The Open Source Revolution

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Following the devastation of Hurricane Sandy, an OWS offshoot called Occupy Sandy quickly made headlines through its rapid response relief efforts, often beating out official relief agencies, like FEMA. Organizers Leah Feder and Devin Balkind discuss how open-source technology can help organize communities, solve problems collectively, and build democratic movements.

This post originally appeared at Waging Nonviolence.

There
have been a lot of exhausting debates in recent years about the role of online
social media in resistance movements, about whether these technologies really
help or hurt, and how. Some commentators have even gone so far as to hand
credit for home-grown uprisings around the world to the wonder-kids of Silicon Valley, and it can be tempting to believe them.
Once there was Gandhi and King; now there is Facebook and Twitter.

These
just-so stories, of course, leave out the in-person, on-the-ground organizing
that is still at the heart and center of movements everywhere. But they also
cause us to miss what may be the most important questions to ask about
movements and new technology: Who made the technology, who controls it, and
how?

Facebook
and Twitter are only the most visible ways that technology is transforming how
ordinary people build power — a visibility aided by a media culture eager to
promote all things corporate. But perhaps even more important in the long run
is how free and open-source software can help create transformative
institutions. Such software — which much of the back-end of the Internet
already relies on, including Waging
Nonviolence — is produced through self-organized communities of
developers working in collaboration, rather than competition. These communities
rely on values like transparency, consensus-seeking, decentralization and broad
participation. Yet they’re hardly utopian; they do this because it works.

For
Occupy Sandy, Occupy Wall Street’s relief and recovery
effort after Hurricane Sandy last fall,
open-source software tools like WordPress, Sahana and CiviCRM
helped to mobilize thousands of volunteers in affected areas throughout New York City, and to do
so faster and more efficiently than official agencies could. Leah Feder and
Devin Balkind were among the organizers of this effort, and they have been
working to make open-source tools available to the Occupy movement ever since
the initial occupation of Zuccotti
Park. They are also
directors of Sarapis, a non-profit that promotes
free and open technologies for the public good.

For
Feder and Balkind, these tools are proof that a more collaborative and
sustainable world is possible; I spoke with them recently about why.

How did you become interested in
open-source software?

LF: When Occupy Wall Street first
started, I was going down to the park but not finding a way to get involved or
seeing the revolutionary potential in what was happening. I thought it was
exciting, and fun, but beyond that I didn’t see where it could go. It was
through being exposed to open source there that I was finally moved to engage
on a much deeper level in Occupy, because I saw that there was a theory of
change. I saw how continuing on a specific path could take us into a
fundamentally different paradigm. Who wouldn’t want to be part of that? I was
in grad school in media, culture and communication at New York University
at the time, but thinking through ideas is fun only insofar as you can’t do
anything. Once I saw that there was a possibility of doing something, I dropped
out.

DB: I started on that path in college.
Some friends and I put together a proposal to create a crowdfunding platform
called Beex for charity walks and things like that.

Did you have a software background
beforehand?

DB: I was a history and film major; we
definitely botched the development of the thing. But it brought me into contact
with large nonprofits, and I realized that the non-profit sector was a
disaster, primarily because organizations weren’t collaborating with each
other. They basically mirrored the corporate model. That made me curious about
good models for collaborative problem-solving. At the same time, I was dealing
with a software project that was proprietary, and I was finding that it was a
terrible, terrible way to go. So I was learning about the open-source software
movement while I was recognizing the need for it in the non-profit sector. That
led me down the path of developing a generalized understanding of open-source
software for community organizing.

LF: I’m not a techie, either, and as a
non-techie one can only get so deep into open-source software. I can’t really
contribute to open source projects, for instance. I can use open source tools,
though, and that increases my capacity as an individual tremendously. I can
spin up a WordPress site and make it look pretty nice, really, really quickly.
But then, once I learned more about the open-source model and realized that
it’s also an organizing model for doing a lot of other things that can increase
our capacity collectively, I saw more of an entry-point for myself in the
broader peer-to-peer revolution. What it’s really about is changing the way
that we organize ourselves, as individuals and as a society. Occupy could be
the overtly political manifestation of this phenomenon, whereas open-source
software is how the tech world takes on these same principles.

Devin, how did you first make the
connection between open source and Occupy?

