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Tyranny Of Open

1) Introduction

The impetus for writing this post – and I suppose for starting this blog – was bumping into a mention of Alexis Ohanian’s book, Without Their Permission. Ohanian is one of the co-founders of Reddit and he also has a blog with the subtitle: “Making the World Suck Less”.

And it sort of struck me as absurd that the co-founder of Reddit, one of the online spaces renowned for being a hotbed of oppressive discourse, would legitimately think that he has actually made the world suck less. Since, it really demands the question: “for whom?”.1

The absurdity and cognitive dissonance of Ohanian’s stance and the reality of his creations, immediately made me think of Joseph Reagle’s recent article “Free as in sexist?”. To a certain extent this is an expansion one of his points:

This argument is akin to that made by Jo Freeman (1996) in 1970. Then, Freeman noted that the values and rhetoric of egalitarianism in feminist collectives could also, ironically, give rise to a “Tyranny of Structurelessness” whereby unelected and unaccountable “elites” come to dominate the group. (Reagle 2012)

Unfortunately, despite Freeman’s insights having a great deal of relevance to the free/open community, Reagle doesn’t do much with them. Although, to be fair, Freeman herself doesn’t take her insights to their far-reaching conclusions, nor does she ask some fairly critical questions about why it is that some women in structureless groups just happen to form elites, while some do not.2

She writes:

Contrary to what we would like to believe, there is no such thing as a “structureless” group. Any group of people of whatever nature, coming together for any length of time, for any purpose, will inevitably structure itself in some fashion. (Freeman 1972, 151)


This means that to strive for a “structureless” group is as useful and as deceptive, as to aim at an “objective” news story, “value-free” social science or a “free” economy. (Freeman 1972, 151)

I encourage people to read the rest of the article, but these two points are critical for understanding how the F/OSS community comes to enact a type of tyranny of free/open.

2) A Free and Open Tyranny

F/OSS community falls into this trap by espousing values that seem, on the surface, to be inarguably good. Values like ‘freedom’, ‘free speech’, ‘open’, ‘cooperation’, etc. And they emphasize the importance of individuality, argumentative discourse, and a type of bourgeois cultural resistance (but Reagle discusses these aspects and how they create barriers for the participation of women in his paper, so I’m not going to expand on them here).

In Benkler’s Wealth of Networks he writes:

Free software offers a glimpse at a more basic and radical challenge. It suggests that the networked environment makes possible a new modality of organizing production: radically decentralized, collaborative, and nonproprietary; based on sharing resources and outputs among widely distributed, loosely connected individuals who cooperate with each other without relying on either market signals and managerial commands. (2006, 60)

While I could probably go on and on about how statement like this is about 90% idealism and not at all representative of reality, I really just want to focus on the “radically decentralized” since this, more or less, represents a updated form of a “structureless” organization. This update too performs an interesting rhetorical sleight of hand, since a decentralized organization, as opposed to a structureless one, has no centre; thus, cannot have a margin. It rhetorically pre-empts the ability to criticize the F/OSS community for the ways that it re-creates its contextual social hierarchies and institutions of oppression.

It is in this way that Free/Open comes to be tyrannical in its practice and communities. This is easily visible in the large blowout and discussion concerning the recent events at PyCon. To a certain degree, one of the troubling things about how the debate and discourse that surrounded the misogyny at PyCon, was how few people appear to realize that microaggressive comments happen pretty much all the time3. And that they happen about race, ability, weight, neuro-ability, gender identity/expression, etc., with just as much frequency. To a be a marginalized person within the F/OSS community (and without) is to subject yourself daily to macro- and micro aggressive behaviour.

This sort of thing only stands as one example of how institutional oppression and implicit bias comes to be entrenched in communities that organize themselves around some principle of structurelessness. Since, rather than representing a “new modality of organizing production”, the F/OSS community is deeply embedded within the historical, social, and political environment that created it (Benkler 2006, 60). And yet, it must be noted that for all that ‘Donglegate’ seems trivial, as far as the originating incident is concerned, the consequences were quite real, serious, and far-reaching.

Also a concern, since it speaks to how nascent the discussion and issue of misogyny (much less other forms of oppressive behaviour) is in the F/OSS community, since – despite having community guidelines – it is pretty clear that Adria Richards had very little support on a deep organization and infrastructural level. There were, it seems, little-to-no clear mechanisms and structures through which she could have safely and effectively addressed misogyny. Which, in part, is what caused this incident to explode in the way that it did.

3) A stale revolution

The lack of historical context in the claims that Benkler makes in his book is part of the process that helps the F/OSS community avoid deep reflection about its historical and social context, which further serves to make it immune from criticism. It presents itself as something new, revolutionary and, thus, old criticisms of similarly structured ‘revolutions’ are ignored and dismissed. Moreover, it creates an environment of dogmatism since criticism then becomes counter-revolutionary.

We are beginning to see a series of economic, social, and cultural adaptations that make possible a radical transformation… It seems passe today to speak of “the Internet revolution.” In some academic circles, it is positively naive. But it should not be” (Benkler 2006, 1)

However, there is nothing new about a mode of production that – coincidentally, I’m sure – places able white cishetero men as the prominent leaders and as the primary recipients of the movement’s rewards: both economical and social. The only thing ‘new’, perhaps, about this is the ways that this movement convinces many of its participates that their contributions of free labour will be equally rewarded or that when exploitation is enjoyable, it magically stops being exploitation.

