#OpenTogether: A Proposal for the Study & Practice of Openness

I joined the #OpenSource and Maker movements in my early teenage years, when I began building computers and teaching myself to write software, first in HTML and Basic, then Javascript and PHP and CSS. The Learning With New Media study entitled Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out tells the story my growing involvement in my teenage years with computers and the world of open source. I taught myself (and learned with friends) how to code, how to fix computers, how to build computers, and I gained a whole lot of practical experience programming. More importantly, I learned to be an autodidact. I’m always surprised when people tell me, “I don’t know how to do X.” I often respond with a friendly query: “Have you tried Googling it?” It’s my first default when it comes to learning something new. And if I’m interested enough, I pursue those new ideas with some serious tenacity.

One of the things I was most struck by was the evolution of the Open Source Software (OSS) community. What began as a small group of nerds hacking the Linux kernel quickly evolved into a robust network of individuals and organizations building the foundations of the most advanced software in the world. We went from long nights spent running custom Gentoo Linux installs to half of every smartphone running on an open source operating system in the span of 10 years. And it wasn’t just the software that evolved. Over time, the communities that built it became more open, more friendly, and more inviting. Protocols and invitations to participate in building open source software began to emerge everywhere. And the movement to teach everyone in the world to code is growing rapidly. OSS is no longer a marginal group of nerds — it’s a movement. And in the last couple of years, it has started growing to include government, data, science, and even hardware.

But a while ago, I mostly gave up my roots in the world of code. Yes, I still knew some of the ins and outs. Yes, I still ran a website now and then. Yes, I still hacked my computer to do stuff it didn’t do by default. But I was never really an expert coder, and when I started my undergraduate program (some years back now), I knew it. So I didn’t pursue computer science. Instead, I went after politics and philosophy and culture.

I mostly found the beginning of my undergraduate experience pretty boring. That is, until I bumped into a number of faculty and community leaders that were trying to involve young people in everyday, political, democratic social change. It was trying to figure out how to be participatory, how to foster civic leadership, how to get everyone to think of themselves not as just a citizen who votes (or doesn’t have the right to), but as a citizen of a community who contributes every day to the way it grows and dies. This kind of work (now in much more detail and nuance) has become the foundation of my work as a Ph.D. student and instructor. I’ve explored it from every angle I can imagine: anthropology, psychology, philosophy, sociology, political science, and so forth. Everything returns to the struggle to make the world a more participatory place.

While I mostly gave up coding, I have continued to keep tabs on the development of technology, especially in the Open Source world. But recently, while thinking about education and MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), I had a profound realization. The world of OSS — the specific coding of which I’d never been particularly skillful at, but the ideas and organizing I’d been profoundly struck by — and the world of participatory politics were not all that different from each other. Both were trying to figure out how to involve people in collaboratively co-creating the world around them. They are efforts to throw off the final shackles of our authoritarian and hierarchical relationships with each other and to move towards co-creating the inner and outer landscapes of our shared worlds.

My sense now — and the area I’d like to take my scholarly and personal explorations — is that the meaning and practice of “open” has yet to be well-explored. It has yet to become itself a category of study and investigation. What, for example, distinguishes something as “open” from something less open? From something “closed”? And if we take OSS as not just a metaphor, but as a concrete set of practices and organizational models, how do we organize social services like OSS? Or like Agile and iterative software development? How does the County or Community Center learn from the development processes of OSS? What about participation does my work in participatory politics and research have to say to OSS development?

So, let the exploration begin! I welcome co-explorers along the way. I’ll start tagging related posts under the title I’ve so far given this project: “OpenTogether”. I also have changed the name of a Twitter List I’ve been compiling as “Digital Democracy” to Open Together. Finally, I’ll be trying to organize a project to visit some of the leading tech companies over the next year to inquire into their development processes as part of my participation in the HASTAC Scholars Program.

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