Getting Back to a Social Frame

While the Free Software/Open Source movement is based on an essential and timeless concept — that users of software should be self-sovereign in that software — the linguistic frame in which it was positioned long ago continues to have some unfortunate consequences that ironically distract from the very goals the frame sought to achieve.

Empty picture frames mounted on a wooden wall

When you say to a native English speaker that something is “free”, their first and dominant thought will most likely be about the price of the thing in question. “Free? I don't have to pay?” They may well go on to say “That sounds cheap – and probably inferior!” Yes, it is possible to redirect that initial impression to other ways of understanding “free” (“no, I mean free as in freedom”), but George Lakoff explained long ago that the initial linguistic “palette” from which we paint colours the interpretation of all future conceptual metaphors in the conversation – the initial metaphor sets a frame that constrains future discussion. Things are further complicated by the fact that, as it turns out the source code is indeed available without paying – in many cases as an installable binary – not as a goal but as a consequence of the embodied liberties.

As a result, when “free software” is invoked in English by a non-specialist, nuance concerning the liberty of the individual as self-sovereign in software is lost, and subsequent usage tends to be argued within a “price frame” not a “liberty frame”. So the dominant argument for at least a decade of the shift of free/open source to dominance was that free software is cheaper, saves money, doesn't require payment for licenses and so on. This led to emphasis on donating to projects, with even ambiguous terms like “contribute” and “give back” being understood monetarily – in terms of delivering compensatory value that is detached from social engagement or the enjoyment of software freedoms.

Even after many people switched to talking about “open source”, the frame set in early usage persisted, with people obsessed with price (“TCO”) over capability or potential. Today sustainability is seen mainly in terms of “paying the maintainers”, long after we should know better and first address the dynamics of inclusive governance. This is further magnified by actors who mostly eschew community trying to justify their sociopathy; as one community peer commented,

this is reinforced by the narratives from for-profit businesses struggling to find a successful business model, citing how users of the open-source licenced software they produced are not “giving back”.

Yet the communities in which I have participated have rarely sought money, at least initially. What they really wanted was for users to join in, for improved software to be made available to all, for the rights they enjoy to be available to others. Some seek to compel, others just to encourage, but all of these are concepts drawn from a social frame rather than from a price frame.

There's a deep irony to this, as proponents of the Free Software terminology have frequently accused proponents of the alternative phrase “open source” of losing the connection to user liberty. But in fact it does a better job setting the conceptual frame for outsiders to one where interpretation follows “open” to assume a lack of “closed”, the presence of freedoms to manipulate and use the source and the other attributes supposedly only advanced by the earlier phrase! The unintended conceptual metaphor invoked by “free” poisons whatever framing we apply and we need to consciously evade that effect.

This also reads on my reflections on volunteering. Once we are stuck in a price frame, we see participation in projects within that frame and talk about paid and unpaid volunteers as if that is the key qualification. We worry about sustainability in terms of “who is going to pay”. But the real issue with sustainability is not primarily about money, but more about the presence of skills and innovation within a community and the willingness of newcomers to stay. In turn that is frequently a function of the objective presence of software freedoms.

This is not to deny the valid criticism that the Open Source and Free Software movement has been subverted by those who want to use their liberty asocially or even antisocially in pursuit of profit. But it's just possible that the best way to cover that sociopathy is the invocation of a liberty-enhancing frame, rather than trying to work within the constraints of the price frame. We need to try harder to effectively apply social framing to open source if we are to address the issues we see around sustainability, ethical use and corporate annexation of our movement.

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