DB: By the fall of 2011 I had
incorporated Sarapis and was writing a plan to bring open source to community
organizations in Brooklyn. I had already done
research on constituent-relationship
management systems, or CRMs
, and on mailing lists. I had written guides for
the organizations about how to use open-source technology most effectively.
Then I thought I was going to have to raise tens of thousands of dollars to get
people excited about the program — until Occupy Wall Street happened. It was
basically free enthusiasm for deploying the ideas. Those of us in the Occupy
tech group have spent 18 months building infrastructure. And then moments like
the Hurricane Sandy relief effort give us the opportunity to see it work.

What in particular has worked especially
well?

DB: The biggest victories are the ones
that no one sees. Occupy Wall Street was this huge movement, but no one was
collecting email addresses at first — which is insane. But for Occupy
Sandy, there was one email-collection system with one form for volunteers. It
all went into our CiviCRM system, which had already been configured, and which
a lot of people knew how to use. That became the basis for systematized
volunteer outreach, where people have been receiving mailings consistently to
see when they can come out to do volunteer work. Right now we’re looking at a
sustainable volunteer infrastructure that we never had for OWS.

Why does it matter that these tools are
free and open source?

DB: This is part of a revolution in what
I call, maybe wrongly, the means of production. That’s what open-source
software is. And not just open-source software, but also hardware, and data,
and knowledge, and how we collaborate. There are so many differences between
open-source and proprietary systems; it’s like how you used to be able to take
apart a car engine, and anyone who had basic mechanical skills could replace an
air filter. Now, though, there’s plastic sheeting over the whole thing. It has
been designed so that people can’t fix their own cars. In open-source systems,
the flow of data is of paramount importance. In a proprietary system, the flow
of data is something that you lose money on. Go to Facebook, for instance, and
try to export your friend network — not easy, because that means you could
migrate out.

LF: When we solve problems with
open-source tools, we deliver the solutions back to the global information
commons, and we build capacity for anybody who wants to do this in the future.
Any such group that wants to arise and start collecting contacts can do the
same, and it’s free. We have a whole bunch of tools to use, and we can grow
ever more quickly on tools that we own ourselves.

So it’s a matter of self-reliance and
independence?

DB: For the people in the open-source
movement who realize where this is going, the next step is to replicate what
the government does, but better. How do we out-compete the government using
open-source tools? I can tell you that with Occupy Sandy we already did it. We
had a better system up within a month — for managing work orders, inventory,
requests, workflows. What if we had had that during the occupation? How much
easier would life have been for managing the Zuccotti Park
experience if there had been people trained in such a system? We’d have had
vehicles, warehouses and kitchens all coordinated in a way that was sustainable
and easy to plug into. If we can do that, it’ll become competition between us
and other systems. Then we’re on the path to the type of changes that people in
the open-source world realize is coming.

We’re using the term “open source” now,
by the way, but usually I use the term “FLO,” which means “free/libre/open
source.” There’s a whole political dimension to these words.

What do you think it will take for more
people to recognize this potential?

DB: Open-source projects, as an
organizing endeavor, pose an integration challenge. The question is always how
to get one plugin to work with another. When we’ve conditioned ourselves to
think more in terms of plugin architecture, our projects will inevitably plug
into other projects, and when that happens we’re going to have a whole new set
of functionality that’s possible. Once we’re at a certain level of advancement,
we get to merge. I think that what’s going to happen is a wave. For instance,
when open-source technology merges with open-source ecology in order to produce
hardware locally, you’re going to see a tremendous sea-change. You’ll see, say,
a new type of open-source tractor that starts selling like hotcakes. That
convergence isn’t so far away, and when that happens it’s going to feel
different. It is going to feel like a flick of a switch for a lot of folks.

How important is it for people in the
Occupy movement to know about this broader process?

DB: Open-source software itself exists
because other models for software production didn’t meet the need. Similarly, I
think the Occupy movement’s effectiveness depends on how quickly it recognizes
that the best community-organizing practices are rooted in free/libre/open
source. In the beginning of Occupy Wall Street, the leaders tended to be people
in the Direct Action Working Group, which was organizing the actions and
marches. But it was never very effective. Protest loses to production any day
of the week. That’s why the Black Panthers had a breakfast program. Give people
what they want if you want to be an effective movement. With Occupy Sandy,
because there was such a strong demand for relief from the community, we saw
the effectiveness of open-source tools. Documentation became more important. A
shared Google Docs folder was the center of productivity within Occupy Sandy,
and lots of people were realizing, “If I don’t share my docs as widely as
possible, and if I don’t orient people to these docs, this falls apart.” That
was significant.

