existentialism and free and open-source software: an attempted synthesis

1.0: introduction

Free and open-source software (FOSS) is computer software that allows the user to view the underlying source code, edit the code, and share the code with others. It is ‘open’ in the sense that the source code is metaphorically open and available for all to see. But in what sense is FOSS ‘free’?

In this piece, I examine the ‘free’ in ‘free and open-source software’ and argue that FOSS aligns with the philosophy of existentialism in terms of several key themes. Both focus on the experience of freedom, value the autonomy of the individual, and encourage active choice to exert control. Using free and open-source software allows for existentialist engagement in one’s digital life.

2.0: freedom

Discussions of FOSS tend to refer to political freedom rather than personal freedom. Stallman’s (2002, p. 41) famous idiom uses the example of ‘free speech’ as opposed to ‘free beer’ to illustrate the distinction between free-as-liberty and free-as-lack-of-cost. A central argument used by FOSS advocates argues that software source code has the same status as speech and therefore should be protected as free speech (Salin, 1991; Coleman, 2009). These examples both refer to one specific kind of freedom: the freedom that is enshrined in rights; that is protected (or not) by states. This political sense of freedom can also be called ‘liberty’ and, though it is often treated as such, is not the only sense of the word ‘freedom’.

The distinction between two types of freedom – political freedom and personal freedom – is explained by Isaiah Berlin in his 1958 lecture, ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’. Berlin (1958) distinguished between positive liberty and negative liberty: roughly speaking, ‘freedom to…’ and ‘freedom from…’. Negative liberty (or political freedom) is freedom from constraints. It is being unrestrained by constraining factors or rules imposed by someone or something else usually a state, a corporation, or another individual. For example, if the state will not arrest a person for something that person says, then that person is said to have free speech. The kind of freedom they have in this case is negative liberty.

By contrast, positive liberty (or personal freedom) is the freedom to engage in action of one’s own volition: ‘[t]he freedom which consists in being one’s own master…’ (Berlin, 1958) It can be thought of as self-mastery or the autonomy to exercise one’s will. ‘The ‘positive’ sense of the word ‘liberty’ derives from the wish on the part of the individual to be his own master. I wish my life and decisions to depend on myself, not on external forces of whatever kind. I wish to be the instrument of my own, not of other men’s, acts of will. I wish to be a subject, not an object; to be moved by reasons, by conscious purposes, which are my own, not by causes which affect me, as it were, from outside.’ (Berlin, 1958)

Berlin (1958) notes that classical Western political philosophers tended to refer to negative liberty when they used the word ‘freedom’. Proponents of political philosophies like classical liberalism or libertarianism advocate freedom from constraints – whether imposed by the market or the state or other people. Locke, Mill, Constant, and Tocqueville, as examples, almost quantify the concept of freedom by thinking of it as measurable to the extent that one can count how many constraints one is free from. If one is unrestrained in 1. speech, 2. assembly with others, 3. owning a weapon, then one is free.

FOSS philosophy does refer to negative liberty / political freedom. Free and open-source software is, by definition, free from constraints on reading, editing, or sharing the code. FOSS licenses – such as the GNU General Public License, the Mozilla Public License, or the Apache License – are a way to enshrine these protections from constraints in a legal form to ensure that the state protects this freedom and that the market respects this freedom.

Less commented upon is the extent to which FOSS allows for positive liberty. I will discuss how FOSS philosophy exemplifies this sense of freedom with reference to the 20th century philosophy of existentialism. This requires a brief interlude summarising existentialism and drawing out some of the philosophy’s foundational values.

3.0: existentialism

It would be reductive to say that existentialism is concerned only with freedom in the sense of positive liberty. Existentialism’s conception of freedom is complex, nuanced, and intimately tied to the somewhat-metaphysical philosophy of phenomenology. But existentialist freedom and positive liberty do have similarities: both emphasise ‘freedom to…’; both focus on self-mastery and autonomy; both are primarily concerned with the individual’s experience of freedom. In the introduction to her book on existentialism, Bakewell (2016, p. 33) distinguishes between political freedom and personal freedom making the point that talking about personal freedom should involve talking about existentialism: ‘We find ourselves surveilled and managed to an extraordinary degree, farmed for our personal data, fed consumer goods but discouraged from speaking our minds or doing anything too disruptive in the world, and regularly reminded that racial, sexual, religious and ideological conflict are not closed cases at all. Perhaps we are ready to talk about freedom again — and talking about it politically also means talking about it in our personal lives.’

