Who is concerned by a software syndicate? How can a software syndicate embrace transformational forces? As we are observing worrying political drifts, a clear consolidation of control society, and possible rise of fascist discourses, we know from experience that the stake of maintaining an independant infrastructure of communication is crucial to resistance networks who will take the charge of a further social response.However it feels that this important concern is often being held as secondary.
Advocating for a global approach to address modalities of the technological society often makes you qualified as idealist, since power in place greatly favors militaro industrial complex, even so embrassing the issue might be the only way to organise in the here and now towards the world to come. We will envision here how concerted actions at a small scale can contribute to a global thinking on the topic.
While the centralization of data and privatization of software, favored by the neoliberal economic functioning, occupy almost all domains, there are still many activist projects that continue to propose singular tools and models of community organization; some radical technical collectives maintain their existence, providing long lasting independent communication tools, for example Riseup.net or Autistici/Inventati  (moreover, A/I, in their orange book  document their infrastructure for activist projects, an important step to allow the transfer of experience so others can reproduce their process ); other initiatives, such as the Lorea project, have had a short and intense life by engaging in resistance organizations; more recently, more structures have followed this path, notably in Europe, such as disroot.org, tutanota.com and some got organised in a network such as CHATONS  in France. To date, it seems that while useful software are available, well organized communities, who provide secured tools that can be configured according to needs, they are most often unused or at least not used to their full extent.
Popular protests that bring hundreds of thousands of people into the streets most often rely on centralized social media platforms, although within these groups a minority of individuals will prefer to use a secure method of communication, similarly, for the moment I don’t know of any coherent and concerted digital organization in resistance networks. Most often a discourse rejecting technology dominates in activist circles, this position seems unrealistic given the hold of centralized platforms on our exchanges. As a result, not only do we depend on models imposed on us by centralized corporate technologies, but we also (pretend to) trust them to manage our data.
Technology production is undoubtedly part of colonialist exploitative history, its operation benefits the empire. The nature of digital tools, which do nothing better than reproduce information, is curbed by copyright while corporate practice largely favors the tracing of those who produce information; leaving the infrastructure in the hands of corporations alone only aggravates the problem. On the contrary, the experience acquired over the years makes it possible to envisage a controlled use and a better understanding of the stakes, which necessarily requires, as we know, the sharing of documentation, the creation of spaces for reflection, debate and active pedagogy in order to rethink our relationship with technology.
Facing the lack of collective reflection about the technologies used to coordinate social movements and resistances, it is useful to consider free software in its structuring capacity: both an approach to bring software code into the public domain and a methodology to coordinate contributions and the maintenance of digital tools. To this end, this text starts by addressing the observation that free software projects face systemic limitations, those are particularly sensible and limiting in the social organisation attached to free software production; it conforms to a norm established in an essentially masculine and Western universe, and non tech people lack of information about the technical reality and fail to see the scope of the problem would it be for their own safety or for the sake of formulating meaningful discourses/claims in political or academic circles.
Free software programmers form an international community that agrees on collaborative work methods and specific tools, such as the version control software git. This community often shares social characteristics, creating knowledge silos that influence the direction of software development.
- Free Software projects are almost always coming from people with Euro-American cultural background, those people with a Western heritage tend to reproduce existing patterns of domination.
- When programmers realize they are creating a knowledge silo, and maybe are not creating a welcoming environment for others, they often remedy this by turning to the mainstream, either by imitating the interfaces and structures of proprietary software, or by trying to be compatible with existing corporate tools rather than asserting the construction of a different technology.
- This reasonning results in social and technological environments that limitate dissent thinking and make for difficulty to voice out and even see the need for radical transformation, even more the idea of grounding this transformation in the fragility of communities is sometimes called out.
As a direct result of colonial history and Western domination of education and access to infrastructure, most software, and even more open source software, is developed by people who have better access to university education, and the identity conveyed by the community or workplace does not help to transform the situation. With respect to the West, Charlton Mc Ilwain explains that, from the beginning, certain populations have been historically and deliberately excluded from the institutions where technology is developed: “The Folks at MIT and those like them were building a new society they made the de-facto decision to exclude Negroes from designing, building, or deciding what computer systems would be built”.
