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Digital Infrastructure Insights Fund (D//F) for John Boy to explore the shifting terrain of free and open source software

With a grant from the Digital Infrastructure Insights Fund D//F, John Boy and members of the d12n research cluster will explore new ways critical technologists try to align their work with digital technology with the political goal of defending the public interest. This is crucial if we want to know how digital systems that benefit the public can be created, maintained and protected in the future.

The idea of free and open source software emerged as a response to proprietary software, such as Microsoft Office, which is sold as a product. When software first started to become a commodity, critics argued that it was unethical to turn software into property, since it is essentially a manifestation of thought processes. This led to the birth of the Free Software movement, later often labeled “open source” to make it more business-friendly.

John Boy: "Despite the movement's goal of ensuring user freedom and control over computer systems, the paradox lies in the fact that many powerful companies, such as Google and Meta, are built on open source software. The original goal of empowering users has been eclipsed by the dominance of these massive companies that severely limit user freedom. A Google user has absolutely no power over the products they use, even though they often incorporate elements that are nominally ‘free’ and ‘open’."

A textbook case

"An example is Microsoft: for a long time they were very anti-FOSS, but over time they have embraced aspects of open source software,”explains Boy. "It illustrates a fundamental shift in the industry and is a textbook case of winning the battle but losing the war. The idea was that if software isn’t proprietary, anyone can modify it to suit their needs, and you don't get something imposed on you. But that is exactly what we are getting now.”

Thinking beyond open source software

Boy wants to zoom out and reflect on the hopes that first animated FOSS. "Let's face it, FOSS is not doing what we hoped it would. What are people who used to believe in FOSS as a solution for the public good focusing on now? What new visions are they following?"

Over the next year and a half, he will be exploring the practices of critical technologists and mapping their efforts by attending meetings and interviewing people such as hackers, digital artists, academics and others who are working with digital technologies to achieve a socio-political impact. "I'm exploring what different ideas and projects these people working critically with technology have, like how can we make open systems that are not captured by big corporations? Or how do we make sure these systems do not have a negative impact on the environment? But it's an open-ended process, and I expect to be surprised by what I find as I talk to people all over the world.” The project is a first step toward mapping the shifting terrain.

Broaden the scope

In his research, Boy wants to broaden the scope of his work. "I think it's necessary to look outside of Europe and North America, where I usually work and where a lot of the focus is. So it is ideal that I can work with colleagues in our Digitalisation Research Cluster who know more about Southeast Asia, Africa, and Latin America."

Aligning the digital world with the public interest

There's a broad consensus that the basic infrastructure that we need to do our daily business should serve the public interest. "Whether it's roads, bridges or digital services, the expectation is that they should benefit everyone equally. However, the reality is that digital infrastructure is often handed over to large corporations such as Microsoft, which may not necessarily prioritise the public interest. This mismatch between what we want and what we do is the motivation for this research project - an attempt to align our actions with our ideals. The goal is to ensure that the infrastructures we rely on embody the values we hold dear, and to address the gap between our aspirations and current practices.”

Digital Infrastructure Insights Fund (D//F)

D//F acts as a platform for developers, researchers and public-private entities to support the growth of a sustainable and strong ecosystem for infrastructural Free and Open Source Software (FOSS). It focuses on cultivating the social aspects of FOSS, deepening our understanding of its impact on society, and exploring connections with important large-scale systems such as data pipelines and the Internet. The Digital Infrastructure Insights Fund (D//F) is supporting 10 projects, each of which will receive $50,000.

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