We use software constantly: on our phones, on our computers, in cars, televisions and other devices we use daily. The way software is made, however, remains foreign to most people. Many academics have tried to rebrand the work done by designers and coders of software as “knowledge work” in an effort to set it apart from other types of work. The knowledge work is separated simply because the end product is intangible and the workplace is more geographically amorphous. Make no mistake, those hordes of coders and developers typing away at their computers are workers just as much as the auto assembly line worker or the steel plant worker, and their conditions are just as oppressive.
There is an obvious and essential difference between software and a physical product – such as a car. Unlike a car, software requires time to build the first one, but no time and very little energy to produce the next one. The majority of work that goes on is refinement and redevelopment of existing software products.
This makes production of software more like the work of researchers, academics, journalists, teachers and artists. For these types of workers, production is better when more people are engaged at all levels and the product increases in value the more it is shared. Software, like science and medical knowledge, is a social good.
On the other side, proprietary software and its corporate vendors are ubiquitous, shiny, advertised to the point where it seems as though everyone else uses them. We are familiar with them because they are pushed on us by our employers who bought into their sales pitches, have outsourced the development to cheaper labour and now spend too much money on per-employee licences not to force everyone to use them. Vendors like Microsoft, Oracle, IBM, BlackBerry, etc. are classic examples.
Behind the shine, proprietary software is produced by outsourced, non-union workers, the majority of which have no benefits and little health and safety support. Their work environments are male-dominated, where sexual harassment abounds, where age and experience are often seen as negative attributes. The knowledge developed in these environments is then sold at huge profit to the private investors with little care about the social impacts.
For these reasons, using closed source, proprietary software products is akin to buying clothes made in sweatshops, buying from companies that have outsourced to overseas production, supporting private knowledge development or for-profit medicine. And, given that alternatives to most proprietary software do exist, it is unconscionable for progressives to continue to turn a blind eye to their use by either themselves or their organizations.
If it were any other products, we would reject buying them out of principle. And just like sweatshop-made clothing, there are plenty of alternatives made in more equitable conditions.
Even the corporate world is catching on to this reality. The majority of the software that is used by the technology service companies, jouralism, secure communications, and auto makers like Toyota has been developed by with the open source software community. The companies know that this software is better, cheaper to implement and maintain in-house.
Socialists demand that our organizations buy unionized products, oppose outsourcing of work to lower wages and act in solidarity with other workers. For the same reasons, we should be demanding the rejection of proprietary software when alternatives exist and demanding in-house developers be employed and their code shared with the rest of the movement. We must reject the millions of dollars wasted through the purchase of restrictive and unnecessary licences when that money could be used to employ people to expand development.
The call to use of open source software is a call for social justice just like many others. To ignore it is to not only be culpable in the expansion of massive software monopolies, but to undermine the very movement to which we belong.