Existentialism emerged in Europe, primarily France, in the 1930s to 1940s. For a while, the philosophy became very fashionable and, as well as being propounded by philosophers like Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Simone de Beauvoir, was incorporated into the novels and plays of writers like Albert Camus (1), Samuel Beckett, and Tom Stoppard. Existentialism was most fully elaborated by Jean-Paul Sartre in his 1943 work, L’Être et le néant (translated as Being and Nothingness), and best summarised by Sartre in his 1946 lecture, L’existentialisme est un humanisme (usually translated as Existentialism and Humanism). In this lecture, he explained that existentialism is a philosophy of freedom and autonomy; of activity and responsibility; of anguish, abandonment, and despair. And all of this makes it a philosophy of action and hope.

Although not a metaphysical philosophy, existentialism stems from the metaphysical premiss that ‘existence precedes essence’. Sartre (1973) referred to existentialism as ‘an attempt to draw the full conclusions from a consistently atheistic position‘. Before Sartre, Nietzsche (1974, §125) said that ‘God is dead‘. With no god, humans have no predefined essence – no blueprint for ourselves and no guidelines for our behaviour. There is no divine law to determine what humanity should do. There is no authority to tell humanity what to do. We are on our own in the world. We are abandoned. Existentialism draws out the full consequences of this position.

‘What do we mean by saying that existence precedes essence? We mean that man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards.’ (Sartre, 1973) We are therefore free to define ourselves, to act however we choose, and to make our own path through the world. No-one can, in moral terms, decide for us or tell us how to behave. Existentialism can be thought of as an articulation of the alleged final words of Hassan-i Sabbāh (حسن صباح), founder of the medieval Islamic sect, the Hashshashin: ‘Nothing is true—everything is permitted.’ (Bouthoul, 1936) The idea is also found in The Brothers Karamazov when the character Rakitin summarises Ivan Karamazov’s belief that ‘if there’s no immortality of the soul, then there’s no virtue, and everything is lawful.’ (Dostoyevsky, 1997)

‘Everything is indeed permitted if God does not exist, and man is in consequence forlorn, for he cannot find anything to depend upon either within or outside himself. He discovers forthwith, that he is without excuse. For if indeed existence precedes essence, one will never be able to explain one’s action by reference to a given and specific human nature; in other words, there is no determinism – man is free, man is freedom.’ (Sartre, 1973)

Everything is lawful. Everything is permitted. This is an articulation of absolute freedom and autonomy. For existentialism, the absolute freedom of the individual is the starting point. Premised on an atheistic position and the individual’s phenomenological experience of being, it builds a philosophy of freedom and action.

In Sartrean existentialism, freedom causes anguish. Acknowledging absolute freedom means knowing and accepting that every aspect of your life – every choice you make – is yours alone and is your responsibility. With every single decision, you choose the person you want to be. More than that, with every choice you make, you are implicitly deciding what you think every other person would and should do in your position. ‘The existentialist frankly states that man is in anguish. His meaning is as follows: When a man commits himself to anything, fully realising that he is not only choosing what he will be, but is thereby at the same time a legislator deciding for the whole of mankind – in such a moment a man cannot escape from the sense of complete and profound responsibility. There are many, indeed, who show no such anxiety. But we affirm that they are merely disguising their anguish or are in flight from it.’ (Sartre, 1973) As Bakewell (2016, p. 159) summarises, ‘Sartre argues that freedom terrifies us, yet we cannot escape it, because we are it.’