But Google Docs isn’t open source. Where
are the lines to be drawn?

DB: I like to say “practically possible.”
Use freely-available, open-source solutions whenever practically possible.
Google Docs isn’t open source, but sharing data on spreadsheets is about as
open-source as you can get. Any absolutes about this stuff aren’t particularly
useful. What’s useful is recognizing the purpose of the activity as being new
forms of productivity, not merely creating a spectacle. But this takes a lot of
practice to do right. It’s hard. By the time of Occupy Sandy, there were a lot
more people who understood how to do this kind of thing than during the
original occupation, and they started out-performing the people who don’t work
this way.

Was your experience with free-software
communities in some ways preparatory for knowing how to participate in Occupy Wall Street’s
decentralized structure?

DB: Yes. Philosophically, for sure. The
media would say, “They communicate over Facebook and Twitter,” but if you’re
involved in organizing, you’re emailing all day. It’s emails, and it’s
listservs. I came in knowing how to have intense decision-making conversations
on email lists, while the vast majority of people did not. By now, the growth
of people’s aptitude for that type of communication has been stunning.

LF: Although we’re still not there!

DB: No. But we’re so much further along.

LF: Whatever the political intentions of
the open-source community, it models a different way of working together. Last
fall, a lot of people were down with the idea that “shit is fucked up and
bullshit.” But people will only go so far if you don’t show them something
better. There’s a portion of the population that will really be galvanized by
marches and occupations, but if you want many more people to get excited about
your political project, you need to provide an alternative — alternatives.
That’s what drives the politics forward, because there’s a limit to the horizon
of possibility when it’s a politics of protest. But once it’s a politics of
solutions and alternatives, you’re playing in a different field, and a lot more
is possible.

Does that help you when you’re opposing a
system backed up by state violence?

DB: During the early months of Occupy, I
would have experiences where I’d be talking to a cop who didn’t look like he
was enjoying being a pawn to suppress protest, and I said to him, “Hey dude,
have you ever talked about getting some land and going to a farm? If you ever
need some help acquiring land, we’ve got a bunch of acres upstate, we have
training, and Occupy Farms can get you up there, and you don’t have to do this
anymore.” I’ve had cops say to me, “You show me that, and we can have a
conversation.” The existing system is just not that competitive. It’s more
competitive than chaos, or anarchy or protest, sure. But how good, really, is
our suburban lifestyle, or our urban-ish suburban existence? At some point, the
other option is going to look better, and then the air starts coming out of the
balloon.

How close are we to that point, do you
think?

DB: A lot of the software, for instance,
is still a disaster in terms of usability and other capacities. That’s just
where we are as a society. We’re using it at just about 5 percent capacity. But
what’s fun about this stuff — and I think this is really how good software gets
made — is that you cobble together solutions, and everything kind of sucks, and
you evaluate how each piece works, and then you roll it all into one. If our
movement worked like a big open-source software project, there would be an
extensive wiki and forums and trainings to on-board people. There would be an
issue-tracker and requests for help, for what you can do at various different
engagement levels. An assembly could be happening in some place like Trenton,
N.J., and someone there might say, “I work in case-tracking for a homeless
shelter, and it would be better if x happened,” and then bam, it
would be tagged in the minutes of the meeting, and the developers somewhere
else would have a filter for whatever code was used to keep the minutes, and
they’d implement the suggestion in the next update. That’s the type of
performance we’re going to be able to achieve.

We’re not that far away from being able
to allow people to unplug from the proprietary information ecosystem. And once
we get there, we’re talking about real political change. The best part of the
whole open-source thing is recognizing that we can see into the future and
recognizing that it’s not all crazy. It’s just going to require a lot of people
to work. And that makes it a lot easier to be an activist.

Image of Occupy Sandy volunteers by Erin O’Brien (Occupy Sandy Facebook page).

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