The Arcology Garden

Free Software as a Community of Mutual Aide


This is a draft that still needs considerable work to be considered "canonical" to my thinking. It is an Essay in a series collected at Towards Convergence and a Respectful Future

Early on in my life, I found myself aligned more with the ethics of the Free Software movement than the ethics of the Open Source movement. It's hard to pin-point when, or even why I first started to articulate this. It goes at least back to the very beginnings of my blog, when I was in High School, and probably in earlier thinking.

My growth in to software development communities like KDE and the Fedora Project was the discovery of true communities in the sense that I had friends and a tribe and there were other tribes within them, and we built worlds that were best for ourselves and those around us. We advocated in public spheres for causes and values that we agreed with and shared resources where it made sense, tribes of twenty to two hundred, building a Linux distribution and the software which it provides. There were members of our community, or communities directly peripheral to us, that would float in and out, central to their own communities but peripheral to ours.

<illustration: a venn diagram of overlapping communities, subprojects, distros, KDE, GNOME, etc, me and my friends in the middle>

Free software is software with ethics built in. Open source is too, in a sense, but the ethics are driven by capital and a narrow focus on technical excellence. Open source is not about you, says Rich Hickey, the creator of the Clojure programming language and community as well as the closed-source Datomic database. But I don't care how efficiently the software development practices are for things which harm people, hell maybe they should be more difficult. We probably shouldn't be supporting fascists even if they pay us to make more "humane" jails1. This is the same energy we see ridiculed in the "hire more women guard" Meme2.

Under the banner of technical pragmatism and Show Them The Code, we find ourselves enabling the worst behavior in our communities, of allowing direct harm towards groups which do not intersect with "i grew up writing software and playing quake."3 Fedora has a mission that is informed by both free software and open source communities and in general I think it does a better job balancing these needs than similar communities mights. I believe this hampers the movement, and locks its benefits to those same reactionaries, those of us willing to put our energy in to an exclusionary community and movement. While I find myself using these pieces of software as a flexible base to build my own world, I've stopped contributing to the projects of corporate-sponsored communities, and communities which allow these toxic elements to persist.

KDE's mission and values and aesthetic were informed by the ethics of a community I was drawn towards. I still use KDE to this day as my base dekstop manager, and I still use Fedora to this day as my base operating system, because their values do still line up most with mine. Where theirs didn't, I replaced components with those that did, and no one lost out. This is the ideal of Free Software in action.

I really like tiling window managers, and for a while KDE's window manager KWin had a tiling-mode script which created keybindings and enforced layouts for windows that behaved almost like a tiling window manager, but with access to all the nice power user features of KWin like searching for windows by title in the Present Windows dialog. But at some point in 2014 it stopped working for me and it wouldn't work for quite a while. Anyways, I was on call that week shortly in to a new job and a bit short on time and brain, and I set up XMonad and eventually AwesomeWM and eventually a few other things, before sticking with Awesome for a while before EXWM came along and made things proper. But when the software didn't meet my needs and my skills weren't enough to solve the problem directly, I found a piece which could solve my problem, and I slotted it in. KDE and Fedora are the software choices which most line up with that desire while also maximizing other considerations I care about.

This is how software should work in my opinion, components standardized on the protocol level and not the implementation level, able to be user-serviced in the event a component fails or no longer is fit to purpose, or its community is no longer fit to purpose. Others have come to the same conclusion as me, in What Lies in the Path of the Revolution for example.

Free software communities work because people share resources freely and expect only that they will be able to meet their own needs when the time comes. When a community fails to meet those needs, when the goals of the community and the individual have drifted such that they no longer intersect, well that's moving on time, and I don't think there's anything inherently wrong with that. If enough people tire of a community's leaders or their proponents, it should be trivial – built in – to disconnect from that community and to find one whose values match your own. Our desire to take the marketing and infrastructure with us when we leave limits us and makes reforming a community which aligns difficult. I believe the value of a name and value of a brand are much less important than the quality of the tools and the values they imbue. This is how society could work, as well, maybe not in total, but at certain scales. I've spent significantly less time on this part of the thesis, though, and it's not quite the purpose. Consider supporting the Glimpse Editor instead of the GNU's Not Unix Image Manipulation Program.

[the proliferation of non-free and semi-free licenses which restrict usage based on the creator's ethics or business model is worth talking about here]

If you find yourself on an island by yourself, tell your friends the weather is fantastic, if it is. We don't have cable out here though so you're going to have to pick up a creative hobby or help run some CAT-5 to the mainland. I first attempted to do this with The Change of Scenery.

  1. undercurrent: open source hero github collaboration with ICE.↩︎


  3. undercurrent: fedora planet blog post about free software and its lack of intersection with other activist spaces↩︎