The Generation of the Free/Open Source Community and
the Conditions for Creativity: Social and Cultural Research Agenda
Summary. Research should focus on three inter-related areas: 1. Research relating to the ongoing generation of the ‘community of developers’, and to understanding the conditions fostering creativity. 2. The effects of the legislative environment and issues of ownership. 3. The public understanding of technology, and the expansion of OSS including attention to unintended or unanticipated social consequences
Introduction. Free software (FS) and Open Source software (OSS) have a number of advantages over proprietary software. Instrumental in facilitating these advantages is a support and innovation network (the community of developers) who are also the engine for development. This community does not exist in a vacuum but in a specific socio-cultural context. In order to facilitate the ongoing development of this community, and to foster the expansion of FS/OSS, this context must be understood, particularly by legislators and policy makers. If we agree that OSS is a good thing, there are a number of routes for research which should be prioritised. Many of these are technical. Some, perhaps more than one might imagine, are social. It is to these that I attend.
1. Research relating to the programming/hacker community,
and the conditions fostering creativity.
Informed discussion is also required of the social and
conceptual mechanisms by which schisms and divergences within the community
come about in order that the social factors behind technological divergence
are properly understood.
The ground for the success of OSS lies as much in the way a community and ethos has developed as it does in the brilliance of its prime movers. Individual brilliance and motivation may not be easy to foster out of context. Research should address the questions: What is that context? How do different development environments and different socio-cultural contexts effect participation in, or use of, OSS?
2. Legislative environment and ownership. In particular, regimes of ownership and the management of reward should be a focus for research. Into this comes the legislative environment, and particularly proposed changes to IP laws. Is licensing a good thing? What alternatives are there? What assumptions about economic behaviour are embedded in IP law, and how might they be challenged? How do the successful OS based businesses organise their reward structures? How are the needs of publishers, developers, users (individual/corporate/government) to be reconciled? While it seems unlikely to many that this reconciliation will be achieved through IP law, IP law has a momentum of its own, and is often cited as part of the enabling environment for innovation. If it is the province of lawyers to analyse changes in the law and their effects on law, it is the province of social scientists to comment on the effects upon communities, on systems of ownership, and on the diverse ethical and cultural effects of legislative change.
Long-term ethnographic research methods provide data which is a resource for both present concerns, and for future, unanticipated concerns. It is essential to have such data to be able to analyse effectively what developments in ownership will do. This is important not because property runs against the grain of OSS - OSS developers after all still own their labour power and their skills - but because changes in legislation may have negative impacts on developers, and therefore on the generation of objects and tools of value to society.
3. The public understanding of technology and
the expansion of OSS. Unintended or unanticipated social consequences.
Proprietary regimes in software are not the only obstacles to liberty.
While many of these obstacles are straightforward political issues, it
would be valuable to see what the drive for open-source coding, in the
model of scientific method and progress, and citing economic rationality
or social values, is also hiding behind its rhetoric of liberty. Differences
in participation between the genders, and the generations (Floss Rpt.)
have characterised the phenomenon so far. Why should this be, and can,
or should, it be overcome?