September 29, 2004

Techno-political Anthropology

A fascinating, if less coherent than I would like, article just went by in the Anthropological Quarterly, linked to by this Groklaw article, with additional discussion. The thesis of the thing is that FOSS has gained its pervasive and thus highly potent status as a movement precisely by virtue of its apolitical nature.

This strikes me as a smidgeon sloppy, since FOSS advocates routinely intervene in politics, on issues that touch upon our ability to develop software. Just because the community backs no particular candidates (the leanings probably average out to slightly libertarian) and would generally rather change the world through good software, does not mean that it lacks political goals.

Since the idealized FOSS community is, as noted elsewhere, a "transparent meritocracy," there is little patience for popularity contests, and where they do crop up (e.g. vi versus emacs), they are couched in the language of technical critique. This leads to an appreciation of law as code, and specific proposals as correct or incorrect, characterized both by the likelihood of beneficial or deleterious effects, and by the potential for unforseen consequences, a la "bugs" in the legal code. Politicians are characterized as using legislation to advance or hinder a particular agenda. This is loudly condemned by the FOSS community as being beholden to external interests, rather than to the people whom they represent.

The contradiction here is that the FOSS community quite naturally has an agenda of its own, namely, technical excellence and the freedom to strive for that goal, unmolested by legal interference. However, since the community conceives of itself as an essentially populist structure, due to its distributed nature, a politician acting in its particular interest would be acclaimed as working "for the people."

Posted by mill1974 at September 29, 2004 4:43 PM