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“Governance is life” - “Life is open source”: Insights from Digital Infrastructure Incubator’s “Courageous Conversations”

In 2023, CS&S Senior Program Manager Miliaku Nwabueze curated and facilitated the Digital Infrastructure Incubator speaking series called “Courageous Conversations” where open-source technologists and scientists, solidarity economy ecosystem nerds, co-ops, lawyers, farmers, and frontline activists discussed the co-optation of disruption in open tech. The reverberation throughout the series was that ‘life’ is simply what we’re fighting for.

It’s basic because it’s basic. So why do we struggle? The reflex towards a neoliberal work ethic and the need to feel like we are doing extraordinary things to affirm our view of our productive selves lead to enclosures around life.

What can we as individuals do to preserve life within a system (also of individuals) that kill? In the current era of system design, change, thinking, etc. we emphasize the fault of a system and ignore individual responsibility. In truth, people shape the systems, and reciprocally, the systems shape the people. The system is the less visible material that lives between us – our relationships. And what is life if not what we do to and with others. At our jobs, in our families, between friends and acquaintances, we have the freedom to choose how we show up and design the spaces in between us that make up (or destroy) more meta systems.

At CS&S, we’re part of a team of active stakeholders within the nonprofit ecosystem who make a living off of building out the open source ecosystem. Our responsibility extends beyond scrutinizing the systems we resist and trying to craft programming to support our mission; it also encompasses designing programming and services that reunite our mission with the simplicity of living life like our planet depends on it.

What is Openness?

In “[Open] Sourcing Resistance,” Sonali Gupta opened the conversation with a directive to divorce open-source (OS) frameworks from radical politics. OS is a designation, but people can apply that designation to projects with varying political frameworks and ideals. There’s no inherent ethic accompanying OS software, making its original intentions vulnerable to co-optation by market driven forces. Sonali’s introduction also delivered the key statement: “life is open source.” In her context of genetics and human biology, “there is a code to life and that code remains fundamentally open.” But, Sonali highlights that there is an “enclosure creeping in” as certain life processes are beginning to be patented in private, corporate spaces. Particularly in scientific and biotechnological realms, the act of sharing open-source information becomes a double-edged sword. While it initially fosters increased capacities for innovation and collaboration, the accelerated scaling and rapid iteration can simultaneously pave the way for cooptation and monopolistic control.

stalgia grigg further frames open ecosystems in market terms asserting that the concept of openness possesses inherent radical potential; however, it becomes vulnerable to market logic infiltrating its crevices, eventually turning it into a recruiting mechanism for dominant tech giants. This tension between openness and market forces requires further exploration, as it will certainly persist as long as human energy remains limited, leaving any surplus susceptible to market influences. Eva Dickerson added that the reality remains that no technology or movement is impervious to cooptation; inevitably, "everything and anything will be cannibalized for the capitalist machine." It is a paradox that new technologies often emerge and take shape within the very systems they are intended to challenge, oppose, or dismantle. As we construct and innovate, relying on the remnants and relics of the very entities we seek to avoid, we risk falling prey to perpetuating the status quo.

Rather than striving for immunity to cooptation, Eva pushes the room to consider: “What will be the offensive strategy for when co-optation starts?”

The answers? They are deeply rooted in culture, open-source ecosystems, scaling, and decentralization. No matter our mission or our vision, being intentionally resistful and divergent (nod to our first piece) in how we treat each other and therefore do our work. Our closeness to life can be at odds with what we have to do to remain attractive to folks who can give us the money we need to survive right now. If we accept capitalist pressures as temporary and destructible especially in the face of an unwanted end of the world, what becomes available as a way forward?

Governance in a Decentralized World

In “Governance, Or Whatever it Is We’re Trying to Do,” Amethyst Carey raised the important point that we often mistakenly equate governance with government, failing to recognize that governance extends beyond the realms of state and markets. She highlights the fact that we relinquish a significant portion of our power to elected officials through accepted processes like voting. This delegation of power influences numerous aspects of our daily lives, and even in alternative spaces like co-ops, we tend to replicate this pattern. Despite progress in resistance, we sometimes lack the knowledge and experience in resource distribution. Parissah Lin adds that we have been conditioned to outsource governance to an anonymous, distant entity. This process desensitizes us from crucial skills – like conflict resolution and care practices – leaving us disempowered in dealing with issues that directly affect our lives.

Amethyst sees co-ops as fertile grounds to challenge this outsourcing and actively engage in re-sourcing governance back to ourselves. The idea is to embrace disruptions rather than merely aiding in the state's survival. She acknowledges that such transformative thinking might be challenging, especially considering the detachment from community that many of us experience. Nevertheless, Amethyst emphasizes the potential of co-ops as places to practice governance – expanding our imagination beyond the confines of the current systems – where decisions are collectively and democratically made by members, fostering a more inclusive and equitable society. By recognizing the distinction between governance and government, we can empower ourselves to make significant changes beyond the confines of the state and its markets, ultimately paving the way for a more just and self-determined future. This notion prompts us, as stakeholders in the NGO ecosystem, to contemplate how we can extend this approach beyond co-ops and embrace it within non-profit organizations.

