Monday, November 26, 2007

Think Free Press, not Free Beer: Toward a Discourse Ethic for Software

A few strands starting to weave together . . . at the Brecht Forum book event, Biella, Samir, and I talked a bit about the tension between the communitarian and libertarian impulses within FOSS . . . at the Brooklyn College/Wolfe Institute book event a couple weeks ago, Mako talked a bit more about his dissatisfaction with our treatment in the book of the distinction between the free software and open source software movements . . . and Samir and I are finishing up a journal article, based on our presentation at NA-CAP last July, about why Freedom Zero is so important.

One of our arguments for Freedom Zero (which essentially says that the creator of a piece of software can't forbid its users from using it for any particular purpose) is that it supports an aspect of discursivity both within the development community and within the user community (to the extent those are distinct).

Doing a little research to see how that kind of idea has been fleshed out elsewhere, I stumbled across some surprisingly interesting sources. One is a piece by Nick Couldry, "Digital divide or discursive design? On the emerging ethics of information space," which appeared in Ethics and Information Technology 5 in 2003. In it, Couldry meditates on the extent to which the Internet (broadly construed) might be cast as a 'discursive design.'

The notion of 'discursive design' was introduced by political scientist and critical theorist John Dryzek in 1990, in his book Discursive Democracy. As Couldry points out, Dryzek represents
a particular strand within deliberative democracy theory, which insists it should not be limited to considering the ideal speech situation and the broad principles of democratic participation but must think concretely about the institutional preconditions for any actually existing public sphere.
Couldry goes on to quote Dryzek's short definition of discursive design:
a social institution around which the expectations of a number of actors converge [which] . . . therefore has a place in their conscious awareness as a site for recurrent communicative interaction among them . . . as citizens, not as representatives of the state or any other corporate or hierarchical body.
From that definition, Couldry raises a number of questions concerning how and whether the Internet meets this definition, questions that are relevant to the consideration of FOSS. Among them, not surprisingly, are the question of what it is to 'converge,' and who exactly converges; what 'recurrent communicative interaction' means and what it can produce (as Couldry points out, "Deliberation is not just talk . . . . [it] must be more than a talking-shop without consequences."); how state and corporate power relate to this deliberation; and how such putative discursive designs evolve over time.

Dryzek's book itself is rich with suggestive material (especially the first half; the latter part of the book is rich in case studies that would likely be of interest to a political scientist but are a little hard to abstract from). One relevant observation of Dryzek's about the difficulties of maintaining true discursive designs:
State and corporate actors may seek some association with, or even participation in, discursive forums. The door is open to manipulation by these actors. They can cloak private interests in a rhetoric of public concern, perhaps even in the genuine belief that what is in their own interest must also be in the public interest. They can make superficial concessions to opponents and thereby secure passive acquiescence on the part of potential troublemakers. (p. 81)
It seems to me that the 'discursive design' framework is one worth exploring more carefully to see what it teslls us about FOSS. In particular, I'm intrigued that it echoes ideas in Coleman's dissertation that we need to be analyzing FOSS in terms of what hackers are actually doing and saying, and it explicitly incorporates an idea Mako spent some time talking about at Brooklyn College, that of the appeal of the "institutional independence" of FOSS.

At the same time, I ran across a piece by Patrick Lee Plaisance, "The Mass Media as Discursive Network: Building on the Implications of Libertarian and Communitarian Claims for News Media Ethics Theory," which appeared in Communication Theory 15(3) in August 2005. I first misread the title as referring to "new media" rather than as "news media," which caused me no small confusion. But it's a very relevant piece of writing. Knowing next to nothing about theories of the press, I was delighted to learn that there is an ongoing and vigorous (at least in some circles) debate about whether the purpose of the media is best defined in accordance with libertarian or communitarian principles. Plaisance makes plain the importance of the difference:
In the libertarian framework, the media system should express man's "natural," Lockean state, which advocates have said must be a robust, unfettered marketplace of ideas that ought not to constricted by a constant insistence on social justice. In the communitarian framework, the full self-realization of each individual, both as freedom-loving beings and as engaged members of a community, must be the underlying motive of all media policies. They do not rest on the same moral foundations and thus are essentially posing different moral questions.
It's almost hard to believe he's not talking about FOSS.

Plaisance goes on to critique libertarian press theory, with the final assessment that
Libertarian press theory, at bottom, is hampered as a moral theory by its unsubstantiated assertion that the product of the media marketplace, which is only one out of an infinite number of possible outcomes, somehow has privileged status as "the truth" . . . . To resort to such is to strip truth of its moral power and leave autonomy stripped of any function save its own worship.
Now, journalistic 'truth' doesn't have an obvious cognate in the vocabulary of software engineering, but certainly this critique echoes some of the critiques of libertarianism that have been leveled at some open source advocates.

On the other hand, a communitarian press ethic suggests that (here Plaisance quotes from E. Lambeth's 1992 text, Committed Journalism)
by action on yet another principle--stewardship of free expression--the committed journalist embraces the concept of community defined as the shared practice of inquiry. By cultivating and pursuing standards of excellence in the craft of reporting and interpretation, the journalist acquires the truth-telling ability to stimulate and assist the inquiry of fellow citizens.
Plaisance goes on to sketch out a "discursive-network model" for the media:
At the core . . . is a fundamental shift in our understanding of audience expectation and participation. Conceiving of the "public" served by media as a population for moral agency requires more than the instrumental application of ethics . . . . [T]his model sets forth the justification . . . to expect news practitioners not merely to view ethical standards . . . as proscribing their own behavior . . . by rather that the cultivation of moral agency be embraced as a central objective of the press.
Which brings me to the title for this posting: I wonder what happens if we analogize the social good provided by software with a free press rather than with free speech. I'm increasingly convinced that the real ethical meat of free software lies in the sorts of public discourse it supports, both among developers but also, and arguably more importantly, among 'regular' users; of course free speech is a necessary condition for that, but I'm not certain that it's the goal toward which free software should be conceived of as moving.


Blogger Luis Villa said...

I like it.

In the piece I'm working on right now, the focus is on free software as an enabler of user autonomy, which I think is analogous to what you're saying- that it is tool, rather than output. But I may be oversimplifying and losing some of your nuance in framing it that way.

6:49 PM  
Blogger Scott Dexter said...

Well, I'm not completely sure exactly what I'm trying to get at, so nuance may not be so relevant! I'm glad this resonates, though -- what disciplinary lens (shall we say) are you writing your piece through?

One question, which Samir and I continue to struggle with, and is hinted at in one of the quoted passages, is, "What's so great about autonomy, anyway?" -- especially in the context of an endeavor that is so clearly rooted in some sort of community. It's been suggested to me that focusing on a more Foucauldian notion of agency might get us farther, but that's a slightly different kettle of worms.

There's no doubt, though, that lots more work needs to be done to understand how free software functions politico-ethically, and I think it's exactly right to abstract away from what it does to how it does it, and even to why.

9:39 PM  
Blogger Luis Villa said...

Strictly speaking, the disciplinary lens would be 'complete and total abuse'; more generally, I was a political philosophy major in college, so if my usage is grounded anywhere, it is grounded in J.S. Mill and that general strand of political philosophical liberalism.

If I may continue to cross lines and abuse concepts, I thought Tim spoke rather well to the 'why autonomy in a community' question at your panel when he discussed alienation. It is only when we autonomously choose to participate in the productive community that we can reduce our sense of alienation.

I definitely think the 'how' is your best bet in thinking about this- the why is too radically varied across the various participants to be able to meaningfully generalize, and (as you point out) the 'what' is interesting but possibly not as useful.

8:04 AM  

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