3 Ways that Open Source Can Radically Transform the Arts

Posted by Vijay Mathew, May 16, 2014 2 comments

Open sourcing—otherwise known as “commons-based peer production”—is a model for the production of cultural and material products and activity. It is most well known outside of the arts as a successful collaborative model for producing software since the advent of the web more than twenty years ago. The goods that result from an open source endeavor belong to “a commons” and are accessible to all.

A key characteristic of an open source product is that it cannot be privatized. Privatization defines value through artificially induced scarcity and then derives money from barriers to access. Value in an open source project, however, is defined by how successful the needs of a community are being met and by the project’s ability to enable continuous innovation and evolution due to its openness and accessibility. Open sourcing is a civic good and a process for re-organizing communities and social dynamics. In many economic and cultural contexts in which we inhabit, open sourcing is counter-cultural. In terms of its value system and world-view, it’s a perfect match for what many people feel the not-for-profit sector should aspire to.

Creative, intellectual, cultural commons are constructed by people in a community with a collective vision for solving some problem or addressing some pressing need for that community. In the online world, commons emerge through a process driven by democratic “peer production” enabled by the Internet and digital tools that widely distributes the capacity for individuals to become knowledge and/or cultural producers.

At HowlRound were I work, we co-develop and steward online communication platforms and in-person gatherings to promote the development of knowledge commons for the theater. All of our platforms have adapted the open source or commons-based peer production model and the results of experimenting in this new model have been astonishing for us.

Here’s a summary of what are the most transformative outcomes of open sourcing or commons-based peer production as it relates to HowlRound’s community of artists and cultural practitioners who co-create and share knowledge and practice:

Open sourcing is:

1) Efficient: It produces a huge amount of knowledge and information with limited administrative resources. It’s wildly efficient in terms of the ratio of inputs to outputs.

2) Galvanizing: It transforms contributors into stakeholders of a community's advancement and common benefit. The idea and feeling of ownership is redefined and energizes the community of contributors to care for the collective work.

3) Revelatory: It breaks down monocultures, old social hierarchies, and enables a diversity of previous unseen contributions, perspectives, and narratives to emerge and take root. It’s democratic at its core. It makes the previously invisible visible.

As administrators of several open source projects, we have the opportunity to constantly learn how to be stewards, facilitators, and infrastructure developers for a commons and a community of peer producers. The well-known and well-worn 20th century model of curation and gatekeeping is obsolete in commons-based peer production. The community sets the agenda. The community is the primary beneficiary and owns the work. And the gatekeepers of a previous generation have been replaced by facilitators and stewards.

2 responses for 3 Ways that Open Source Can Radically Transform the Arts


May 21, 2014 at 1:53 pm

Thanks Zhivko. Yes, unintentionally creating barriers to useful information, knowledge, experience, and other vital resources for a community is an important point. We often times do this out of habit from an older time when people had less potential power to be "peer producers", or we do it because it's the institutional context and system in which we currently operate in. In our field, it would be difficult to find practitioners who actually don't value more access and more availability of resources for more people. But something gets in the way...

What I'm more and more convinced of is that the —design— of our institutions, organizations, our not-for-profit field, our infrastructures trump an individual's good intentions most of the time. Our challenge is not individual people and their values, it's how our contexts shape our behaviors. The —design— of our projects, organizations, and initiatives have to enable and generate specific behaviors. The design needs to embody and express the values we are seeking to uphold.

To give you a generic example of this dynamic: most people reading this blog are probably very concerned by human-made climate change and they may do everything in their power to make ethical choices regarding their individual lifestyle. However, the current design of our economy, culture, society—our life basically—make it nearly impossible to have any immediate and real impact on this local and global issue. Our good intentions are nearly powerless to the design of our life supporting infrastructures.

Our challenge is figure out how to retrofit a design onto our existing contexts and/or create new models entirely. And these designs needs to enable specific behaviors regardless of people's personal motivations and intentions.

  • Please login to post comments.
May 20, 2014 at 2:17 pm

Such a powerful ending to this piece!

I agree with everything you say, Vijay. Sometimes people don't even realize they are creating barriers to access of information. How much useful information is buried under e-mail chains? How many in-person meetings go by undocumented? At the same time, people in field have to be willing to contribute to these conversations in order to move them forward.

I would love to see the open-source model replicated on a local level and towards different issues.

  • Please login to post comments.