himanen, 2001). But in contrast with Raymond’s narrow formulation, the definitions presented by Moody and Himanen are so broad and encompassing as to be somewhat vacuous.

However, Himanen also points to an uneasy historical tension between capitalist endeavors and the individual values of hackers in various open source communities [ 19]. Perkins also speaks to this tension in attempting to placate the fears of capitalist software developers by pointing to the value of individual freedom as the tie that binds capitalism and the open source development model. The emphasis on individual freedom espoused by both of these authors frequently resonates with the sort of libertarian philosophies that have long proved popular among the technologically savvy, a trend captured by texts such as Paulina Borsook’s Cyberselfish: A Critical Romp Through the Terribly Libertarian Culture of High-Tech (2000). And while Borsook provides a thorough description of the libertarian leanings of hackers, one observent reviewer of Borsook’s book noted that "Borsook doesn’t really tackle the paradox that "libertarians celebrate the cult of the individual" but Open Source celebrates the collective. What does it mean to be an Open Source libertarian?" (Brate, 2000). Sociologist Manuel Castells provides us with a potential resolution to this paradox as he ponders the various uses of the term "libertarian":

""Libertarian" has a different meaning in the European and in the American context. In Europe, it refers to a culture or ideology based on the uncompromising defense of individual freedom as the supreme value — often against the government, but sometimes with the help of the governments, as in the protection of privacy. In the U.S. context, "libertarian" is a political ideology that primarily means a systematic distrust of government, on the understanding that the market takes care of everything by itself, and that individuals take care of themselves" [ 20].

As we work to incorporate preferable social values into technologies, open source proponents may need to shift toward the former definition of libertarian, while eschewing the latter. But on the one hand, such an endeavor may be challenged by vocal segments of the open source community that quite vehemently distrust the government, exalt the individual, and reify open markets. And on the other hand, the more desirable European flavor of libertarianism described by Castells may also come into conflict with other important values and goals. Hence, we may need to acknowledge that the open source movement has opened the door for the embedding of more positive social and democratic ideals into technologies, while at the same time realizing that the open source community generally lacks a thoroughgoing commitment to democratization [ 21].

Feenberg’s penchant for the term "hacked" (Feenberg, 1992) hints at the value of the hacker mentality, but his larger arguments reaches well beyond the limits of hacker morality outlined here. In fact, we find that the principle of "deep democratization" is the penultimate value on which Feenberg’s vision depends. He argues that "deep democratization promises an alternative to technocracy. Instead of popular agency appearing as an anomaly and an interference, it would be normalized and incorporated into the standard procedures of technical design" [ 22]. Of the two major approaches to software development discussed in this paper, it should be clear that the open source model is more compatible with this brand of democratization.




When key software technologies are developed in a closed-source, corporate environment, the negotiating power of marginalized social groups and users is sufficiently diminished. Various forms of resistance and counter-mobilization may appear, and may even have significant impact, but these reactive efforts are constrained by the technical codes built into the technologies by those in power. In the open source world, actors have one more degree of freedom, allowing for the proactive shaping and modification of technologies, both in design and use. While this degree of freedom can also be used and abused by dominant interests, there is little question that the open source approach allows greater latitude in challenging hegemony.

Feenberg argues that "the issue is not simply 'society’s responsibility' for controlling technology, but extends to a reflexive transformation of technical disciplines themselves as the design process becomes socially conscious" [ 23]. Hopefully this analysis has demonstrated that the open source model can act as a lever for transformation in the discipline of software development, a field of escalating importance in what is an increasingly digital world. A glance at the somewhat vacuous hacker ethos, however, demonstrates that positive values will need to be imported from the outside into software design processes. Feenberg’s commitment to democratization is but one positive social value among many, but it is arguably the lynchpin on which other preferential goals and values depend. End of article


About the Author

Brent K. Jesiek received his Bachelor’s Degree in Electrical Engineering from Michigan Technological University in 1998, and then went to work for the information systems department at an iron foundry. Brent entered the Science and Technology Studies (STS) program at Virginia Tech in 2001, and finished his Master’s Degree in 2003. He is currently pursuing his doctoral degree, also in STS, at Virginia Tech.



Portions of this paper were presented at the Technologies/Moralities STS Workshop at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, Virginia in March, 2003. I would like to thank the participants and attendees who provided numerous insights and suggestions. I am especially grateful to workshop guest scholar Dr. Andrew Feenberg, who was kind enough to review and comment on a draft of this paper.



