Open Source: The New, New Economy

The first company to have assets topping five hundred million dollars is currently wiping off its face an embarrassing slosh of egg, appropriately dinosaur-sized. Microsoft has enlisted the aid of the FBI to discover who hacked its internal network, purloining the dark secrets (the ‘source code’) of some of its market-dominating programs — precisely which, it has as yet not named.

Industrial espionage? A youthful prank? Or perhaps another blow by the community of open-source hackers, who incline to the view that the expensive, bug-ridden, bloated programs issuing from the big software houses (Microsoft above all) should be swept away in favour of ones that are neatly designed, break down less often and are distributed for free. (Not that the industry would worry about this utopian dream, if only some open-source programs had not already succeeded in realising it.)

No matter who did it, the we-hacked-Microsoft exploit is just a storm in a teacup, if we put it alongside another development that may be like that biblical cloud rising from the sea as small as a man’s hand. The storm this cloud may or may not presage would threaten not just one firm, one industry or even one particular economic setup. Its implicit target is the whole concept that a human need should be satisfied only if the one in need has something valuable to offer in return, like money. What it puts into question, in other words, is any system based on commodity exchange.

Of course, there has already been a partial switch to the gift economy by many in the open-source community of programmers. If you have something of worth to contribute in a particular project, you offer it, not for money, but on other motivations — seeking recognition or prestige, perhaps. (See ‘On Open-Source Software’, Arena Magazine no. 45) And long before, computers, scientific and humanities researchers were offering their findings to the world as free gifts, not as commodities.

But what is now notable are the new fields to which this principle is spreading, and why. For instance, if you want advice on a document you’re preparing for a legal case, don’t confine yourself to the small range of talent your colleagues may possess. Put it on the Net and benefit from the cost-free scrutiny of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of assorted legal eagles.

Open Law’ has been started by Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard law professor. Its debut was with a challenge to the United States Copyright Term Extension Act: Eldred, a publisher, versus the US Attorney General. The current cases include the anti-Microsoft action, with which Lessig, an activist well-known for his expertise in law relating to the Internet, is associated.

The site declares its goals thus:

Openlaw is an experiment in crafting legal argument in an open forum. With your assistance, we will develop arguments, draft pleadings, and edit briefs in public, online. Non-lawyers and lawyers alike are invited to join the process by adding thoughts to the ‘brainstorm’ outlines, drafting and commenting on drafts in progress, and suggesting reference sources. Building on the model of open source software, we are working from the hypothesis that an open development process best harnesses the distributed resources of the Internet community. By using the Internet, we hope to enable the public interest to speak as loudly as the interests of corporations. Openlaw is therefore a large project built through the coordinated effort of many small (and not so small) contributions.

Jason Schultz, a student working in the project, appreciates its contrast with the usual adversarial atmosphere, which is ‘a high-noon situation … you go into the courtroom, blast away and only one side is left standing’. Lessig himself sees the idea as turning on its head the traditionally adversarial and secretive world of the legal system.

Writing a paper for some journal, an article for a magazine, or even a class assignment? If you have qualified friends who’ll read it, you might get some useful suggestions from a couple of them, perhaps even three. But there are scores of qualified critics and advisors waiting out there in cyberspace to help you, gratis … so you put the paper on line. Any reader can suggest amendments, which at a click will pop up in the relevant part of the text. This is the idea behind the Interactive Paper Project.

[It] offers a growing number of research papers and similar resources centered around education and technology. It provides a simple framework to allow you to create and offer your own interactive papers on your own Internet-connected computer … Interactive Papers support intellectual collaboration across the web by allowing readers to make comments and ask questions to the author and fellow readers. … The IPP concept is based on traditional printed ‘white paper’ drafts which authors circulate among colleagues to solicit revision ideas.

‘We see this as a way of opening up the writing process,’ says James Buell, one of the project’s creators: ‘A process like this doesn’t clearly need an intermediary like an editor. It’s an interaction between author and reader directly. Thus it raises questions about the role of these intermediaries [who guide] readers through the mass of work available.’

But doesn’t this allow the unscrupulous to steal your material from the Net and publish it, perhaps under your name, perhaps under their own? Another venture, the OpenContent site, is tackling this problem along lines suggested by the licencing arrangements of open-source programming. Its Open Publication Licence (OPL) allows reproduction, but only with full credit to the author and full revelation of any changes made. This still leaves difficulties, associated for example with speed in the commercial publication of marketable material, that are not yet fully resolved to everyone’s satisfaction. But the intention of the OPL is to facilitate the open process, and the problems do not seem insurmountable in principle.

