FOSS Mapping as Alternative Media: The Case of OpenStreetMap (Part 3)

Meeting at the Crossroads

Maps are a form of media that display geographic information and spatial data. They are graphic statements that carry a message about the locations they represent and the authors who made them. Maps empower people with geographic knowledge. In the history of empires, nations, and cities, maps have been used in service of war, political administration, conquest, and urban planning. Because maps are related to power, institutions such as governments, armies, and universities have traditionally monopolized their making and distribution. However, recent changes in technology and socio-cultural practices are enabling the democratization of mapping and the circulation of alternative cartographies. OpenStreetMap (OSM) is a free/open source software (FOSS) project that provides a web-based platform for the collaborative creation of a free map of the world; anyone with internet access can read and edit it. Numerous amateur mappers have joined the OSM community and contributed to the project by sharing their knowledge, donating their volunteer work, and creating several ad-hoc mapping initiatives.

OSM’s free map of the world is a form of alternative media because it differs from mainstream cartography in its form of production, its mode of distribution, the quality of its content, and the relationship with its audience/users. Hence, the study of OSM provides a unique opportunity for analyzing the intersection of alternative media approaches and the free and open source software (FOSS) theoretical framework. More exactly, I think that the works of John Downing and Chris Atton, with their respective visions of “radical media,” and “alternative media,” provide an appropriate explanation to FOSS mapping.

First of all, it is necessary to clarify the hybrid quality of FOSS projects. They are monsters composed of two main bodies, the free software idealism and the open source software pragmatism. On the one hand, the free software idealism refers to the political philosophy and ethical principles of Richard Stallman, the computer programmer and physicist that in 1983 started the GNU project and, therefore, originated the Free Software social movement. On the other hand, the open source pragmatism refers to an organizational model of information production that is superior to proprietary software modes of production. Because both, free software idealism and open source pragmatism have been fundamental to the success of several projects such as the Linux/GNU operating system, Wikipedia, and, of course, OSM, it is necessary to recognize and state clearly the hybrid nature of them. Without the political and philosophical roots of free software, these projects would never have been able to use the GNU GPL license and to modify existing source code from previous projects. Without the open source pragmatism, they would have not been able to convince the mainstream world of the advantages of their mode of production and attract thousands of enthusiast individuals to join them.

Free Software as Radical Alternative Media.

Downing’s concept of “radical alternative media” is useful to understand FOSS mapping because it allows us to appreciate the social struggle that characterizes the free software movement. Alternative media becomes radical because it is related to social change. As Downing states, radical alternative media “generally serve two overriding purposes: (a) to express opposition vertically from subordinate quarters directly at the power structure and against its behavior; (b) to build support, solidarity, and networking laterally against policies or even against the very survival of the power structure. In any given instance, both vertical and lateral purposes may be involved.” (xi) The innovative use of copyright law in the GNU GPL license is the clearest example of how free software movement opposes to the power structure of capitalism and the corporate world. Furthermore, having as an objective the creation of a non-proprietary operating system, the GNU project has enabled the creation of a network of activists/developers/hackers that had joined forces and structured the free software movement.

Richard Stallman started the GNU project in 1983 as a reaction to the increasing use and distribution of proprietary and copyrighted software. Stallman intended not only to create a non-proprietary Unix-like operating system composed of hundreds of utility programs, but also to build a community of free users and developers that could share their creativity with the whole society. Inspired by Stallman’s political ideas of freedom, society, and cooperation, the launching of the GNU project was also the beginning of what later became known as the Free Software Movement.

In The GNU Manifesto Stallman claims, “if anything deserves a reward, it is social contribution. Creativity can be a social contribution, but only in so far as society is free to use the results.” (36) Thanks to having grown up in the world of non-copyrighted computer software and to having lived the hacker culture of the Artificial Intelligence Lab at MIT, Stallman easily understood proprietary software as a social problem. The increasing use of copyright in computer programs during the second half of the 1970s became a social problem because it was damaging the customs of sharing of information, cooperation, and creative solving of problems that were at the core of the hacker culture and ethic. It was destroying the principles that hold together the hacker community. Since the users of proprietary programs could not have access to the source code, their creativity to customize and to reuse pieces of code was limited. Furthermore, since giving a copy of proprietary software to someone else turned out to be illegal, they could not cooperate with other users and friends, they could not share. As Stallman states, “when there is a deliberate choice to restrict, the harmful consequences are deliberate destruction.”(The GNU Manifesto, 36).