In this context, developers bring their culture with them and organize social structures, their proposals are not always welcoming to people from another background or country. While contributions to Free Software projects come from global sources, this is not visible in social spaces (festivals, conferences, hacker camps, etc.) where people interested in technical issues meet, nor in decision-making processes. Unfortunately, for various reasons (intersectional issues too complex to be discussed here), it seems that the population of free software programmers is more uniform than the population in corporate environment[6:1]. The uniformity of the population is often the first thing that strikes a person attending a large free software conference for the first time. Also these western and gendered social practices, often do not completely separate themselves from those in the corporate world - which is very much present in the vicinity - promote, among other things, a hierarchical and personality-based structure and do not allow for the sharing of organizational modalities specific to Free Software.
On another hand, despite the evidence of their toxicity, a great deal of tolerance is given, even in critical circles, to the use of surveillance capitalist softwares. More often than not, the explanation given emphasizes the difficulty of changing existing processes, and denies the need to think about the benefits of a concerted transformation. From this situation, where the lack of dialogue and collective reflection is obvious, the result is the crystallization of a structure of domination where programmers keep a grip on technological choices. The resistance organizations, on the other hand, argue that they are fragile and lack the time and knowledge to continue to feed the flows of techno-surveillance with their data, their emotions, their motivations, their relational graphs and, more than anything else, to bind themselves to the fragmented, self-promoting and time-consuming operating model put forward by the technologies they use.
There are many attempts to remedy this situation, but because of the reality described above, discussions about technology happens in closed circles and often fails to consider the peculiarities of Free Software; they are not considered as specific systems, and loosing sight of their singular possibilities. The same thing happens when it comes to meeting the needs of “users”; the very successful campaign of the French Free Software provider Framasoft, called Dégooglisons Internet , offers free of charge Free Software alternatives to most main centralized online services. However, by providing “alternatives” that in some way try to keep the familiarity of the user’s habit with centralized corporate software, we still subject civil society organizations to the worldview that these companies promote, identity based on gratis usage and focus on serving individual projects, rather than exchange and collaboration. The reasons for this choice are obviously pragmatic, it is difficult to break away from the dominant model; highlighting the possibility of another organization fostering the visibilisation of a different paradigm requires a voluntary and persistent work from different groups accross existing social organisation. Transdisciplinary and inclusive conversations about technological production and usage would help to approach Free software production as a process that allows a different way of functioning, which would give another access to the digital tools, notably by offering the possibility of discussing the different technological choices and would allow a shared understanding of the technical stakes, of the needs and of the social functioning necessarily associated to digital communications. There are very few spaces where transdisciplinary exchanges take place, very few knowledge bridges where free software developers learn and share their experience with other disciplines, other experiences and engage reciprocally to give life to proposals that respond to expressed and different needs.
Faced with the obvious signs of the consolidation of a techno-fascist domination, we are left with the desire to organize in order to set up a radically transformative social and human way of functioning and rethink technology together. It is time to find places where we can exchange and function in a collaborative way. As we have seen, there are few of these, they are split between programmers and activists, and above all there is hardly any structured arrangement for the transmission of knowledge. The need to create an activist milieu to discuss technological practices in a society where computers are dominant is apparent, this can take different forms, meetings, workshops, writings, digital exchanges but in all cases and it must be a shared project inhabited both by people contributing to the development and use of software and all the people who are generally excluded from these debates.
- Modalities of technology are unknown because most people are kept dependent by corporations.
- Activists don’t have time to invest in understanding the technology, they are already divided and overloaded.
- Difficulty/impossibility to get feedback from users at the software development level because they have no reference in software, only in identity-based enterprise products.
Most of the arguments for not considering the possibility of other technologies are self-deprecating: “technology is not for me”, “I don’t understand anything”, “I don’t have time”, etc… Yet screen time is constantly increasing, and the indispensable operations of daily life are increasingly intermediated by capitalist surveillance platforms.
