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Towards a Catholic technology

September 8, 2011

This article in The Economist, titled “What would Jesus hack?”, raises some interesting questions about how much Catholic theology is consistent with an open source ethos. Unfortunately it’s rather a jumbled article, containing a number of misunderstandings and failing to distinguish between the two different arguments being made from a Catholic perspective in favor of open source software.

The first has to do with wonder:

“THE kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these,” Jesus said of little children. But computer hackers might give the kids some competition, according to Antonio Spadaro, an Italian Jesuit priest. In an article published earlier this year in La Civiltà Cattolica, a fortnightly magazine backed by the Vatican, entitled “Hacker ethics and Christian vision”, he did not merely praise hackers, but held up their approach to life as in some ways divine. Mr Spadaro argued that hacking is a form of participation in God’s work of creation.

As I understand it, this is the basic argument: (1) Our approach to technology ought to have at its heart wonder at God’s creation and a desire to help our fellow man. (2) Creating technology, when done well (i.e. starting with this sense), can help us to understand God’s creation and elevate us to the role of sub-creator. (3) Creating technology, when done badly (i.e. without this sense of wonder), can blind us to God’s creation and make us the slaves of our technology even as we attempt to use it to become masters of creation. (4) The “hacker ethos,” which particularly manifests itself in FLOSSware, has at its heart this wonder, and is thus superior to the commercialized, closed-source, approach to technology prevalent in 21st-century America.

I’d say (1)-(3) ought not to be at all controversial for any tradition-loving Catholic, apart perhaps from sounding overly idealistic. In fact, the way I phrased them was largely inspired by the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien, a traditionalist who opposed pointless technological progress primarily because he recognized it as ugly. The main question, though, is whether (4) is also true; whether the “hacker ethos” actually promotes this understanding, or only appears to do so to someone who does not really understand it. I’d say that it does, and self-evidently so. It is not the only reason hackers do what they do, but it is one reason.

The second has to do with Catholic economic principles:

Mr Spadaro says he became interested in the subject when he noticed that hackers and students of hacker culture used “the language of theological value” when writing about creativity and coding, so he decided to examine the idea more deeply. The hacker ethic forged on America’s west coast in the 1970s and 1980s was playful, open to sharing, and ready to challenge models of proprietary control, competition and even private property. Hackers were the origin of the “open source” movement which creates and distributes software that is free in two senses: it costs nothing and its underlying code can be modified by anyone to fit their needs. “In a world devoted to the logic of profit,” wrote Mr Spadaro, hackers and Christians have “much to give each other” as they promote a more positive vision of work, sharing and creativity.

He is not the only person to see an affinity between the open-source hacker ethos and Christianity. Catholic open-source advocates have founded a group called Elèutheros to encourage the church to endorse such software. Its manifesto refers to “strong ideal affinities between Christianity, the philosophy of free software, and the adoption of open formats and protocols”. Marco Fioretti, co-founder of the group, says open-source software teaches the “practical dimension of community and service to others that is already in the church message”. There are also legal motivations. Commercial software such as Microsoft Word is widely pirated in many parts of the world, by Catholics as well as others. Mr Fioretti advocates the use of open-source software instead, because he doesn’t want people “to violate a law without any real reason, just to open a church document”.

(Here’s a link to the Elèutheros manifesto.)

It’s interesting that apart from the standard non-theological arguments (which I don’t want to get into now), they’re basing what they say in the same Catholic economic principles that, for example, the distributists use to argue against both capitalism and communism. One of the most important of those is that man cannot be reduced to his economic situation, and that moral imperatives are not coextensive with legal and economic imperatives.

But of course some people fail to see how these two arguments fit together:

There’s only one negative voice in the Economist piece, that of Eric S. Raymond (ESR–I read his blog, though I’m sure he doesn’t read mine):

Not everyone agrees. Eric Raymond, author of a classic essay on open-source software, “The Cathedral and the Bazaar”, finds it hard to believe that some Christians want to canonise the hacker mindset. After being quoted in Mr Spadaro’s paper, Mr Raymond took to his own website to note that he had deliberately equated cathedrals with proprietary, closed-source software directed from above, by contrast with the more chaotic bazaar of equals which produces open-source code. “Cathedrals—vertical, centralising religious edifices imbued with a tradition of authoritarianism and ‘revealed truth’—are the polar opposite of the healthy, sceptical, anti-authoritarian nous at the heart of the hacker culture,” Mr Raymond declared. As for Mr Spadaro’s ideas, they possessed a “special, almost unique looniness”.

Unfortunately the Economist piece doesn’t quote ESR’s reasons for saying hackers are not moral in the Christian sense, instead giving us his reasons for saying Christians are not moral in the hacker sense. But here’s the post he made to which the article refers. In it, ESR self-describes as an anarcho-capitalist, doesn’t much appreciate being described as a quasi-Communist, and thinks other hackers would largely agree. About that he’s probably right. But he’s not being described as a Communist or collectivist; he’s being described as a Christian distributist. The problem is, he mixes up the first argument, which has to do with the individual’s moral status, with the second, which has to do with the societal rules governing economic activity. In other words, he doesn’t realize that when Spadaro says hackers (and engineers more generally) challenge “the logic of profit,” that doesn’t mean they want to abolish profit, or even that they never profit from their work (they usually do); it means they don’t see profit as the be-all and end-all of their activity, that they have a moral existence which is more important to them than their economic existence.

What’s my point?:

Ultimately, I agree that the open source ethos is more compatible with Catholicism than that of closed source commercial software production, on a societal and individual level, and I want to encourage people to adopt it.

But perhaps more importantly, I think that the open source ethos (and aspects of the engineering ethos in general) points towards how we can create technology without bringing about Mordor. We have to start by keeping alive that moral sense, not allowing ourselves to become merely economic creatures. Unfortunately, doing that all too often brings about a desire to reject technology altogether, an absurd Romantic impulse which one finds (perhaps never stated explicitly) in otherwise intelligent Catholics like Tolkien and Pieper. To counter that, we need to recognize that technology isn’t always created out of a desire to control others; it’s also created out of a sense of wonder and a desire to help others. We can’t reject technology per se; we need to evaluate each individual technology to see whether it does in fact improve our material condition and to see whether it does in fact add to our appreciation for the wonder of creation.

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