Feminist Theory and Free Software

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by Katja Mayer and Judith Simon:

"Feminist scholars and feminist expertise are rarely mentioned in the context of FS studies, and if so, relating mainly to topics such as the “gender gap” (Kelty 2008) or the “coproduction of gender and technology” (Faulkner 2001; Oudshoorn et al 2004)3. However, we claim that instead of merely assessing the gender ratios in the free software community, feminist theory can help to better understand the epistemology of free software – or more precisely the entanglement of epistemology, ethics and ontology; of knowing, being and acting. That is, while we agree that the free software movement has had profound effects on the epistemic practices involved in software creation, i.e. the ways in which software if produced, improved and modified collectively, it is insufficient to focus only the epistemic dimension. Instead, a performative understanding of knowledge requires us to understand and account for the fact that epistemic practices are inherently ethical practices because a) instead of merely representing what is there, they are also generative and b) they may have differential effects on different agents.

Feminist theoreticians have proposed a broad and diverse range of epistemologies.

Yet, there are two aspects that are prevalent and particularly conducive to understand the epistemology of free software:

a) the performativity of epistemic practices and

b) the entanglement of epistemology, ontology and ethics.

One approach that appears particularly useful for apprehending FS is Karen Barad’s “agential realism” (AR) (2003, 2007), an “[...] epistemological-ontological-ethical framework that provides an understanding of the role of human and nonhuman, material and discursive, and natural and cultural factors in scientific and other social-material practices” (Barad 2007:26).

Departing from Niels Bohr’s unmaking of the Cartesian dualism between objects and subjects in quantum physics, Barad challenges dualistic understandings of subject-object, nature-culture, human-technology. Reality, in Barad’s understanding, is a verb rather than a noun, it is a process in which the observer, the observed, the practices, methods and instruments of observation are entangled and intra-act with one another. This radical shift forces her to rethink and reconsider received meanings of notions such as agency, materiality or discourse.

Apart from her non-dualistic perspective, another aspect of Barad’s approach is of particular importance for the understanding of FS we propose: her defense of performativity over representationalism. Both terms are meant to denote different ways of understanding the relationship between reality and discourse. While in representationalims discourse is meant to merely represent the world out there, Barad’s posthumanist performativity acknowledges the interrelation between discourse and materiality, between knowing, acting and being. “Agential realism is not about representations of an independent reality but about the real consequences, interventions, creative possibilities, and responsibilities of intra-acting within the world.” (Barad 1998: 8).

So far so good – but hasn’t the FS community always been about reality shaping? Aren’t FS activists the perfect agential realists? After all, isn’t FS all about shaping and changing reality through material-discursive practices? The crucial twist that we need to take in understanding the critical power of FS as well as some of its (potential) failures consists in taking power seriously. Power asymmetries, power effects – and their ethical counterparts injustices, biases, discrimination have been core topics in feminist theory. Concordant with Foucault and Butler, Barad argues that “power is not an external force that acts on a subject; there is only a reiterated acting that is power in its stabilizing and sedimenting effects” (Barad 2007: 235). Yet, a crucial aspect of AR consists in emphasizing the material dimension of power. Power refers to “overall materializing potential “ (Barad 2007:230), i.e. it must be thought of terms of who/what matters and who/what is excluded from mattering. Accordingly, power asymmetries refer to differences in materializing potential, to differences in matter/ing amongst human and non-human agents within socio-material practices.

As a performative and critical theory, AR emphasizes the possibility to reconfigure who/what comes to matter as well as the responsibility to act in case of unjust power asymmetries/injustices (Barad 2007:35).

Combining such a performative material-discursive understanding of power with the acknowledgement of the fundamental entanglement of epistemology, ethics and ontology opens the possibility for an “ethics of mattering”. If we concede that acting, knowing and being are related, but that different agents have different chances of mattering, then this implies a duty to watch out for injustices or marginalizations with respect to the potentials for mattering. Acknowledging our intra-relatedness, we need to critically engage in material-discursive practices in order to reconfigure the socio-material topology of which we are part in case of injustices with respect to mattering. If we agree upon the necessity to critically engage in material-discursive practices, which strategies can be used for these reconfigurations? How can we engage to change socio-technical epistemic environments for the better? We think that Helen Longino’s norms for transformative criticism can offer some guidance (even if Longino focuses merely on the social dimension while neglecting the socio-material entanglement).