These observations are banal and often dismissed with a shrug of the shoulders, reflecting a feeling of powerlessness. Activists are already exhausted by too many responsibilities, the technology they use should support them in their activities and not require more time, as those based on an attention economy promoted by many platforms do. On the other hand, free software projects feel the need to reach a wider audience, they rightly assess the need to better respond to users’ needs, to get feedback, to do design UX; however, in the absence of shared structures for reflection on technological developments, the point of comparison remains the dominant tools This comparison is reinforced by the fact that, when asked about the desired functionality of free software, “users” who are not well informed about the possibilities of free software and who are not engaged in a broader reflection about technology will use the most well-known software as a point of comparison.
We need organized working groups to care together for the terms of the technological society: transdisciplinary software syndcates. There we can think about directions and make decisions for the development of software that would feed into strategies of sharing, from and with resistance networks. Software syndicates are understood here as proximity-based structures that can serve as a basis for strategy development and the transfer of information and knowledge, decentralized and online decision-making processes and the federation of needs.
Furthermore the comprehension of surveillance capitalism formalized by hacker communities could support activist projects; recognizing the ways in which both groups pursue the same goals is essential. To get such processes going, we need people to take on the task of intermediation, to take on the role of the missing link between free technology actors and activists, to build a ground for thinking about technology for resistance, to become knowledge bridges.
- Need for systemic adoption of open infrastructure
This is not a proposition to rethink the universe, the assimilation of always new technologies and infrastructure exhausts the users as innovation pushes on always conceiving new tools or new ways of doing things to exchange socialize and form knowledge together. On the contrary, there are many free software techniques and tools that have steadily permited over time the appropriation of technological functions, and permit to fix a standard for adapted to different uses and practices. In the same way, the persons who set as knowledge bridges from/to programmer environment to activists have an interest in relying on existing social organizations rather than building again a new organisation, in particular by working with existing civil society structures and resistance organizations who have a experience in their action. From this point of view, the intermediary role of knowledge bridge is essential, it is not necessarily a question of developing more or better tools, or other structures, but of knowing how to manipulate the existing ones, to install the necessary tools and to transmit an understanding of their modalities of functioning so that their use meets the needs of the engaged collective. It is also a question of understanding and easing other people’s understanding about how the most widespread technologies are free software and they function differently. The practical documentation of technical processes is really rare and the time spent to realize these documents is often not considered as a value-creating activity, yet it is essential to the life of the software, its adoption and its future transformation.
The example of Andrea’s work in the Campi Aperti community is an inspiring example of how it is possible to integrate both governance work within a community seeking to exist in a horizontal relationship, and existing open source tools developed within their own communities and rarely used in this context. Andrea prooses several principles:
- Do not do things alone.
- Testing environment.
- Document everything and explain the choice of alogorithm.
- Give yourself the time to study.
- Not be to much specialized "
She explains how she was able to engage the Campi Aperti community around the setup of their dedicated network and their own servers. Every technological decision was integrated into their choices of organization and collective validation, and the people involved were quickly able to take ownership of the proposed technologies.
Several initiatives have thought of projects integrating different software in a shared environment aiming at facilitating their installation, among other things by using dedicated hardware. These projects are important spaces for the construction of technical independence. The person who is capacitated to pass on technical information and support others, a knowledge bridge, may intervene temporarily or over time, may or may not have a technical and/or activist background, or both, the essential thing is that she acts in a spirit of sisterhood and community knowledge building through mutual self-learning and support.
Taking into account the different observations often shared about the modalities and structures allowing for the development of free software, we can specify a little the modalities of a software syndicate.
Local reference is immediately accessible. Local information, networks of common goods, cartography.
- Local is important for human relations and further communication.
- For software, geographic location is not significant and can lead to redundancies in development.
The notion of locality often comes up in current social contexts, nurturing battles and utopias, it also is very present in the discourse of radical technologies and independant providers. While the idea of locality seems obvious in an immediate definition: “what is close to us within a radius of x km”; and if locality makes sense in terms of human relations, as a form of reapropriation of agency, it can also be the occasion to evade a large number of issues of historical domination, colonial for example, not acknowledging that our wealth and welfare system is heavilty constructed on exploitative systems still inplace. Indeed locality needs to be understood as different from autonomy because the existence maintained locally in the West depends largely on global structures of exploitation. Furthermore what does locality means in terms of software development.
