June 11, 2020

Narrative Errorthat’s my hero story, and I’m sticking to it

It’s easy for young people to look down on elders watching Fox News, or their increasingly imitative lefty competitors, parroting ever more of their chosen network’s narrative. News is no longer news, no longer journalism, but adult story time, telling and retelling the same fables and yarns, filling in the details with current events.

This is true, but no one’s fit to throw stones. We all prefer to hear a story that we like, stop there, feel good, repeat to others, and see them nod along. We all like to know the right answer, no matter what life throws at us. As people, we crave praise and avoid accountability. We don’t want to answer to facts when we can triumph in fiction. We can write fiction. Changing facts is hard.

Many readers of this blog work in free and open source software. Many believe that free and open source software make the world a better place, serve the public interest, or advance great causes like human freedom. Why? Right or wrong, has it been tested?

Open source liberation is a very powerful story. One that remains largely theoretical, beyond the good that open source does for the developers who believe its line. Open source has given me free code, tools, and education. Open source made a number of early proponents rich, and boosted many careers, including mine. That is no cause for moral congratulation. I don’t deserve credit from others for serving myself and my own kind.

The questions must be different. What, if anything, has been done to hold hackers to broad account for the plaudits they give themselves? What have we done to ensure that the happy examples of open source helping the world we love to read and repeat aren’t selectively picked? Have you ever read a story about open source doing harm? If not, how is that possible?

For years and years, I was glad to accept the narrative of open source as righteous, freedom-loving revolution. I was glad to bask in reflected glory by chipping in my own code and identifying with the cause. I did not challenge underlying assumptions. And why should I? The esteem I sought came almost entirely from my peers—fellow programmers online—and not from any broader community, much less the public at large. Likewise the opportunities I craved and enjoyed. Insular plaudits and good pay were more than enough.

That insularity stunted my growth as a programmer, as a thinker, and as a human being. I did not ask others what they wanted from software, except through oddly technical processes that technical people like me defined. After all, I was the expert. I told them what they ought to want from computing. Which, it turned out, reflected my own desires: read source code, improve it, share it if I want, sell it if I don’t. My four freedoms, not theirs.

Alas, narrative error proves entirely general. There’s no natural limit to its warping effect on thinking life. It can stunt us in matters large and small, work-wise, policy-wise, and every-wise.

We can’t be immune. At best, we can be vigilant. We can be disciplined. We can be open … to humility most of all. We can test our stories, not by how much we like them, or how noble a hero they make us out to be, but in the eyes and experiences of others. The others we’re meant to serve.

more posts about: Open Source Politics

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