The emotional reactions of abandonment, anguish, and despair are an essential part of being: they are an essential part of the phenomenological experience of being a free individual acknowledging one’s own freedom. Despite the centrality of anguish, abandonment, and despair, existentialism is an optimistic philosophy. The moral emphasis in Sartrean existentialism is on taking action, being in control of your freedom, and accepting responsibility for the impact of your actions upon the world. There are no excuses for your actions: you cannot blame the gods, society, or other people for how you choose to act. Your choices are entirely your own. Sartre (1973) explained this doctrine of action in contrast to ‘quietism of despair’: ‘[q]uietism is the attitude of people who say, “let others do what I cannot do.” The doctrine I am presenting before you is precisely the opposite of this, since it declares that there is no reality except in action. It goes further, indeed, and adds, “Man is nothing else but what he purposes, he exists only in so far as he realises himself, he is therefore nothing else but the sum of his actions, nothing else but what his life is.”’

‘Bad faith’ is the term that Sartre (2003) uses for denying absolute freedom and making excuses for one’s actions. Acting according to some predefined moral code which you did not yourself define is bad faith. Acting as you believe others want you to act rather than how you want to act is bad faith. Pretending that you have no choice in how you act is bad faith.

This isn’t to say that Sartre denies the context of how we are situated within the world. We are to some extent always constrained by our ‘situation’ – our assigned identity at birth; our biological drives and imperatives; our socioeconomic status; the society around us. Sartre refers to these elements as our facticity (den Dulk, 2015). His point is not that we are literally free and unconstrained to do anything: rather, that we should not deny the freedom that we do have, whether through excuses or inaction. We possess personal freedom only within the constraints imposed by political freedom. (2) Perhaps the most important aspect of existentialist values – which can never be constrained by political freedom – is defining the meaning of your own life and choosing to interpret your experience however you choose. “Life is nothing until it is lived; but it is yours to make sense of, and the value of it is nothing else but the sense that you choose.” (Sartre, 1973)

At its heart, existentialism is a philosophy about how to live and act in the world. It emphasises acting upon the world, taking control of life, and embracing autonomy. For the founding existentialists, ‘life’ referred to navigating the physical world. They did not anticipate the extent to which the affluent Westerner now lives partially in a digital world alongside the physical world. ‘Very few existentialists (or anyone else) foresaw the role computer technology would come to play in our lives, although in his 1954 book Existentialism and the Modern Predicament, the German author Friedrich Heinemann warned that the coming “ultra-rapid computing machine” would raise a “truly existential question”, namely that of how human beings could remain free.’ (Bakewell, 2016, p. 333) The digital world is a relatively new phenomenological part of life for modern humans: computation has been established as a ‘ground of being’ alongside biological organism and possessive individualism (Giles, 2007, p. 239). Interactions-with-computers and computer-mediated-interactions-with-other-humans are now part of one’s experience and should be scrutinised by existentialism in the same way as physical human-to-human interactions. How can one be autonomous when so much of the phenomenological experience of the digital world is prescribed by the platforms that sustain it and circumscribe it? How can one exercise control when specific tools are required to access the digital world? How can one be free in the digital world?

4.0: FOSS and existentialism

I argue that free and open-source software is existentialist. FOSS requires and encourages existentialist engagement with the digital world in the same way that action, choice, and authenticity require and encourage existentialist engagement with the physical world. FOSS is therefore a means of exercising freedom in the digital world and, I argue, it is the best means available for existential engagement with digital life.

To clarify, when I say that FOSS is existentialist, I refer to the philosophy and theory behind free and open-source software rather than the software itself. Software is philosophically and ethically inert. It is what people do with it, how people act with it, and how people feel towards it, that has philosophical and ethical weight. To say ‘FOSS is existentialist’ should be understood as equivalent to saying ‘the philosophy that lies behind FOSS – that governs its theoretical underpinnings, its development, its dissemination, and its usage – is an existentialist philosophy’.

The links between FOSS and existentialism are best articulated in terms of the broad themes shared by FOSS philosophy and existentialist philosophy: ‘the existentialists are linked by their commitment to the common themes of freedom, choice, authenticity, alienation, and rebellion’. (Marino, 2004, p. xiv) To this, following den Dulk (2015), I add ‘community’: a particularly important theme in Camus’ moral philosophy and in Sartre’s conception of the self.