In her book “The fate of knowledge”, Helen Longino develops a socio-epistemological approach that is […] responsive to the normative uses of the term knowledge and to the social conditions in which scientific knowledge is produced (Longino 2002: 1). In her analyses of epistemic practices Longino strives to be descriptively adequate– a goal that Kelty also stresses in his conclusions – but she moreover emphasizes the normative component of epistemology: i.e. epistemology goes beyond just assessing how knowledge practices are conducted but it also draws conclusions on how knowledge practices should be conducted.

To understand Longino’s social epistemology, it is important to note that “social” does not denote common, collective, or shared, but rather should be understood as interactive. The crucial sociality of knowledge lies in being in a dialogue about issues at stake; it is about interacting in producing situated, partial and provisional knowledge that is bound to revisions, debate, and critical questioning. This interactive aspect is also visible in her definition of knowledge as epistemically acceptable content. According to Longino “(s)ome content A is epistemically acceptable in community C at time t if A is or is supported by data d evident to C at t in light of reasoning and background assumptions which have survived critical scrutiny from as many perspectives as are available to C at t, and C is characterized by venues for criticism, uptake of criticism, public standards, and tempered equality of intellectual authority (Longino 2002c: 135)”.

It should become obvious from this definition, that the community of knowers is the central focus of attention in Longino’s social epistemology. This is not too surprising given that only through a communal process of reviewing, criticizing and finally vetting epistemic content, knowledge can be created, i.e. knowledge depends on effective socio-rational processes. The crucial term here is “effective” and by Longino already offers the criteria, which distinguish effective communities from their ineffective counterparts: venues for criticism, uptake of criticism, public standards, and tempered equality of intellectual authority.

These four criteria are explicated in Longino’s four norms for effective transformative criticism, which she proposes as ideals that communities should strive for if they wish to improve their knowledge-producing capacities.

“1. Venues. There must be publicly recognized forums for the criticism of evidence, of methods, and of assumptions and reasoning. […]

2. Uptake. There must be uptake of criticism. The community must not merely tolerate dissent, but its beliefs and theories must change over time in response to the critical discourse taking place within it. […] Uptake is what makes criticism part of a constructive and justificatory practice. […]

3. Public Standards. […] Participants in a dialogue must share some referring terms, some principles of inference, and some values or aims to be served by the shared activity of discursive interaction. […] A community‘s standards are themselves subordinated to its overall cognitive aims […] Finally, standards are not a static set but may themselves be criticized and transformed […] There is no particular act of adopting or establishing standards. […]

4. Tempered Equality. Finally, communities must be characterized by equality of intellectual authority. (Longino 2002: 129ff)”


There are several crucial insights to be taken from Longino’s social epistemology. First of all, it is important to note that communities are essential for knowledge in a very fundamental sense: without communal evaluation of content, there is no knowledge. Second, communities differ with respect to their epistemic effectiveness and the better they are in adhering to the before mentioned norms, the higher the likelihood that they will end up generating different forms of knowledge. Third, (cognitive) diversity benefits epistemic processes and products. This point is particularly important, because it explains why having diverse communities of knowers is not merely an ethical, social or political nice-to-have, but epistemically beneficial.

We think that both Longino and Barad’s epistemologies offer valuable insights for a critique of the critical power of free software. First of all, Longino’s four norms for transformative criticism can serve as criteria to evaluate the FS community itself. To what extent does the FS community adhere to or strive for the fulfillment of these norms? Are there sufficient venues for criticism? Is there tempered intellectual authority? And how are the norms changing and transformed in regard to social dynamics and shifting standards (e.g. the transformation of OSS markets, uptake of mobile social media by social movements and its interest to regimes of control, …)? Secondly, Longino’s social epistemology convincingly shows that cognitive and epistemic diversity is an ethical just as much as an epistemological requirement for sound, well-functioning and effective epistemic communities in a learning society as paradigmatically denoted by the FS movement. How is FS dealing with diversity of epistemic cultures and different identity politics? Thirdly, Longino’s emphasis on the performative and productive value of norms explains why it may be essential to always and repeatedly relegate to certain paradigms, such as the freedoms, in order to incite and harvest the critical power of FS – norms can serve as tools for transformation.

