“If you use a proprietary [software] program or somebody else’s web server, you’re defenceless. You’re putty in the hands of whoever developed that software”
So claimed Richard Stallman, the founder of the Free Software movement, quite provocatively. Do you feel “defenceless”? Hopefully not, but sometimes it is worth considering how ICTs shape our lives and society.
Few would deny that digital platforms have huge and increasing control of our personal lives, business and governance. The algorithms determine the stories we read on Facebook, the search results we see on Google and even partners we find on Tinder. Hundreds of thousands of full-time labourers, from Uber drivers to Handy cleaners, follow supervisory commands which are delivered to their mobile phones by an algorithm.
Increasingly many decisions on the public sector are also made by digital platforms which process big data algorithmically. As you may have read, judiciary is not an exception: New Jersey recently replaced a human-led bail system with new software which uses maths and data science to predict whether or not a person is a risk to the society if released.
As digitalization accelerates, many people have started to ask questions on who designs and controls the platform technologies. Grassroots movements such as Platform Co-operativism, Internet of Ownership and Commons Transition are pushing demands for more open and democratically governed digital platforms. They have also inspired hundreds of “open” platform co-operatives, such as FairMondo, Loomio and Open Food Network.
The phenomenon seems to resemble the early days of the Free Software and Open Source software movements. People demanded more control over how software is designed. Many started small software projects, which based on the ideas of transparency and open collaboration (e.g. GNU operating system which later turned Linux). Within relatively short timeframe, the marginal idea went mainstream. Large software companies, such as IBM and Sun Microsystems, shifted to open source -based business models.
Today, open source software is very commonplace, mostly uncontroversial and consequently unvisible. But what happens to alternative digital platforms that echo similar demands of ‘openness’ and control by users? Are they the next mainstream?
Ongoing research on this topic in the Accelerate project.
Simonite, T. (2015) . “When Your Boss Is an Uber Algorithm.” MIT Technology Review December.