The radical ideas of freedom, society, and cooperation that inspired the GNU project deserve a closer look because they are the ones that have been consciously removed from the pragmatic rhetoric of open source. Stallman´s idea of freedom is related to the freedom of the software users to run, copy, distribute, share, study, modify and improve computer programs. Hence, “free software” is related to liberty, not to price. The freedom of the users is like the one present in the expression “free speech,” not as the one of the expression “free beer.” In The Free Software Definition Stallman explains how “free software” gives the users four essential freedoms:

“-The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).
-The freedom to study how the program works, and change it to make it do what you wish (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
-The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
-The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others (freedom 3). By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.”(41)

To achieve and guarantee these freedoms, Stallman creates the GNU General Public License (GPL) and the Copyleft method. In this way free software becomes protected from the danger of being transformed into proprietary software. The invention of the GPL license intervenes in how private property and authorship work, giving them a collective and communal turn. As Söderberg points out, “free licenses protect collective efforts of anonymous mass of developers from individual property grabs. Under the GPL, the creator inverts the individualizing force of copyright by denouncing his individual rights and has these returned back to him as a collective right. He enjoys the collective right not to be excluded from a shared body of work.” (20)

According to Stallman, society can become a better one if its citizens cultivate the spirit of cooperation and sharing. As he argues in Why Software Should Not Have Owner, “society needs to encourage the spirit of voluntary cooperation in its citizens. When software owners tell us that helping our neighbors in a natural way is “piracy”, they pollute our society’s civic spirit.” (48) Stallman’s vision of a better society implies a notion of friendship sustained by the practices that “free software” encourages and guarantees. In Free Software: Freedom and Cooperation Stallman explains, “for beings that can think and learn, sharing useful knowledge is a fundamental act of friendship. When these beings use computers, this act of friendship takes the form of sharing software. Friends share with each other. Friends help each other. This is the nature of friendship. And, in fact, this spirit of goodwill -the spirit of helping your neighbor, voluntarily- is society’s most important resource.” (164) Furthermore, a better society will also make information available to its citizens so they can use it as if it were “free software.” As Stallman claimed, “free software is a new mechanism for democracy to operate.” (Free Software: Freedom and Cooperation, 176)

It is not surprising that Richard Stallman’s idealism resembles in many ways the hacker ethic based on free flow of information, free access to computers, and decentralization. As a matter of fact, the GNU project and the emergence of the Free Software Movement can be understood as a commitment to save the practices and customs of the hacker culture in the context of capitalism struggle. The fight against proprietary software is therefore a political struggle.

Open Source (OS) as Alternative Media

Chris Atton has elaborated a theory of alternative media that is not limited to social movements and political resistance projects, but also includes other types of cultural forms that are produced under innovative and participatory relations of production. As he claims, “I propose a model of the alternative media that is as much concerned with how it is organized within its sociocultural context as with its subject matter.” (10) For Atton, even if the content is not politically radical, media can be alternative if the relations of production and distribution rely in participatory and democratic models that empower users/readers/developers. Therefore, the process of making and circulating media ends being as important as the political commitment of its content. The OS side of FOSS mapping, with its emphasis in the practical advantages of the non-propietary mode of production, matches perfectly Atton’s theory. The characterization of OS as a bazaar and as a commons-based peer production illustrates how the OS relations of labor and means of production are different to the ones from market-based and state-based modes of production. OS is more participatory and more democratic.