4.1: freedom and choice

FOSS philosophy and existentialism share a value foundation. The moral root of both FOSS and existentialism is the supreme moral value of autonomy. FOSS philosophy has it that the software user is not free unless they have complete control over their software: in Doctorow’s (2010) pithy formulation, ‘…if you can’t open it, you don’t own it.’ The freedom to exercise complete control over an object (e.g. a piece of digital software) is a prerequisite for ownership of that object. FOSS source code is open for users to tinker with, break, fix, and build upon. Similarly, existentialism argues that the human is not free unless they accept – and exercise through free choice – their autonomous control over their own existence. The fundamental moral value that drives both FOSS and existentialism is the autonomy and freedom of the individual.

As well as the moral weight that both philosophies give to freedom and choice, the conceptions of those ideas are aligned. FOSS and existentialism both focus on freedom conceived as individual empowerment (positive liberty) rather than mere lack of constraints (traditional liberalism’s negative liberty). Both philosophies emphasise ‘action’ as a key component of freedom and choice. ‘Freedom’ means taking definitive action.

One of the major foundational definitions of free and open-source software is Stallman’s (2002, p. 41) Free Software Definition which outlines four freedoms required for software to be defined as FOSS.

  • Freedom 0: The freedom to run the program as you wish, for any purpose.
  • Freedom 1: The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish. (Access to the source code is a precondition for this.)
  • Freedom 2: The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor.
  • Freedom 3: The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others. 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.)

The four freedoms are framed using the words ‘freedom to…’. Note the similarity with Berlin’s original conception of positive liberty. Words like “study” (freedom 1) and “distribute” (freedom 3) imply action taken under one’s own volition with a view towards self-mastery. Stallman’s definitional freedoms all imply action made under free choice and doing what you want to do with software as an autonomous individual.

The user of FOSS is meant to be empowered in the same way as the person living under existentialist principles. FOSS empowers users by encouraging tinkering and, through open design, guiding users to develop their skills by customising software to their unique specifications. The emphasis on self-improvement through action and autonomy shows that the ‘free’ in FOSS is related to positive liberty and personal freedom.

By contrast, closed-source software represents the relinquishing of autonomy and free choice. Closed-source software – software with ‘closed’ source code which can neither be edited nor shared – traditionally require support relationships with vendors. Since the user is unable to adjust the software themselves, they must rely on the support of the software vendor (or a third-party support organisation) to fix bugs and develop new features. Updates and patches also arrive from the vendor when and if they develop and release them. The closed-source user allows the vendor (or others) to make decisions for them and in so doing gives away their control and their ability to make meaningful choices that can be acted upon. The closed-source user willingly gives away their control and autonomy for the sake of convenience.

Existentialism would have it that the user who cedes control over their life – their digital life – is living in bad faith. Particularly the user who does so because they claim to have ‘no choice’ but to use closed-source software. In Sartre’s (2003, p. 82) explication of bad faith, he uses the example of a waiter who acts like a waiter because he feels it is all he can be. Similarly, the software user who treats closed-source software as the ‘default’, who uses it because they feel they have to do so, is failing to acknowledge their complete freedom. In these examples, the waiter and the closed-source user both deny the anguish, abandonment, and despair of freedom and therefore relinquish the capacity most valued by existentialism and FOSS: their autonomy.

The bad faith of the closed-source user demonstrates by contrast the supreme moral value that FOSS, like existentialism, places on autonomy. FOSS and existentialism are linked by the moral weight they place on autonomy and their conception of freedom as positive freedom.

4.2: authenticity

Both FOSS and existentialism value authenticity of experience. Bakewell (2016, pp. 326-327) discusses how contemporary Westerners’ striving towards authenticity is existentialist in character: ‘existentialist ideas and attitudes have embedded themselves so deeply into modern culture that we hardly think of them as existentialist at all. People (at least in relatively prosperous countries where more urgent needs don’t intervene) talk about anxiety, dishonesty and the fear of commitment. They worry about being in bad faith, even if they don’t use that term. They feel overwhelmed by the excess of consumer choice while also feeling less in control than ever… The unnamed object of desire here is authenticity.’

