Open Source Code: Democratic tech or Oligarchic tool?

For some time, I’ve been wanting to read Anand Giridharadas’s critically acclaimed Winners Take: The Elite Charade of Changing the World.  It’s a book about the relationship between rising inequality and the current culture of philanthropy among the top 0.001% the wealth spectrum.  It’s also about so much more, including the role of the share economy and technological innovation in rising economic inequality.

I’ve also been wanting to do some audio book listening while driving to increase my pace of book consumption.   But I’ve structured my life to avoid long commutes.  So there hasn’t been a lot of reason to listen to “books on tape.” The exception to this has been our family winter weekend trips from San Diego to Big Bear Lake for skiing.  Our boys increasingly tune-out my wife and me with their headphones.  My wife shares some of my interest in book topics.  So our first co-venture to audio listening was Anand’s book.  On our first book-listening road trip, we hit monster traffic jams – due in part to mountain road closures from a recent monster winter storm – giving us a solid 10 hours of listening.

One of Anand’s topics – if I do it justice – is the dissonance between the democratic ideals of  many of our tech billionaires (in the social media, app, and other digital spaces) and the reality of their impact, which has been to increase economic inequality.  Anand compares the stated ideals of the “share economy,” which include the notion that allowing people access to new ways to make money will benefit equality and freedom, with the actual results.  The book is full of interviews and profiles of various tech pioneers and VCs.  However, the “gig economy” that this share economy has spawned has led to the loss of stable jobs, eroded wages, and undermined unions and collective bargaining leverage.  He gives several examples of apps that were intended to give freedom and better income to individuals but have had the opposite effect.

Anand looks at the way Uber has displaced better paying taxi cab jobs, the way AirBnB makes lodging discrimination easier (not to mention diminishing long term housing supply and increasing its cost), and the way these so called share economies often  depend on “platform dominance” (I think that’s the term he used).  As to the latter, there is a natural gravity to single or very few platforms.  Anand provides the example of social media, in which “friends” don’t want half their friends to be on another communication platform.  So they naturally gravitate to using a common platform to communicate.  It’s not that different from using a phone before the age of the internet. Thus, the platform takes on the attribute of a monopolistic utility, having a quasi-governmental character. Anand is much better and detailed in describing these forces than I am capable of doing here (or at all).

Where does open source code fit into the dissonance?  Open source has also been founded on democratic ideals, with many grand pronouncements of changing the world and creating opportunity.  It is another key player in the share economy and has also spawned gig economy jobs.

It’s not so much that the tech billionaires and other disciples of the share economy are sell-outs or frauds.  I believe their idealistic pronouncements were genuine.   But many of these idealists were more educated or skilled at technology than they were in economics, sociology, or history.  In his book, Anand puts into focus the market forces that naturally gravitate toward further inequality.  Together with other economists spurring the progressive movement, he makes clear the important role of our collective selves, i.e., our government and our laws.

Like most things, with regard to open source, its not a perfect picture.  Open source has its origins in universities and was not founded as a startup or profit venture.  But that alone does not absolve it since many private ventures have their roots in university research.  Fortunes have been made using open source software, and some  proprietary software has even been converted to open source by private corporations to exploit free development.  But in contrast to Facebook, for example, open source is as if Facebook was kept in the public realm, and Facebook, Inc. was a service provider to Facebook users.  In fact, that is essentially the role that Auttomatic plays to  Matt Mullenberg (founder of Auttomatic) has certainly made a fortune from WordPress, which is the dominant website platform in the world.  But his estimated net worth of $40 million is nowhere close to that of the top tech billionaires.

Richard Stallman, the iconoclastic founder of the GNU Project, the Free Software Foundation, the GNU Compiler Collection and GNU Emacs, and author of the GNU General Public License, has a good income due to his talents and developer industry celebrity status.  But in comparison to tech investors and successful startup principals, his dedication to open source licensing has been like a “market world” (Anand’s term) vow of poverty.

It would also be hard to put the plugin developers and other open source entrepreneurs in the same category as Uber drivers or AirBnB hosts.  There’s not a lot of evidence they have put employed web developers out of business or depressed their wages.  The opposite seems more likely.

So in the world of tech, Open Source Code, still seems more a democratic rebellion than an autocratic usurpation.  It may yet be an historic landmark of democratic evolution in a world of greed and inequality; more democratic than oligarchic.  But these days, it seems the exception rather than the rule.


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