There is an important political economy to software. The online journal First Monday has many articles that delve into this political economy, but I hope to outline some of these issues in subsequent posts on this site. For now, it is sufficient to say that software has a growing impact on and is directly and indirectly influenced by our every day lives, the economy and broader society.
Of course it is not just the user-end that is influence by politics. From conceptual framework to production version and updates, each part of its development is affected by the politics of those involved.
Legislation regulates “intellectual property” and copyright of the code, funding directs and/or limits its development. Hackers write code and have their own politics about sharing and community that influences the way the software is used. Similarly, many software developers are workers as well as volunteer and hobbyist hackers which can add an interesting conflict at times.
End users put software into practise to ends sometimes not envisioned by the creators and owners. This in turn can have an impact on how law makers regulate or talk about software.
Software is not neutral.
Just as in the production of art or building cities, software development lives in a dynamic ecosystem of history and politics that expresses itself with its own internal logic and accompanying contradictions. The end result can range from the useful to the inane, from the closed and secretive to the open and beautiful. It can help expand freedom for those that use it or be used to oppress.
As software and “information technology” become ever more integral to daily life, and its use more normalised and obscured, it becomes increasingly important to understand software’s political economy. Of course, there are undisputed masters in the domain of software politics – just as there are within any major component of society and the economy. However, it is the popular understanding and application of this analysis that interests me. The main question is how can workers become empowered both in and outside programming circles to shape this politics and advance society in a direction that is informed, enlightened, democratic and in the interests of those that work for fairness and progress.
If people are unaware of software’s inherent political nature then the implementation and framing of it can be very contradictory and alienating. I have seen these contradictions undermine major initiatives and, in the long run, undermine the interests of those the initiatives seek to support. It can also be incredibly expensive.
I argue that the political economy of software is even more important for those engaged in the struggle for social justice. Our organisations do not have the resources that governments and oligopoly corporations have. Social justice organisations also have a mission that is expressed through the actions they take. So, it is not only expensive in terms of money wasted but also in the waste caused when not building software with like-minded organisations and movements.
It is for this reason social justice organisations are doing themselves and the movement a disservice by not seriously considering Open Source and Free Software politics when it comes to decisions around the software they use.