1. In accord with Robins and Webster (1999), I use the phrase "counter-mobilization" in reference to any form of resistance against "the cybernetic imagination of capitalism" (Chapter 5). This resistance stands in opposition to the unbridled imposition of a rational, efficient order on society by capitalist power structures.

2. Fortier, 2001, p. 106.

3. The free software and open source software labels are often used interchangeably. With only occasional exception, software that falls under one of the definitions will also meet the criteria of the other. The noteworthy differences between these two terms are more ideological in nature. The term free software is frequently associated with an ethical or moral commitment to freedom. That is, proponents of free software emphasize the freedom that users have to copy, redistribute, modify, and use software without restriction. Open source, on the other hand, is framed more pragmatically in terms of developing more reliable and flexible software. The open source movement promotes the same general approaches to software development and distribution that are supported by the free software community, but without the same sorts of ideological overtones. Richard Stallman’s writings (2002) provide a window into the free software perspective, while Eric Raymond’s work (1999a) captures the tenets of open source. The more popularized and less value-laden open source is a more apt fit for the arguments presented in this paper.

4. A commonly accepted definition of source code is: "the form in which a computer program is written by the programmer. Source code is written in some formal programming language which can be compiled automatically into object code or machine code or executed by an interpreter" (Howe, 1995). In other words, source code is akin to a comprehensive, functional description of a computer program. Making changes, enhancements and/or fixes to a computer program is near impossible without source code, unless the program is completely reverse-engineered.

5. See the Open Source Definition, as offered by the Open Source Initiative (Anonymous, 2003b).

6. Moody, 2001, p. 298.

7. Feenberg, 1991, p. 91.

8. Feenberg, 1999, p. 88.

9. Ibid.

10. Feenberg, 1991, p. 3.

11. For studies on the role of gender in software design, see Kirkup (1992) and Zdenek (1999). For an extended analysis of the cultural assumptions that undergird the design and use of software interfaces, see Johnson (1997). Feenberg’s remarks about the desktop computer interface and "reflexive design" are also relevant here (Feenberg, 1999, p. 91).

12. Unlike the Microsoft Windows operating system, which affords limited latitude in customizing and modifying the user interface, open source operating systems such as Linux allow users to select a preferred desktop interface which can be customized down to the smallest details of functionality.

13. See for a sampling of open source hardware projects.

14. A device driver is a specialized piece of software code that makes it possible to interface or "bridge" hardware devices with operating systems and/or software applications.

15. Raymond’s promotion of "open source" software is often framed as less value-laden, especially as compared to the more polemical and political "free software" mantra offered by Stallman. However, it is interesting to note how Raymond very actively and emotionally resists any connections between Communism and the open source community. As this example suggests, it is often difficult to untangle the values of a software development community from their preferred mode of software development.

16. One widely publicized example is Richard Barbrook’s essay titled "Cyber-Communism: How the Americans are Superseding Capitalism in Cyberspace" (2000).

17. MacKenzie, 2001, p. 548.

18. Some of the corporate resistance to open source has declined in recent years as dominant technology companies (most notably IBM, Apple and Netscape) have embraced both the products of the open source movement and, to a lesser extent, design and distribution philosophies. Many companies view service and support markets as superior to software sales, both in terms of profitability and overall business strategy.

19. Himanen, 2001, p. 56.

20. Castells, 2001, p. 33.

21. The lackluster usability of many open source software applications might suggest that thoroughly democratizing software remains a relatively low priority goal for many open source developers. In a recent paper, authors David Nichols and Michael Twidale (2003) explore this issue by discussing how the characteristics of open source development communities are subsequently reflected in the usability of open source software. While the authors offer a number of practical recommendations for improving the usability of such software, my own analysis supports the more general argument that usability will be significantly improved if explicit priority is given to encouraging the democratic participation of programmers and users in all phases of open source development projects.

22. Feenberg, 1999, p. 147.

23. Feenberg, 1999, p. 91.



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Editorial history

Paper received 7 August 2003; accepted 22 September 2003.

Contents Index

Copyright ©2003, First Monday

Copyright ©2003, Brent K. Jesiek

Democratizing software: Open source, the hacker ethic, and beyond by Brent K. Jesiek
First Monday, volume 8, number 10 (October 2003),