Open source realigns priorities for "work"

Open source demonstrates the future of work

Posted 11 Feb 2016 by 

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Evidence suggests that current models of work, in particular a 9-to-5 work week, are not only deleterious to workers' physical and mental health, but are also sub-optimally productive. Fortunately some countries (such as Sweden) are trialing shorter work weeks with some success (although we must take into account that the effects have been observed only over a short amount of time). Working in open source technologies, however, provides the framework for a completely different model of employment. Instead of being pigeonholed into a single, assigned task, open source contributors are given free reign of their responsibilities, allowing them to utilize their time and skills more flexibly.

Moreover, evidence also suggests that the stigmatization of not working have significant harmful impacts on individuals' mental health. Whether people forego work because of disability, prejudice against long-term unemployment, or simply by choice, the stigma against not working is ever-present and can be damaging.

Open source communities and projects are examples of non-standard work structures that are successfully productive while existing outside typical paradigms for "work." OpenSSL, for example, is an incredibly important software library that serves a large majority of websites across the web. The authors of the software, ranging from one time collaborators to continuous contributors, have collectively forged arguably the most important networking encryption library to date, and they've done it outside traditional business models. The software is a the result of effort from a diverse community of volunteers working on "their own time," rather than on the rigid production model of a proprietary software development firm.

Open source projects also challenge traditional business organizational structures with regard to worker coordination. Eric S. Raymond, in his essay The Cathedral and the Bazaar, compares the difference between proprietary software and open source development styles to, as the title suggests, a cathedral and a bazaar. The primary difference in these styles is the hierarchical structure of the proprietary software development and the flat organizational structure of the open source development model. However, this comparison is applicable outside of software creation processes, too. Most companies still function under a hierarchical model, where all but a select few individuals are subordinates of other employees; power structures are very clearly defined and staff members can only further develop skills within a certain specialization. Open source work tends to lean more towards a non-hierarchical (or heterarchical) management system in which leadership is decentralized. This leads to contributors experiencing more autonomy in their roles in certain projects. It also allows for more creativity and diversity among contributors, whose abilities are not restricted to a particular niche. Another advantage of flat organization structures is a certain flexibility to adapt to change, which is necessary in the realm of open source software development.

Accessibility is another area in which open source trumps traditional work models. Rather than focusing on well-being of individuals in society, many of today's neoliberal economic practices prioritize productivity—which often leads to disability discrimination. While recent decades have seen an increase in government initiatives to allow more job opportunities for people with disabilities, as of 2014, disabled unemployment in America is at 12.5 percent, more than double the unemployment rate of those with no disability at 5.9 percent. A core tenet of open source, as opposed to current models of work, is to allow anyone who wishes to contribute to the ecosystem to be able to do so. In point of fact, Mike Gifford, founder of OpenConcept Consulting, has spoken about a specific need for disabled contributors in the open source community. "If people conscious of accessibility issues can write the code and create a patch to improve the library it can be much more easily incorporated by the project's maintainers," he writes in his article How & Why People With Disabilities Should Engage with Open-source Software Communities. "Accessibility is an issue that everyone can get behind." While open source communities still present hurdles to complete accessibility, open source environments enable those living with disabilities to be feel more empowered than they would in other work cultures; this environment is less discriminatory and can help counter both the stigma and the danger to mental health long-term unemployed persons with disabilities might experience.

Although open source projects can assume "9-to-5 form," or even be organized into hierarchical structures, they offer an interesting alternative to the traditional work paradigm. Perhaps this trend will grow into wider acceptance of non-standard work, and enable individuals more easily pursue their passions.

10 Comments

Don Watkins

Interesting read. There are no barriers in open source, at least, none that are found in the more typical organization. Meritocracy facilitates more openness.

