3 Hypotheses for Open Workers

3 Hypotheses for Open Workers

We are in a moment of public reckoning about the governance of digital technologies and the future of civil society. Increasingly obvious are the failures of both highly centralized, closed, digital platforms and supposedly decentralized, “open” digital ecosystems. Billionaire Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter has redirected a glaring spotlight at the ethical limits of closed governance of digital, public spheres. At the same time, the collapse of FTX and the legal troubles its co-founder Sam Bankman-Fried face are just the latest fog horns announcing gross error ingrained in liberatory presumptions about digital decentralization.

As tech users, we all are experiencing fallout from the reality that there is no simple answer to the question of how technology could be equitably governed. Predatory and extractive behavior dominate on corporately-owned platforms and in the distributed ecosystems of Web3. In both, none but the most elite, savvy, and resourced users are privy to the information necessary to make safe choices. Failures across both centralized and decentralized digital governance demand a paradigm shift in the ways alternative technologies are imagined and designed.

Where will thought leadership come from at this moment? What communities have experiences that can help guide a much-needed, new chapter of digital experimentation—one that works to build alternatives to corporate control of digital infrastructure by building other forms of power? The open ecosystem—including open source software, open science and scholarship, open infrastructure, and other communities leveraging open practices in research and technology—has important lessons to offer. Users, makers, and advocates of equitable and responsibly-stewarded technology can turn to the past as much as to the future in imagining how to navigate this moment.

The history of open source reminds us that resistance to the corporate control of technology is not new. In the early 1980s, now polarizing figures like Richard Stallman and Linus Torvalds began the movements associated with open source code as metaphorical middle fingers to some of the same tech giants that continue to dominate our digital landscape today. In academia and research, open scholarship and open science advocates rallied around breaking down paywalls and liberating knowledge from the private and privatized confines of the ivory tower.

But the resistance to corporate control voiced by those cis-het, white, male coders and scientists continued to produce toxic oppression against women, people of color, queer, and trans folx. Most importantly, commitment to the central tenets of open access, freedom to (re)use, and decentralization has been all but powerless to correct these issues. (See the fallout to credible accusations of bullying and abuse against the aforementioned giants.) In academic publishing, proselytizing for openness has been taken up by for-profit publishers like Elsevier, the very entities early advocates were eager to circumvent. While it has come some distance from the cults of personality of the late 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, the state of open technology today remains a troublingly white, male, and largely inaccessible part of the tech and knowledge sectors—despite voiced commitments to accessibility and inclusion.

This history is precisely why open workers in particular should have much to offer in debates about the equitable and transparent governance of digital infrastructure today. Open source engineers, open science practitioners, and open enthusiasts urgently need to reflect on what has and hasn’t worked in the four-decades-long history of building open technology at a remove from corporate intervention and control. How have ideas of openness, freedom, and decentralization served the anti-corporate struggles at the heart of each? And, just as importantly, where have they proved ineffective at challenging the status quo? The 40-year anniversary of the birth of the Free Software Movement in September 2023 is the perfect moment to examine these questions.

At CS&S, we’re exploring where open has and hasn’t delivered on promises of more access, transparency, and equity. As we do so, we contend that understandings about open access, community governance, and freedom to (re)use need to be critically revisited and refined. Here we outline three hypotheses to guide an assessment of the central values of open work:

1. Open access to governance. 

Open access to code, data, and research is not enough. Widening access must include pathways to stewardship and ownership, not simply entry or use. The incorporation of open source within for-profit structures is showing us that wider access has more often facilitated better extraction of data from more users than it has delivered democratization of knowledge or tools. Foregrounding pathways to stewardship and ownership for tech users will shift the ways in which underrepresented communities can engage, leading not only to different representation in positions of power, but also, potentially, different forms of power. Which is why more specificity when we ask, open access to what? is just the beginning.

2. Develop multi-polar power.

“Decentralization” is not enough. The push for decentralization without a concurrent proposal for alternative structures of power masks existing hierarchies and exclusions. Building on the first hypothesis regarding open pathways to governance, advocacy for open infrastructure must be decoupled from blanket disavowals of power. Decentralized networks also host and harbor power. The question is: what forms of it are we interested in developing? All too often in the history of open source, disavowal of centralized decision-making has masked right-wing suspicion of the state and its institutions. This cyberlibertarianism is not a solid foundation for imagining open technology that can be safe, inclusive, and accessible for vulnerable individuals and minoritized communities. The suspicion of all hierarchy makes it difficult to imagine how to build the institutions able to steward participation and be held accountable to different constituencies. Committing to developing multi-polar power is also a question of global politics: seeding infrastructures to counter the hegemony of the so-called Global North. For some time, players in the open ecosystem have been struggling to increase the representation of voices from the Global South in research infrastructures that center Europe and the US. Considerably less attention has been paid by funders, investors, and advocates to develop alternative hubs and flows that instead center Africa, Asia, and the Americas. This comparative, South-South regional work must be centered in a vision of decentralization that underscores the development of multi-polar power.

3. Justice, not ethics.

The debate over freedom of (re)use is the most developed of critical discourses within open source. The personal politics of some open source leaders and their claims to “free speech” have already forced the recognition that an unqualified freedom to (re)use can be weaponized by white supremacists and bigots. So far, this conversation refocusing the limits of “freedom” has centered on articulating an “ethics” of use, centered around intentions to do no harm. We applaud these but are eager to push further. What would an embrace of “freedom” that foregrounded justice instead of ethics look like? Black, indigenous, abolitionist, and anti-colonial legacies of thought would need to be engaged and foregrounded. Foregrounding justice over ethics is not a simple pivot; it cannot be encapsulated in a single document or declaration. For many, understanding what it means to build just technology is a process of learning that will take time. This is because it is equally a process of unlearning the way things have been done that requires humility and critical self-reflection around the ways in which we all uphold the status quo, even when we struggle to dismantle it.


We don’t pretend to have the answers. Yet, we contend that the promises of open work need to be reformulated in explicitly different political terms. The libertarian promises of free and open need to be rethought through the lenses of socially democratic institution building and community-led grassroots power that draw their authority from the use of collectively-held data and technology. In our current moment, we see an opportunity to develop the political muscle of the open ecosystem in dialogue with community praxis that has centered justice, accountability, and repair.

We offer the three, interconnected points above as observations of what is needed to move from the current impasse. From these, we are exploring the most effective strategies to embody a renewed political promise of open work, with an eye to the demands those strategies will require. We are thinking about security and vulnerability in open ecosystems, about institution bridging and building, and other frameworks for building and transferring power. Over the next year, we’ll be continuing to reflect and synthesize. We share these thoughts in the spirit of openness and reflection and in pursuit of partners and collaborators to think with and learn from.

Our moment of public reckoning demands it.

Photo by Robert Stemler.