Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Achilles Heel of Open Source: Elitism

by Dietrich Schmitz

The premise has always been that open source development should thrive and be guided by consensus and openness.

Consensus in the sense that a community who share in the development of a given application or Linux Distro energizes participation and guides teamwork when all recognize they have a role in moving toward a desired group goal in a cooperative effort.

The idea that computer software source code can be shared and reused and improved, provided that such changes to code are given back is central to the open source Gnu Public License v2.

No effort to move forward under the GPLv2 License is more symbolic than the collective work embodied by the Linux Kernel.

Many projects have been produced using the GPL as the basis for development for various 'moving parts' of the Linux Distribution (Distro), including system middle-ware components, utilities, and graphical Desktop Environments all working together in concert, meshing seamlessly to render the Distro experience.

To a large extent each software project has its own community with various responsibilities that combine to achieve the project's goals.  Communities around a project vary in size and as the organization dictates the size will grow according to the demands and initiatives undertaken by its members.

When consensus is taken and the feedback results in new design decisions and new feature enhancements, new branches of code are created to facilitate new major software revisions.  Committers who officially contribute code to a project typically store their changes in a central repository using Internet software revision control systems such as Git, or Subversion.  Revision control software will carefully track 'deliverables' and maintain versioning of a project through its software life cycle.

But when consensus is made but not incorporated into a decision making process, there is no longer a continuity between goals and objectives that everyone can accept.

The decisions made by a few people in power and only those people is being referred to here in this context as Elitism.

Risks of Operating in an Elitist Environment

By default, Elitism is exclusionary and ignores shared responsibility in the decision making process for a given project or organization.  Elitism promotes social stratification and division and gives those few decision makers a sense of privileged special status.

The risks inherent in working for an organization or for a project which is controlled by Elitism is that morale will suffer as team members discover their input on decisions doesn't matter.

Often Defeatist Elitism takes control of an otherwise open decision making process where the individual charged with making the final choice will with impunity put down or discourage collaboration and either verbally or in writing show dissatisfaction toward individuals bringing their own ideas to a group discussion.

In addition to harming morale, members in a group effort will be less inclined to take initiative and do independent learning, and many will become exasperated at seeing their work or ideas not being given credit and simply resign from active participation.

This can hurt the reputation of the organization or project and result in a loss of competing market share.  The level of risk for having made a bad strategic decision and continuing to support its advancement increases in likelihood, despite however bad the choice was or the probability of failure is, under an elitist's tight control.

Signs of Elitism

Watching the progress of Canonical, it is becoming increasingly evident that the culture of Ubuntu software development is severely hampered by the elitist behavior of Mark Shuttleworth:

  • Making a choice to move to Unity and choke off support for rearward compatibility with Gnome 2.3x feature sets is magnified by the proliferation of third-party utilities to tweak the GUI and fill major feature regressions.  

  • Radical changes to remove a traditional, intuitive Menu Structure (Gnome 2.3x Applications Places System Menu) in favor of 'searching' for an application is a strong warning sign that common sense traditional methods have taken a back seat to whimsical ideas and a 'we know best' what users need on their Desktop.  

  • Devoting major development efforts in Unity to allow searches of Amazon from the Desktop (vs. a browser) is another warning sign that in the shadow of one Man's elitist control, the direction and reputation of Ubuntu have taken a U-turn away from acceptable use in violation of users' privacy rights.  In spite of cries discouraging its implementation, the Amazon Lens went into Ubuntu 12.10 but has since included a system toggle to disable it by default.

  • Despite being an up-hill battle with little chance of gaining significant market share, Canonical now has plans to build a smartphone running Ubuntu with Unity, only called Ubuntu Touch.


So, the danger of an open source project's goals being precluded and derailed by Elitism  are a big concern.  One might say even, the risk that Ubuntu is leaning towards becoming proprietary is not out of the realm of possibility.

Ubuntu Linux--It's one big flashing road side billboard Folks--Elitism at work.

Take note!

-- Dietrich

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