The basic idea, as explained by its founder David Wiley, is to tap the powers of peer review and of works derived from the original draft. The sum total of knowledge and understanding available to humanity will be amplified by these processes and encouraged by an OPL imprimatur, which he would like to see adopted by academic journals in general.

Just how these aids to creativity work is itself the subject of academic research. The University of Michigan’s School of Information is looking at the communication patterns displayed by the widely scattered volunteers who built Linux, the open-source alternative operating system that competes with Windows. The survey seeks to learn who the contributors are, why they do it and how they go about it.

The example of collaborative work set by the open-source world is now spreading, even if usually in a pilot stage. It may be time to stop and ask what it all means, but first it is better to recognise what it does not mean.

It is certainly not a conscious effort to eliminate commodity exchange, save perhaps on the part of a radical minority. On the contrary, one can find the participants arguing forcefully why some commercial secrets (‘protocols’ hidden in Microsoft’s source code, for instance) should be converted into commodities available for purchase, and why the consumer’s (effective) demand should be a primary consideration.

Nor is it generally impelled by any principled aversion to private profit or the entrepreneur. ‘How do you allow companies to make profits and allow electronic distribution and modification so that the full peer-review process can operate? The Open Publications License allows you to do that’, according to the noted open-source figure Eric Raymond, who helped to devise the OPL. While clearly recognising that offering open-source programs is a process that belongs to the gift culture (in which ‘social status is determined not by what you control but by what you give away’), he is also an enthusiastic member of the far-right US Libertarian Party.

Nevertheless, for the present fabric of production and labour organisation, the open-source process is like an anomalous stain which, as we have seen, has started to seep out into widely different areas. All are based on a common set of assumptions which can be summarised in the following terms:

• Workers qualified in a certain field will get better results if they join their talents together in an open process of mutual improvement; if they collaborate rather than compete.

• The fruit of their efforts should be available to all, with no barter deal required and certainly no exchange of money.

• They can act autonomously, without needing any external authority or accepted control.

(This last feature brings to mind the conservative Spectator’s criticism of the Rochdale co-operative experiments, that ‘they did not leave a clear place for masters’. We might add Marx’s comment: Quelle horreur!)

These assumptions are so deeply rooted in the participants’ minds that it is well nigh impossible to find any discussion of them. Just how monstrously discrepant they appear in the present social fabric emerges clearly if we review some of the knotty questions that do (and must) get discussed.

Who gets the credit, when the work reaches the outside world? Everyone who has contributed to it? The creator of the first draft? A collective body?

How is the collaborative effort to be organised? When should a proposed amendment be formally accepted as an integral part of the eventual product?

This last set of queries raises important issues which, in practice, have been resolved in several vastly different ways for the paradigm case of open-source programs, where the bulk of the experience is to be found. In the case of the free operating system Linux, the jewel in the open-source crown, final decisions were made by a single person — Linus Torvalds. The millions of lines of code it involved were held to a consistent standard, and deviations that could have led to major variants avoided, by submitting to his authority. It appears to have been genuine authority, based on respect won by his achievements and ability, as opposed to the hollow ‘power’ attaching to an office or title.

But it is not often that such a figure is available, and certainly no system of work organisation should risk the gamble that one will emerge. How, then, to structure it?

Again in the open-source field, different arrangements have been arrived at. One extreme has been thus described by Rachel Chalmers, an Australian writing in

You can assemble a strict hierarchy with ‘God’ at the top, authorizing the priests beneath him, who oversee the commoners beneath them in their turn. This is what VeriSign, the largest commercial encryption security company, has done.

This is obviously the near-inevitable corporation style, leaving the internal Microsoft report on open-source code to mourn: ‘The ability of the OSS process to collect and harness the collective IQ of thousands of individuals across the Internet is amazing.’

