I have recently been reading the work in geography on software/information/geodata, and there is a lot of good stuff there, but one large concern I have is that the work, in general, seems to be quite aloof, or detached, or trying to stay above the fray, to remain non-committal, as though that were the more professional, academic stance to take. All this detachment seems to have produced an upshot that is something like: “with all the new technologies coming into our lives in the past 10 years or so, it is important to think through their implications instead of just adopting them uncritically.” One piece even goes so far as to say that we shouldn’t try to judge if what software does is good or bad, we should just see it as productive, as making things happen, and then try to understand how it works.
While I am all for understanding how it works (technically and socially both), I think that if this is all the literature is willing to do politically (I have certainly not read all of it), then it is failing spectacularly to do what is needed. I think we desperately need to explicitly engage the political/ethical questions that software raises, to discuss extensively what it means for software to be good or bad (again, both technically and socially), and to never cease having that debate. One obvious example of what such engagement looks like is the free software movement, which for years has been joining the political battle by advocating something like a “code commons” and decrying the model of proprietary corporate code. Oddly, the question of free vs. enclosed software rarely comes up in the literature, as far as I can tell.
For my part, I think what “the good” means in this arena is that people produce, distribute, and maintain code themselves, rather than having another entity (most often a large software corporation) do it for them. Within those communities, the code should be common, which is to say it is freely shared (and never enclosed), because it is understood to be necessarily a product of a whole community’s collective intelligence. And lastly, the skills to do this work (producing, distributing, and maintaining the code) should be widely distributed within the community. The work should not fall to (or be hoarded by) a small group of experts.
Of course that is only one position, and it begs other positions and continued debate. But as academics I think we should be waist deep in such debates, rather than hovering above them and declining archly to take sides.