As a practitioner, ethnographer, and advocate of the OS method, Eric Raymond has compared the organization of OS software projects to a bazaar. According to Raymond, the participants of OS projects create communities that resemble bubbling bazaars of different agendas and approaches. Such communities are structured around a set of cooperative customs, a strong developer/coordinator, and a running and testable source code. These are the initial conditions that will attract many individuals (both professionals and amateurs), to join a OS project as co-developers. As Raymond explains, “When you start community-building, what you need to be able to present is a plausible promise. Your program doesn’t have to work particularly well. It can be crude, buggy, incomplete, and poorly documented. What it must not fail to do is (a) run, and (b) convince potential co-developers that it can be evolved into something really neat in the foreseeable future.”(The Cathedral and The Bazaar)

The bazaar style implies, therefore, a communal and dispersed structure in where thousands of participants/users/co-developers/peers test, debug, and improve the source code of a computer program. Digital networked communication tools such as email, mailing lists, forums, bulletin boards, file repositories, and chats enable the large-scale collaboration among geographically dispersed individuals and facilitate the constant feedback between all the participants. In order to achieve quality, members of the community constantly review the contributions from others, and the project leader finally approves the best of them. The seemingly disorder produced by the feedback from hundreds of contributors acquires order in the OS methodology and ends speeding up the time of testing, debugging and improving the program. As one of the famous aphorisms that Eric Raymond coined in The Cathedral and the Bazaar says, “Given a large enough beta-tester and co-developer base, almost every problem will be characterized quickly and the fix obvious to someone.”

Benkler and Nissembaum, have characterized OS as commons-based peer production, a kind of barn-rising process enabled by the digital networked environment (infrastructure of the Internet) and the ubiquity of computer technology. According to them, “open source software development is an approach to developing software that resembles nothing so much as an idealized barn raising—a collective effort of individuals contributing towards a common goal in a more-or-less informal and loosely structured way.” (395) In Coase’s Penguin, a thorough study of the Linux project, Benkler explains that commons-based peer production “relies on decentralized information gathering and exchange to reduce the uncertainty of participants. It has particular advantages as an information process for identifying and allocating human creativity available to work on information and cultural resources. It depends on very large aggregations of individuals independently scouring their information environment in search of opportunities to be creative in small or large increments. These individuals then self-identify for tasks and perform them for a variety of motivational reasons.”(375-375) Thanks to decentralization, peer production allows participants of OS projects to self identify the best-suited opportunities for action, the tasks that are more appealing to them, instead of listening to the orders of a manager or a bureaucrat. Thanks to diverse social cues or motivations, volunteer peers contribute to the common project without being paid.

As commons-based peer production, the OS methodology differs from the state-based and the commercial market-based systems of production that prevailed during previous developments of capitalism. Hence, it represents a viable alternative to the models of production from the industrial era, and has several practical and social advantages. According to Benkler, “peer production has an advantage over firms and markets because it allows larger groups of individuals to scour larger groups of resources in search of materials, projects, collaborations, and combinations than is possible for firms or individuals who function in markets. Transaction costs associated with property and contract limit the access of people to each other, to resources, and to projects when production is organized on a market or firm model, but not when it is organized on a peer production model.” (Coase’s Penguin, 376-377)

Furthermore, commons-based peer production generates benefits to the society because it creates a context where individuals can become virtuous and contribute to the public good. As Benkler and Nissembaum claim, “commons-based peer production fosters virtue by creating a context or setting that is conducive to virtuous engagement and practice, thereby offering a medium for inducing virtue itself in its participants.” (403) By participating in OS projects, peers develop and practice several virtues such as autonomy, independence, creativity, productivity, benevolence, charity, generosity, altruism, camaraderie, friendship, and cooperation. Besides that, “commons-based peer production generates new modes of contributing to the public good by facilitating the collaborative engagement of thousands of ordinary individuals in the voluntary, creative, communal, regular, non-commercial production of intellectual and cultural goods, for a wide variety of reasons and motives. (Benkler and Nissembaum, 417)


Atton, Chris. Alternative Media. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications. 2002.

Benkler, Yokai, and Nissenbaum, Helen. Commons-Based Peer Production and Virtue, 14(4) J.Political Philosophy 394-419. 2006.

Benkler, Yokai. Coase’s Penguin,or Linux and the Nature of the Firm, 112 Yale Law Journal 369. 2002.

Benkler, Yokai. Commons-Based Peer Production and Virtue, 14(4) J.
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Benkler, Yokai. The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom. Yale Press. 2006.

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