4.2.1: authenticity in ethics

This yearning for authenticity is existentialist. We desire to exercise our free choice and make sincere decisions rather than wallowing in endless irony, unending self-reflection, and moral relativism. Den Dulk’s (2012) writing on Kierkegaardian existentialist engagement in the literary work of David Foster Wallace and other ‘New Sincerity’ authors articulates this striving towards authenticity and its relationship with existentialism. (3) The ethical attitude expressed in Wallace’s work ‘does not mean simply ignoring the difficulties of contemporary Western existence, such as excessive self-reflection and irony, but living (and writing) with these aspects and finding meaning nonetheless.’ (den Dulk, 2012, p. 342) The idea of finding our own meaning in life through sincere engagement and authenticity is inherently existentialist.

Similarly, FOSS values sincere engagement and authentic moral values. The user of FOSS is encouraged to engage with the software: to figure out how they might want to change it, to upskill themselves to use it effectively and to develop it, and to engage with a user community to actively change the software for the better (more on community engagement in Section 4.3.1). The structure, design, and philosophy of the software all lead the user to real and genuine investment: through self-development via upskilling technical skills and through community connection. Den Dulk (2015, p. 267) argues for a specific kind of literature as ‘aimed at realizing… an engaged consciousness.’ This is also partially the aim of FOSS: to foster engaged consciousness in a human interacting with a computer.

In this way, FOSS also values expression of sincere moral values and ethical engagement. Given the often steep learning curve involved in using FOSS as an alternative to more convenient closed-source software, a primary motivation in using FOSS is often the genuine ethics espoused by the free and open-source software movement. Ease-of-use and user-experience improvement are often not the main reasons that users choose to use FOSS. Rather, it’s the software’s genuine commitment to moral values: openness and honesty; community; (positive) liberty; autonomy. In a culture suffused with irony and fashionable insincerity, FOSS is honest, open, and sincere: its raison d’être is the ethical drive to share information and work with others.

By contrast, closed-source software vendors often appropriate language such as ‘open’, ‘open data’, ‘fully customisable’, and ‘flexible’ for their marketing knowing that these terms will appeal to their customer base. The software however does not and cannot achieve those ideals: the closed nature of the software will always prevent the user from exercising the control necessary for it to be open in a meaningful sense of the word. Watters (2012) calls this ‘openwashing’: ‘having an appearance of open-source and open-licensing for marketing purposes, while continuing proprietary practices.’ The openwashing.org website recommends that ‘[w]hen you see an individual, organization, or company claim that their software is “open,” check to see if their software is licensed under an OSI [Open Source Initiative] approved license. If it is not, they are openwashing.’ Particularly for closed-source software produced by corporate, profit-producing entities, appropriation of ethical language for marketing purposes is cynical exploitation of moral values rather than expression of sincerely held moral values.

4.2.2: authenticity in experience

FOSS also values authenticity in the phenomenological experience of human interaction-with-computers. Computation is irreducibly complex: part of the function of modern computer technology is to hide this complexity from the user through slick graphic user interfaces (GUIs). More so than closed-source software, FOSS offers the opportunity to peek behind GUIs and experience the more complex command-line tools and source code that govern the workings of the computer program.

As a specific example, compare the phenomenological experiences of using a Linux OS against using a Microsoft Windows OS. Whereas a Windows OS can be entirely GUI-based, the new user of a Linux OS finds that it requires use of the command-line terminal and at least some appreciation of the underlying structure of the system architecture. Even a simple command like ‘sudo yum update’ is an extremely direct way of telling the computer precisely what the user wants it to do. The corollary of this authentic directness (and the absolute freedom and control mentioned in Section 4.1) is that the user is free to input, for example, ‘sudo rm -rf /’ which the computer will interpret literally and wipe the entire hard disk without asking for confirmation. A Windows OS, by contrast, deliberately obscures its underlying structure from the user and, when the user does want to change something, usually prompts several ‘Are you sure?’-type pop-up dialogs to babysit the user through the experience. Interaction with the computer is mediated by the GUI and by the inbuilt warnings of the system. The user is held at a remove from command and is not encouraged to think about how the system works. They are thus not encouraged to broaden their skill-set through engagement.