This contemplation exercise must also account for the issue of scale. Janelle Orsi outlines challenges of scaling and organizing on a larger scale. She emphasizes that some of the most impactful movements and initiatives have emerged through effective organizing efforts. However, Janelle acknowledges that to facilitate such large-scale organization, there must be a minimum level of structure in place. This structure serves as a support system, enabling individuals to come together and contribute to governance actively. She also highlights the potential pitfalls of scaling, particularly when external pressures and laws come into play. Janelle highlights how certain regulations, such as submitting inspections on time, can inadvertently shift the focus from cooperative and caring initiatives to controlling and bureaucratic measures. External factors, like property tax exemptions, might also introduce pressures that disrupt the genuine cooperative nature of projects.

With these observations, Janelle prompts us to consider the delicate balance between scaling for broader impact and maintaining the core values of participatory governance and community care. As we explore ways to expand cooperative practices, we must navigate the intricacies of external influences to preserve the essence of these endeavors. By staying mindful of the potential effects of regulations and external pressures, we can develop strategies that uphold the principles of inclusivity, empathy, and collective decision-making on both small and large scales. Embracing these challenges with foresight and adaptability will be essential to cultivate a governance landscape that truly empowers communities and nurtures radical change.

Sonali and stalgia both raise questions about the decentralization and centralization play in leveraging scale to resist cooptation.

For Parissah, the key question concerning decentralization is how to empower as many people as possible and view governance as an ecosystem. Each individual is valued and essential, exemplified in actions like jail support, where support may come from someone unknown. This approach requires thinking about contingencies and having multiple people capable of handling various tasks, fostering a resilient and collaborative community. However, challenges inevitably arise in determining how to prioritize and manage resources, such as dealing with money and compensation. In essence, decentralization entails fostering inclusivity, equity, and shared responsibility in governance, even amidst the constraints of existing structures and the complexity of handling resources.

Decentralization, when approached thoughtfully, can enable hyper-localization and resist the overreach of government, and other highly centralized structures?. Scaling becomes an essential consideration, as it allows us to retain knowledge within the community and preserve its autonomy. Sonali's perspective challenges the notion that scaling is inherently counter-revolutionary. This aligns with the dichotomy presented by Parissah, where the balance between privacy and accessibility becomes crucial. By carefully navigating the complexities of scaling, we can change existing structures and ensure that governance remains inclusive, empowering, and locally grounded. Adopting this balanced approach to scaling, we can fortify our communities, effectively resist external pressures from big tech, and foster a decentralized landscape that truly empowers individuals and enhances collective decision-making. Though these visionary concepts provide a foundation for contemplation, Eva offers as a poignant reminder that action is paramount, emphasizing that decentralization requires substantial support to transition from theoretical ideals to practical implementations. It falls upon us to shoulder this responsibility and drive meaningful progress.

Our Responsibility to Resist

Jo Freeman’s 1970 essay “The Tyranny of Structurelessness” – assigned as an introductory reading to the Digital Infrastructure cohort – challenges the liberal instinct that liberation requires a completely structureless group. Freeman contends that efforts to disassemble hierarchies and diminish leadership within a community paradoxically jeopardize the ability to hold leaders accountable, as these efforts inevitably emerge through informal processes that become the breeding ground for “elites.” Embracing an unattainable idea of structurelessness, according to Freeman, results in self-imposed neutralization, depriving individuals of the power to recognize and address problematic decision-making within their group.

Parissah Lin raises an essential question that follows from Freeman’s argument: “How do we refuse neutrality?” This refusal captures the imperative of resisting the temptation to let the structure itself dictate the course of action for the people involved. History serves as a stark reminder that naming a structure inherently involves a lack of neutrality. It is incumbent upon us to recognize and acknowledge this fact and go beyond this neutrality. Indeed, we must actively struggle to resist ourselves – at every step, in every moment – to become different people worthy of building the alternatives we seek.

This responsibility of resistance is urgent and omnipresent. Capitalism inherently centers productivity over people, so an essential act of resistance, Parissah argues, is centering human life and prioritizing vulnerability over productivity. To develop this ethos of resistance, we turn to the work of Ruth Wilson Gilmore who articulates a philosophy of abolition that rejects proximity to death and holds life precious: “The goal [of abolition] is to change how we interact with each other and the planet by putting people before profits, welfare before warfare, and life over death.” By imbuing our resistance with this life-affirming ethos, we embark on a powerful journey to challenge the systemic status quo.

With these words come a call to action. A call to reckon with the realities of our structures and our individuality and to face them with new perspective and purpose. “Radicality is what we do,” Eva Dickerson asserts. “Reform,” Miliaku Nwabueze responds, “ is when we fall short of doing radical things.”

You can find the talks “[Open] Sourcing Disruption” and “Governance, Or Whatever it Is We’re Trying to Do” here on our YouTube channel. CS&S would like to thank all of the speakers who contributed to this series: Amethyst Carey, Eva Dickerson, stalgia grigg, Sonali Gupta, Parissah Lin, and Janelle Orsi.

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash