The Suspect Devices “team” attended the Open Hardware Summit in New York City this past week. It was really thrilling to be around so many creative and intellectually curious people. Many of the talks in the afternoon made me realize that we in open hardware have the potential to do a lot of great work in the world by collaborating inside and outside of our field. The Public Laboratory team brought up issues about gathering data and data ownership for the general public, which we have the technology to do but perhaps this has not filtered into many communities yet. I also thought that they were correct in turning to traditional publishing in order to inform residents of their findings in low-bandwidth communities, which is a fantastic opportunity for current and former journalists to get involved in the information distribution process. In fact, this would be a great opportunity for local and regional newspapers (or anyone with a printing press and lots of stamps) to facilitate conversations in neighborhoods facing environmental damage.
One of the more disturbing aspects of the summit was the keynote by Chris Anderson of Wired Magazine. His talk was focused on becoming a billionaire with open source by utilizing unpaid work, outsourcing as needed, and keeping your business model hierarchical. Individual contributions and code commits in open source are usually unpaid, but Mr Anderson suggested that by using branded gifts and other tokens as motivation, there would be no need to have people around to be paid. This is a horrible model. I don’t think that all situations necessarily need to be compensated but without provisions to make sure that people’s living is supported, you will only have contributors who are making money at programming already. Not only that, but the idea that businesses should strive to make billions of dollars is unsustainable both economically (as investment is not necessarily being reintroduced into the local economy) and environmentally (as businesses grow, they will continue to offshore production, which leads to a disconnect of downstream environmental impact). It continues to feed into a plutocratic economic model, instead of a distributed economic model that is so badly needed to reawaken blighted communities.
While Leah Buechley is correct that openness for its own sake is counterproductive, so is an open source movement without ethics and sympathy. I hope that we as a community are able to nurture our own ethics that will help to support us as well as our neighborhoods and cities.