The reduced mediation in the user experience of FOSS and the willingness to reveal the irreducible complexity of computation results in a more authentic experience of interaction-with-computers.

4.3: community and rebellion

4.3.1: community engagement

It is a misconception that existentialism is a nihilistic and narrowly individualistic philosophy. Though the proto-existentialists, such as Nietzsche and Stirner, did emphasise the liberty of the individual and the focus on the self, later existentialists emphasised the importance of engagement with community and with others as an essential component of the phenomenological conception of the self and of exercising existentialist freedom through communal action. Like the later Wittgenstein, Sartre (2003) explicitly rejects solipsistic conceptions of the Ego and argues that the ‘I’ is irrevocably tied to its relations with the world and with other consciousnesses. ‘Existentialism is often seen as a school of thought that directs all its attention to the individual, isolating him. This is a misconception, however, especially with regard to Camus, who emphasizes the importance of community as a means of bringing an end to loneliness and meaninglessness.’ (den Dulk, 2015, p. 17)

An emphasis on community relations is also present in FOSS philosophy. Free and open-source software lives and dies on its community. FOSS projects are community-based by its nature: sharing code, swapping best practices, communicating about new developments and ideas, actively engaging with each other to drive forward large-scale changes in software development. Coleman (2009; 2012) has written extensively on community relationships in FOSS particularly the community about the Linux operating system, Debian. The absence of authoritarian control structures in FOSS means that even the basic user of a piece of open-source software may come to rely on a community. A huge part of using FOSS is appealing to the community for help: whether searching the web for an error message in the software and coming across a Stack Exchange forum conversation about the issue or reaching out to a mailing list to ask for more information on a feature. Every piece of FOSS is built upon a community of developers, volunteers, online forum contributors, and social media users.

Closed-source software, with its emphasis on the individual ‘customer’ and the cold disconnection of the transactional power relations involved in closed-source, is more solipsistic and individual. Rather than interacting with other users to fix problems and develop the software, issues are instead sent up a hierarchy: from the user to the software developer; from the community to the individual (or team of individuals).

FOSS’ engagement with a community – breaking out of the solipsism of the Ego – is existentialist in nature. ‘The sincere self attains substance, meaning (becomes a stable self), by connecting consciousness, through choices and actions, to the world, and thus to others. So, the development of the self is partly a transcending of one’s own consciousness towards the other.’ (den Dulk, 2015, p. 239) Engaging with other people (in this case through software development and use) is key to connecting one’s consciousness with others and therefore living meaningfully and ethically. The community focus of FOSS helps the user exercise focus and awareness of other people and their lives thus forging meaningful links between people in a community of practice.

4.3.2: engagement through rebellion

Community leads to rebellion. The drive towards rebellion is fundamentally existentialist since it involves elements of autonomy, free choice, and community. Rebellion is most prominent as an existentialist theme in the work of Albert Camus. In Camus’ formulation, “because the world lacks the meaning that the individual expects of it, the individual rebels to demand meaning, and in this rebellion becomes aware of his connection to the other.” (den Dulk, 2015, pp. 229-230) Rebellion links to authenticity and the feeling of sincere moral feelings: the act of rebellion emerges as the expression of ‘the sudden, dazzling perception that there is something in man with which he can identify himself… Therefore he is acting in the name of certain values.’ (Camus, 1991, p. 14, 16)

In the spirit of existentialist rebellion, FOSS represents an active choice to rebel against the ‘default’ software used by individuals and organisations. A user of Linux on the desktop makes a choice to break away from the hegemony of Microsoft Windows or Apple’s MacOS. The FOSS user rebels against closed-source models that keep their digital life in chains and traps them in walled gardens and vendor-mandated support relationships. By offering an alternative to for-profit commercial software from corporate organisations, community-driven FOSS rebels against dominant neoliberal paradigms in software and in wider society.