Harder yet is that the movement and communities becomes, by and large, immune to criticism, as Freeman points out

All groups create informal structures as a result of the interaction patterns among the members. Such informal structures can do very useful things. But only unstructured groups are totally governed by them. When informal elites are combined with a myth of “structurelessness,” there can be no attempts to put limits on the use of power. (Freeman 1972, 157)

And the second danger appears to directly relevant to many of the recent incidents concerning sexism and misogyny in the F/OSS community:

informal structures have no obligation to be responsible to the group at large. Their power was not given to them; it cannot be taken away. (ibid.)

Combined with Benkler’s description of how these communities organize:

Cooperation in peer-production processes is usually maintained by some combination of technical architecture, social norms, legal rules, and a technically backed hierarchy that is validated by social norms. (Benkler 2006, 103)

Of course the key term here is ‘social norms’, since it is inarguable that heteronormativity, cisnormativity, sexism, normative concepts surrounding neuro and physical ability, are simply part of the unspoken and institutional norms of society in settler states like Canada and the US. So it becomes unsurprising that the technically backed hierarchy validated by social norms just so happens to ensure that not only are most of the participants in F/OSS communities able white cishetero men, but that their participation is far more richly rewarded.

Since, for all that the community prides itself on ‘free’ and cooperative, the distribution of wealth and income certainly seems not to follow a similar path, instead concentrating in the leaders. It is only the means of production that becomes de-centralized, not the distribution of wealth.4

4) Value these values, or else.

The other, major problem, beyond organization, is value-based. The F/OSS community is heavily organized around the values of ‘freedom’ and ‘openness’, essentially stating that maximizing either or both is the ultimate good. Which, as above, has the consequence of rhetorically preempting criticism, since to oppose the ways that the community attempts to obtain and embody those values, instantly means that you are against freedom, which isn’t an enviable position.

This certainly describes Kimberly Christen’s experience after creating the Murkurtu CMS for the Warumungu people of Tennant Creek. Where, after announcing the project, become a focus of a discussion about digital rights management and free information, with many of the responses invoking racist and colonial sentiments:

The colonial collecting history of Western nations is comfortably forgotten in the celebration of freedom and openness that would give “us” a storehouse of materials for the common good. In fact, the commons was never a place of inclusion, nor was it ever unregulated or uncontrolled. (Christen 2012, 2876)


This framing of the digital landscape promotes a type of historical amnesia about how the public domain was initially populated. In the United States, the rise of the public domain talk is linked to Westward expansion and the displacement of indigenous peoples; the use of this discourse signals an erasure of the destructive effects of colonization and obscures its ideological underpinnigs. (Christen 2012, 2879)

These are critical and important counter-points to the values of the F/OSS movement and community. And, yet, there continues to be very little impact in how these values are discussed and enacted within the community.

Even more troubling is noting the way that the F/OSS movement is so expansive. And the ways that its advocates are continuously pushing for a commons that grows and grows and grows. From an Indigenous and/or person of colour’s perspective, it becomes unclear as to how this expansion is substantively different from the previous efforts of white colonists and settlers. The only real difference appears to be that instead of having an agenda of eradication and erasure, it is one of assimilation (“your cultural creations belong to everyone!”). It becomes especially difficult to find a difference when the hegemonic control that the F/OSS movement exerts over its discourse is laid bare.

5) Conclusions

Fortuitously, as I reached the conclusion of this post, a video clip of a debate betwee Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault happened accross my path.

In the first minute or so of the video Chomsky proposes that a fundamental human characteristic is the need to create and that the ideal society would remove all barriers to creation. He goes on to describe what he calls anarcho-syndicalism, which is a type of federated, decentralized social organization. In many ways, we can see this – both as structurally and as embodied in the stated values – at work in the F/OSS movement. Indeed, federated and decentralized is a great way to describe how large scale F/OSS projects are structured.

Foucault answers Chomsky’s proposition by noting that it isn’t only formal or visible sites of power that need to be resisted, like the governemet, but also the institutions that manifest and mobilize power in subtle or unseen ways, like universities.

We can see that, especially in the rhetoric of the F/OSS community, that there is an explicit resistance proprietary and capitalist ways of organizing labour, and yet very little discussion about resisting implicit or subtle sites of power. And the result is not only a gender gap, but a race gap, ability gap, class gap, etc.

More starkly, we can see how an explicit disavowel of one type of capitalist organization of labour simply does nothing to address the fundamental issues of the distribution of wealth.

Depressingly, this means that the F/OSS community and the way that it embodies and practices its values of ‘open’ and ‘free’ serves not as a resistance to the dominate (and oppressive) forms of organization and institutions, but as simply a different, perhaps more subtle, instantiation of context in which it was created.



Benkler, Yochai. The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets And Freedom. Yale University Press, 2006.

Berry, David M., and Giles Moss. “The Politics of the Libre Commons.” First Monday 11, no. 9 (September 4, 2006). http://journals.uic.edu/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/1403.

Christen, Kimberly A. “Does Information Really Want to Be Free? Indigenous Knowledge Systems and the Question of Openness.” International Journal of Communication 6, no. 0 (November 30, 2012: 24.

Freeman, Jo. “THE TYRANNY OF STRUCTURELESSNESS.” Berkeley Journal of Sociology 17 (January 1, 1972: 151–164. doi:10.2307/41035187.

O’Hanian, Alexis. “Dear Fellow Geeks: WTF? – Making the World Suck Less.” Accessed July 4, 2013. http://alexisohanian.com/dear-fellow-geeks-what-the-fuck.

“Donglegate: How One Brogrammer’s Sexist Joke Led to Death Threats and Firings.” Mother Jones. Accessed July 5, 2013. http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2013/03/pycon-2013-sexism-dongle-richards.