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Eonist

The antidote to all current institutionalized work:

Pursue network collaboration rather than institutionalized work. Ive been researching a few books on the matter the last couple of years like: Clay Sharky "here comes everybody" T. L FriedMan "The world is flat" and Rework and Remote from 37signals (basecamp) as well as numerous others on the subject. My current thinking is that most institutions hasn't kept up with the pace of technology, and are often too rooted in old ways of doing things. Bluntly put: You end up spending more time on strategizing against your collogues than actually solving problems with them. Example: your PM asks how long it takes to complete feature A. You say 1 week, she says ok. Then it doesn't take 1 week but 2. Now you are looking at a lot of late nights or all the blame or both. So by default you should say 2 weeks. Now you strategising. Creative work is extremely volatile, sometimes things take no time at all, other times they take a while. Administration still think of creative work as a linear thing. Anyway you see were this is going.

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Eonist

Anyone know of books that presents new ideas about the future of collaboration? How individuals can spontaneously come together with no barriers and pursue ideas with intrinsic motivation? The idea: "things i could do if i could clone my self 10 times". The problem I've found is trust, diverging interests and greed hold most pursuits like this from happening.

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bbehrens

A nice place to start on collaboration, though perhaps not in the particular vein you've identified here, would be Together by Richard Sennett.

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Eonist

Ill read some reviews about the book. It might not be what i'm looking for. Ill try to read a chapter or two. One article that constantly is bugging my subconscious brain lately is this read: http://www.ribbonfarm.com/2016/01/28/productivity-for-precious-snowflakes

Ribbonfarm is something pretty great by the way. Ive recently just discovered it.

I generally find that there is void in the literature concerning the intimacy of hands on vs just hiring what on the surface seems as the best players in the field. How is this idea related to opensource? Well take a great author for instance. Like Stephen King. Only he can write "The shining" the way it was written. There are numerous copycats that have tried since. I feel software is a little like that. In the way you build an inverted pyramid. If the pieces start to lack in quality the end product will be exponential worse because of it.

So you can hire the best players in the game sure. Spend a lot of money. But they wont create a new "The shining" They will probably create another book no body reads.

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bcotton

Excellent article overall, but I take objection to this part:

Eric S. Raymond, in his essay The Cathedral and the Bazaar, compares the difference between proprietary software and open source development styles to, as the title suggests, a cathedral and a bazaar.

In fact, Raymond talked about GNU Emacs core development as an example of the "cathedral" style. Although open source software is often developed with a "bazaar" approach, it's not necessarily true. Google's Android platform is an excellent example.

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Eonist

there is an exception to every rule? I haven't read the book, but this wikipedia article was pretty good: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Cathedral_and_the_Bazaar Ill add it to my ever growing 2read pile.

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ShaunGillies

I did mention later that there are exceptions to the rule later in the article, but I agree that the wording is a little ambiguous. Thanks for the comment!

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eMBee

what trips me up here is that 9-5, having no freedom what to work on, has nothing to do with working on Free Software or Open Source or not. 9-5 is not demanded by my company, but by my family. they want me home in the evening and on weekends. and tasks to work on are defined by my customers.

sure, i have some freedom in choosing which customers to work with, but once a project is accepted, and the initial technology decisions are made, there is no more free reign for anyone to choose what they want to work on. at best we decide together each week what to work on next, but apart from change requests by the customer, all tasks are more or less laid out from the beginning of a project.

and the larger the project, the less freedom we end up with. i worked on one project that kept 50 people busy for years. had we arranged the work so that everyone could pick the task they are most interested in, then i would have had the choice of a few dozen different tasks, each one as boring as the next one because all the interesting problems were already solved in previous years.

this is very different from volunteer work where i can really just pick the tasks that i like the most, and hope someone else is interested in other tasks.

greetings, eMBee.

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mike_gifford

Thanks for the mention Shaun. It is a really interesting model of how we can best leverage human potential to improve the global commons. Some interesting models around procurement too which may end up favoring folks with flexible work environments over traditional shops https://18f.gsa.gov/tags/procurement/

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Shaun Gillies is a cryptographer and software developer, focusing on the web, based in Brisbane, Queensland. He currently work as a developer a for a company called Smartersites. He is an advocate of open source software, and likes to contribute actively to the open source community.

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