For example, the question of a local community associated in the development or maintenance of a software or a code base seems to be associated with a particular vision of locality, some urban centers where a sufficiently large number of programmers are found to form a local community, but this is not the case for most rural spaces.
Technological knowledge is situated, and it is crucial that the people who hold it implement structures for dialogue with other social spaces, and in the current situation where corporation attack every piece of land it is all the more crucial for radical technologies that are most often thought in urban contexts, to keep in touch with the various territorial struggles that are most often rural.
Taking in account the previously mentioned issues and limits, locality seems on other aspects an important asset for radical and free software technology development and organisation.
- Proximity rather than locality.
- Who does what, code is not the only modality of technologies.
Software development relies on human organisations that are both localised in certain urban centers and at a distance historically formalising online ways of organisation, that allows them to keep track of their projects and communities in a decentralised manner very adaple and reliable. Those tools allow to form affinity groups over specific software/type of softwares where technological choices are discussed for their pertinence but also for some more obscure reasons that can ressemble a form of attachment to a certain identity, aesthetics or , even what some might call political reasons (most of the time unacknowleged). For example adhesion to decentralisation, or technological minimalism has definitive political groundings, most of the time not presented as such.
Developer’s affinity groups form proximity relations that are not solely depending on their locality and constrining them to a local implementation would be absurd, contrary to the networked quality of the technology. However Free Software development most often happens among a network of peers, organized in groups of belonging and identity. People are localized and meet in hackerspaces for example, they meet there independently of specific projects, but these social spaces are the occasion to implement relational spaces where technological practices and different needs are thought.
Identifying local representatives of software projects could create a referential bridge for local user groups.
The programmer’s time is usually taken up, so they don’t see the need to devote themselves to the dissemination of the software they are working on. Conversely, for outsiders, engagement in thinking about a program or its documentation is an opportunity for reflection on systems and technologies, and perhaps the formation of critical thinking. The hackerspaces and hacklabs can be the venues for these encounters, they allow different people to share an interest in the technology, and some will then serve as intermediaries to share systemic understanding and support community building.
- Community technologies must be understood from the beginning as an open source system.
- Radical technologies can be thought of by a diverse community.
The diversity of communication spaces is recognized as a guarantor of the formation of critical thought, of the dynamism of society and ultimately of the richness of life, yet, as we have seen repeatedly in recent events, far right fundamentalists know that getting their hands on digital media is key to the consolidation of their social influence; they are aided in this by centralized platforms that practice double standards in moderation, tolerating, for example, racist violence and threats. Moreover, the techno-fascist control society sets up standards which are, by their requirements and their modalities adapted to corporations, those standards are not favorable and exclude de facto small and decentralized organizations favorable to the common good. Under the impact of these different threats, thinking of the digital infrastructure as a free and decentralized software commons is the first condition for its survival and for the possibility of maintaining a diversity of speech and opinions that is essential to shared thinking. Such systems, in order to exist, must necessarily be designed with the participation of communities from the start. Confronted with the importance of inequalities and the violence of the current context, it feels illusory to think that this transformation can be done on a large scale, we can build on the experience of local resistance environments to implement another technical functioning.
As a conclusion I would like to affirm that Including digital issues in the design of our resistance organizations allows the formalization of a complex thinking that goes beyond the simplistic opposition forming against digital tools, which also recognizes the possibilities of a practice of digital commons; while being aware of the flaws of computers and their seating in a logic of surveillance. The means of this organization are community-based and reside in practices of communication, documentation and knowledge sharing, such a reflection would be a pillar for software syndicate that offers a space to rethink the existing systems in the service of active social movements.
The list is long and Riseup maintains a partial list of radical technical collectives : https://riseup.net/en/security/resources/radical-servers ↩︎
Charlton D. Mc Ilwain, Black Software, The Internet and Social Justice from the Afronet to Black Lives matter, Oxford University Press 2020, p.21 ↩︎
Who is an open source software developer?, Bert J. Dempsey, Debra Weiss, Paul Jones, and Jane Greenberg, in Commun. ACM vol. 45, Feb. 2002. DOI: 10.1145/503124.503125 ↩︎