On working with instead of on

I read an account of an event I attend recently that gave me pause.  In it, the author argued that he had observed a gathering where technology formed the only basis for the interactions in the sessions, and that those in attendance were all of a kind, without diversity, and, on the whole, not interested in people, society, history, etc.  This assessment was leveled against a community in which I find myself deeply situated, and as such I wanted to reflect on my own position within such a crowd.

We are told that open source is about "scratching an itch," creating software to solve personal problems, and the culture the surrounds such an enterprise.  This is true, in my experience; however, it is not my experience.  Where open source is most often taken to mean source code, I have been primarily interested in what is meant by open, whether that be open education, open source, or open data.  For me, and I speak intentionally as an individual among a much larger crowd, open is about people more than technology.

Where some people choose software projects in order to solve problems, I have taken to choosing projects that allow me to work with various people.  I have given up the comfort of being an expert , and replaced it with a desire to be alongside my friends, or those with whom I would like to be friends, no matter where I find them.  My history among this crowd begins with friendships, many of which continue to this day.  I love almost none of the technology I use, and view it as a means to an end: working on things, for me, is about working with people.

This way of working, where collegiality subsumes technology or tools, is central to my personal and professional work.  Even looking back over the past two years, most of the work I've done is influenced by a deep desire to work with rather than on.  I need almost none of the software I build, I have no itch to scratch.  In order to be effective, working with requires that I be attentive to the other more than to the thing we do together.  Working with demands that I recast myself in the shape of the other, and vice versa, that I be willing to change, that I love and allow myself to be loved.  I cannot succeed if my gaze is only on the thing, especially if this thing is allowed to come between us.

In the context of working with, technology once again becomes the craft I both teach and am taught, it is what we share with one another, the occasion for our time together, the introduction, but not the reason, for our friendship.

And it can be difficult to observe what I am describing, for it will always show up as something much more mundane to those not working this way.  To watch us work, it will seem that we only build things, that we talk only of certain things.  It is possible for someone to work on something together with others who are working with each other.  But it is not the same thing.  It is not what we do.  Looking only at the thing we build together, it is easy to miss what happens around it, and who is there.

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