FOSS can also serve as a rebellion against oppression. (4) Open-source technology is particularly used to protect one’s freedom in terms of online security and encrypted storage and communication. ‘In the cryptography world, we consider open source necessary for good security; we have for decades. Public security is always more secure than proprietary security. It’s true for cryptographic algorithms, security protocols, and security source code. For us, open source isn’t just a business model; it’s smart engineering practice.’ (Schneier, 1999) Installing an open-source email client – like Mozilla Thunderbird – at work in place of the IT department’s recommended but inflexible client – usually closed-source Microsoft Outlook – is a minor act of rebellion that serves to assert one’s freedom. But using this email client to enable PGP encryption at work in order to protect communications from the employer or the state is an act of rebellion with political ramifications. Using a bootable Tails OS drive at work or at home to secure all aspects of digital life is an act of rebellion against state and corporate surveillance. This use of FOSS can enable monumental acts of community engagement and political rebellion as in the case of Edward Snowden who used FOSS software like Tails, Tor Browser, and GnuPG to reveal the mass surveillance programs of the US Government and other states. (Finley, 2014)

Using FOSS to encrypt communications and use computers securely allows one to exercise existentialist rebellion against parties that would seek to limit the (negative) freedom of the individual. This proactive protection of digital negative freedoms using FOSS is a way to exercise positive freedom and autonomy.

5.0: conclusion

In this piece I have argued that free and open-source software is fundamentally existentialist. Like existentialism, the philosophy behind FOSS places a high value on personal freedom and autonomy; conceives of freedom as predicated on the idea of action and empowerment; values authenticity in experience of computer interaction and sincerity in engagement with moral values; encourages engagement with a community to produce meaningful interactions and societal change; and provokes rebellion – existential and political – against the neoliberal status quo.

Engagement with the digital is a relatively new phenomenological sphere for humans and how to ‘live’ in a digital world existentially has not been widely considered. As I have argued, FOSS encourages and enables existentialist engagement in digital life. It encourages meaningful connections with software and the community of users and authentic interaction-with-computers. Using FOSS means acknowledging and respecting your own freedom by making an active and autonomous choice to exercise control over computers and hence digital life. The ‘free’ in ‘free and open-source software’ is existentialist freedom.

6.0: endnotes

(1) Though Camus explicitly rejected the ‘existentialist’ label.


(2) This is a good point to distinguish between existentialist values and traditional liberal values. As mentioned in the body of the text, liberalism is a political philosophy focused on political freedom whereas existentialism focuses on the phenomenological (and, arguably, psychological) experience of personal freedom. Classical liberalism has traditionally failed to appreciate Berlin’s distinction and failed to recognise other conceptions of freedom apart from political freedom / negative liberty. The classical liberalism espoused by Mill, Hume, and Rawls among others is focused on a narrow definition of freedom as negative liberty experienced by the affluent white man. Existentialism, by contrast, focuses on personal freedom / positive liberty. However this conception has canonically also been dominated by white men like Sartre, Camus, Merleau-Ponty and later fiction writers like Wallace and Palahniuk. But existentialism has also been used as the basis for diverse theorising of lived experiences other than those of white men: see Beauvoir’s (1988) existentialist conception of women’s experience or Fanon’s (2001) existentialist conception of the colonial native’s experience. It’s also possible to draw a line from existentialist philosophy to Foucauldian poststructuralism and hence to critical theory which emphasises the diversity of lived experience and explicitly sets out to broaden intellectual discourse beyond dominant identities and paradigms.


(3) In his more recent work, den Dulk (2015) refers to ‘sincerity’ rather than ‘authenticity’ and, through a close reading of Sartre, sets out a case for sincerity as the more valid existentialist attitude.


(4) Camus’ conception of rebellion is overtly political whereas existential engagement can be described as a more mild form of rebellion “urging individuals from reflective confinement in the self, towards connection with others.” (den Dulk, 2015, p. 230f) (4a)

(4a) There are interesting parallels between the early existentialists’ affinity for communism and FOSS’ links with left-wing political ideologies from anarchism to socialism. Such an analysis of politics related to existential engagement in FOSS is beyond the scope of this paper.


7.0: references

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