Barad’s contribution has been to remind us that our practices of knowledge do not merely represent what is there, but shape and create what is and what will be there. While this insight may be almost trivial in the context of FS, where the generative power of epistemic practices is well understood, it may be nonetheless necessary to remind ourselves that in the process of producing new artifacts we also create new distinctions, new differences. And we may also create new biases or injustices. The reaction to this danger however, cannot reside in escapism – we do not have the possibility to back out and abandon this material-discursive mess. Even if our actions are neither independent nor innocent, we have duty to make expand our frames of analysis, to make accountable cuts (Suchman 2007), to engage in critical practices striving for just socio-material configurations.

A fundamental insight from both feminist theories concerns the role of power. Adopting a performative understanding of power as differential potential for mattering may sharpen our senses for what is at stakes if we focus on mere knowledge processes and give debates about the relationship between knowledge and power in FS a deeper and more profound meaning.

What else can such feminist approaches do for us in this debate? It can further focus our attention on the realization of transformational processes, especially in fluid socio-technical settings. We can follow the various enactments of epistemological, ontological and ethical entanglements in software culture, approach the “agential realism” (Barad) of the FS movement in terms of how it has changed over time and in specific configurations. Tracing strategies of keeping up inter- and intra-activity to gather “effective” communities, looking for their relationships within certain knowledge regimes.

“When it is rooted in culture, software development becomes a discipline distinct from engineering, and social and cultural values are invested in the work.” (Medosch 2005: 177). The FS movement has always transgressed disciplinary boundaries of traditional expertise and authority. It was understood that very valuable things could be produced collaboratively. Making valuable things easily accessible and sharable proved to be hazardous to conventional, rigid concepts of intellectual property and privacy. We can ask what we have learned so far from the FS culture, and how those learnings have manifested themselves in ever shifting environments, e.g. when masses of people are protesting against ACTA (Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement) or SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act), to demonstrate that they are not (radical) pirates, but active advocates of free access to certain cultural resources.

The “critical power” or to speak with Longino the “transformative criticism” of FS is more than just a “copyfight” (Kelty). It has already shown more potential then to “only” radically transform markets and content-sharing practices. The FS movement has touched and transformed our understanding and handling of knowledge. FS strategy has taught us how to keep and protect openness and interaction in many realms besides the digital, even though we see effects of commodification, control and closure everywhere. This is not necessarily always very “radical” (Kelty) or “revolutionary”, just because it is transformative.

The FS movement serves as an inspiration for transforming publishing, teaching, and scientific practices (cf. Kelty 2008), and it has stimulated the idea of peer production, free culture (Lessing 2004), free flows of information and free/open networks, and it has shown us the capacity to approach freedom as something in the making, as something mutable that must continuously be negotiated and adapted. Besides adding new challenges to traditionally institutionalized markets of knowledge production, it is about to co-transform norms of “socially robust knowledge” (Nowotny et al. 2001). We owe this – inter alia – to the constant and consequent demarcation of the values and norms coming with the terminology “free” – and its sensitivity for power constellations. Therefore, let us conclude our argument by stating that free software is a rich and challenging field to study how matters and meanings are mutually constituted. We agree with Kelty that free software is constantly “becoming”. With its transgression to free culture and similar practices it is not only problematizing relations of power and knowledge, it is coproducing and transforming them, code being just one of many socio-cultural practices it its context. It has the potential to reconfigure the socio-material topology of the very assemblage it is embedded in. Hence, the crucial questions are: how is it becoming? What are matters of concern? How to make a difference?" (http://peerproduction.net/issues/issue-3-free-software-epistemics/debate/desired-becomings/)