Other projects (like for instance, with its limited-tenure reviewers) have adopted less hierarchical structures. But the most interesting variant is probably ‘Advogato’, built by Raph Levien, a UC-Berkeley computer scientist, as part of his PhD research into creating ‘webs of trust’. He says, ‘Basically, you put in a bunch of certificates of the form “I, person A, vouch for the fact that person B is a member of this group …” ’ Chalmers expands on this:

People rate one another … Advogato has three elements: certificates — apprentice, journeyer, master — that measure your status in the community and that are awarded by members to other members … Advogato is an experiment in the alternative, peer-to-peer model … In other words, to qualify as a master on Advogato requires that the community of your peers agree that you’re a hotshot. … What’s revolutionary about Advogato’s model is that like the Net itself — and unlike VeriSign’s top-down bureaucracy — it’s self-organizing, self-repairing and therefore hard to corrupt or otherwise compromise. ‘In all previous systems, once you get a certain number of wrong certificates, the whole thing falls apart,’ says Levien. In Advogato, at least in theory, the system should continue to function even if abuse is widespread.

A crucial feature is that the details of someone’s certification are instantly available; if you want some data to help you evaluate Jane Doe’s work, a simple click will bring up the details, not only of her status, but of who proposed that she deserved it. This is probably the feature that Chalmers describes as achieving self-repair. On a history site, for example, you may be surprised to find egregious dating blunders in a contribution by ‘master’ John Doe; clicking, you quickly learn that he is ‘certified’ by three other people whom he has likewise certified. You are not likely to pay much attention to any of them again.

To appreciate what these trends to collaborative work amount to, while keeping them in some perspective, it is useful to recall how we are told ad nauseam that we are living in ‘the Information Society’.

This phrase has a strong content of myth. Any process has, of course, an aspect that can be treated as an exchange of information, just as it can be treated as an exchange of energy. But usually, the specific character of that process is rarely known to a significant extent when either of these aspects have been formalised, let alone understood in its impact on humanity.

In production — for one important example — the great majority of people in modern society are not engaged in simply shuttling pieces of information from one place to another. It is true that a process worker needs the information about which nut to turn, and a McDonalds assistant requires the bit that decides on French fries or not. But it is only for a small minority that information flow could be termed a quintessential feature of the work experience.

Other forms of social experience can readily be cited. When people are physically present to each other, for instance, their interaction can be described only to a paltry extent by using the resources of information theory. (Studies have shown how true this is even when we confine ourselves to analysing their purely verbal exchanges.)

These truisms are offered simply to highlight the great range of social interaction that still falls well outside any concept of ‘information society’ or the like. What are of course unmistakable are the features of ‘postmodern’ society emphasised particularly by Geoff Sharp, such as the reduction of physical presence and the greatly expanded role of the intellectually trained and their associated modes of ‘impersonal’ communication. It is probably the weight of these features that, in broad social sectors, goes to lend plausibility to an analysis in terms of information theory. But for all the often repugnant impact of these developments, it is evident there are vast terrains of phenomena not yet converted into component parts of ‘the Information Society’.

It can be plausibly asserted, then, that we have so far taken only the first few steps on the path to what is so often termed the ‘information society’. It is quite another question, of crucial importance but not within the purview of this article, whether this may actually be a path leading to unprecedented cultural crisis and social breakdown, and whether the widespread resistance already manifest can force a change of direction.

Here we need note only the preliminary nature of the stages accomplished so far, and the phenomena described above which have already emerged. These phenomena — the first gropings towards collaborative labour, the rejection of commodity exchange, the experiments with non-hierarchical organisation and the total independence from the corporation structure — have appeared among precisely those strata, the intellectually trained, whose numbers and social weight must inevitably increase if the present path is pursued.

If these examples multiply, strengthen and are generalised, the world of the corporations and the managers is indeed producing its own gravediggers. We would have to say that neo-liberalism’s bold experiment failed. It aimed to convert society into a simple aggregate of individuals, motivated only by the desire for commodities and bound only by their common subordination to the anonymous market. But in the process it cut through, along with all other bonds, those attaching workers to ‘their’ firm, ‘their’ corporation, and left them free to form new associations based on their professional interests and pride. But will the fire spread, or are we looking at a flame doomed to flicker out after a promising start?

This is not a question to be settled by speculating on the relative strengths of various ‘inevitable forces’ in our current history. There are no inevitabilities here. At the very least, we can say that the kind of self-organisation appearing in these initial efforts has gained an approving echo among a variety of intellectual workers. Academics in particular, at least those wanting to see a changed world, might be interested in these signals. They might consider how they themselves can intervene and aid in the building of such new structures, whether on the Internet or otherwise.

Alan Roberts is Vice-President of the Association for the Public University

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