“The hardest problems in computer science are people-problems” paraphrases a quote i recently picked up on Twitter. Coming from an STS background, i´d be so bold to add: some of the most interesting as well.

It might not come too surprising that our research project specifically designed to investigate the implicit development environments of F/OSS and connected projects at the infrastructure layer has thrown us reading deep into said History of Technology & Science. The Launchpad for IDEs literature review has —quite naturally— been the “Anthropology/Ethnography of Technologies”-shelf. It made for lush quote-harvest and cross-referencing so far, all in order to encircle the core of what IDE is as an assemblage of social and material practices.

Free and Open Software as a culture weaves together a range of places, objects, and people; it contains patterns, thresholds, and repetitions that are not simple or immediately obvious, either to those who make F/OSS, nor to those who want to understand it.

As Chris Kelty poses it:

Free Software’s roots stretch back to the 1970s and crisscross the histories of the personal computer, the Internet, the peaks and troughs of the information-technology and software industries, the transformation of intellectual property law, the innovation of organizations and “virtual” collaboration, and the rise of networked social movements.

Free Software does not explain why these various changes have occurred, but rather how individuals and groups are responding: by creating new things, new practices. It is these practices —not the software (or engulfing mindsets) —that are most significant.

The intricacies of hacking cultures, overarching deformation professionelle in FOSS developers, and their connection with the history of ideas & values have often been described. As with open source-code itself, we are standing on the shoulder of giants, building on preceding outlooks on the system:

Notably (to name only a few from the rather lenghty bibliography) Gabriella Colemans’ seminal work “Coding Freedom“, tracing free software cultures’ visions of liberty. Cultural and moral codes in Free Software have been connected to large technical infrastructures before, as for example in “The Cathedral and the Bazaar” by Eric S. Raymond, who even provided the scene with its own 19 commandments. In his respective standard reference of ethnographies in Software Culture, “Two Bits“Christopher Kelty of UCLA embarks on a journey to analyse the cultural significance of Free Software, describing the FOSS-geeks as “embodied and imagining actors (..) living in a historically unique form grounded in particular social, moral, national, and historical specificities _ which nonetheless relate to generalities such as progress, technology, infrastructure (…).

What kinds of relationships become apparent when one asks how developers relate their own conscious appreciation of politics of their time to their everyday practices and commitments?

In our academic setup, we aim to take the existing research further and test, in how far acquired behavioural imprints and faiths have implications for the long-term development of Software Infrastructure projects and their situatedness in contemporary culture and economy.

To be able to navigate the playing field of Software Development, polymathy is an “occupational hazard”, not only for coders: We browsed through (and read for gist) of more than 100 monographies, essays, book reviews as well as magazine articles, podcasts and talk recordings. Disciplines span organisation theory, sociology and philosophy to STS, computer science and media theory.

We narrowed the extensive list down to a best of (or at least: “most insightful in this context”), centered around the specs of our research project:

We look at social groups and individuals that mantain and govern critical Software infrastructure on the internet; their personal and organisational resilience and if and how implicit values, patterns, standards etc. have impact on the individual, project or “birds of a feather”-level. Last but not least: We also try to describe, how external powers come to play in these dynamics and what levers proof efficient in the ecosystem.

Specialisation (in code) is often seen not as an end in itself amongst devs, but rather as a kind of technical prerequisite before “other work”can be accomplished. Said work is the design: the process of inserting usable software into an amalgamation of people, organizations, machines, and practices. We see infrastructural technologies as a kind of intervention into a constituted field of organizations, money, politics, and people.

Software cultures makes a special case of recursive publics (Kelty)

(…) a public that is vitally concerned with the material and practical maintenance and modification of the technical, legal, practical, and conceptual means of its own existence (…); it is a collective independent of other forms of constituted power and is capable of speaking to existing forms of power through the production of actually existing alternatives.

What Literature also suggests: While all of our interviewees and the interviewees in the surveyed literature on the bare surface make up a partition of a common FOSS culture, they shouldn´t be conflated: The diversity of technical practices, economic concerns, approaches, and legal and organisational practices is huge, from proselytizing and arguing, sharing, porting, and forking source code, to conceptualizing openness and open systems and coordinating people and source code.

We have been reminded while reading (and partially framed our research hypothesis accordingly) that technical standards played a role in implicit environments from the very beginning. The “singuarity of the web” has been a decision to privilege the singularity of the Internet and to champion its standardization, rather than to promote its fragmentation into multiple incompatible networks. They are decisions embedded in imaginaires that are simultaneously moral and technical. The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) and its Requests for Comments (RFC) system exemplify key features of the moral and technical order they share, the “stories and practices” that make up a social imaginary, according to Charles Taylor.

Recursiveness is always contingent on a limit: A Software project may depend on other kinds of software or operating system, which may in turn depend on particular open protocols or a particular process, which depend on certain kinds of hardware that implement them. The “depth” of recursion is determined by the openness necessary for the project itself. In our work and further literature review, we try to be as aspirational and as specific as possible. Our exploration of the written histories of Open Infrastructure and its creators didn´t reach its limit yet.

If you are interested in following along our reading: work in progress, List and (if possible) sources below. (Apologies for the german original, typos, etc.).

Katharina is a researcher/curator and trained STS scholar based in Berlin, exploring i.a. artistic practices and knowledge production at the intersection of society and technologies. In her dayjob, she is a FOSS-Funder and promotes Public Interest Technologies. Katharina is especially interested in ontologies of technical systems and innovation environments.