Archive for the ‘ Free Software ’ Category

What Brazil can teach Scotland about GCHQ

Originally published at the Centre for Technology and Society.

There were two major developments in the unfolding dragnet surveillance scandal today. The first, widely reported and closely followed in Britain, was the first ever public questioning of security officials by Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee. As it turned out, only a small segment of the hearing was given over to surveillance, and with the exception of chair Malcolm Rifkind, the committee members were not inclined to ask probing questions.

Less reported, but of far greater significance, was the announcement by the Brazilian government that from now on they will require all government-purchased software to be auditable and hosted in-country. The present situation is that most software is produced in America, most of that software cannot be independently audited, and that any of that software could contain secret back doors giving the NSA unfettered access to privileged government and commercial information.

The Brazilian government has realised that this situation is untenable. According to British trade publication The Register, from now on:

  • Government data must be carried by a government organisation or an organisation in which the government is a shareholder, other than for mobile communications
  • The government will create and operate its own email services
  • Facilities enabling audit of confidentiality, authenticity and integrity of the email system must be built in from the start
  • Data must be stored in government facilities in Brazil
  • Normal procurement practices are suspended in order to get this done without having to seek competitive bids.

This has major implications for how an independent Scotland should conduct its IT policy. If the native industries of small countries are to compete on a level playing field with those of large countries, governments must take action to protect their citizens from surveillance. Estonia’s status as the exemplar nation for coping with cyber-attacks shows that small size is no obstacle to effective policy-making.

The Scottish government, and indeed all other non-American governments, would be well-advised to amend public procurement policies to favour publicly auditable open source software. As few states have the resources and expertise necessary to conduct full private audits of enormous and complicated American software such as Microsoft Windows, public auditability is the only cost-effective and realistic solution.

This change to government procurement should be coupled to a degree of public provision – Brazil intends to offer secure email through its postal service – and to a shift in thinking at Scottish Enterprise to favour open source solutions and business models. Together, these measures would create a market for software that can be publicly verified as secure.


the Telekommunist Party?

Originally published on my tumblr.

Recently Dmytri Kleiner, author of the Telekommunist Manifesto, raised the question of the party in relation to hacker-communism:

Who wants to be a Telekommunist?

What would being a Telekommunist mean to you? What would make you feel like and identify as a Telekommunist? What would make you embrace and promote Telekommunism? What would you like to do on behalf of Telekommunism?

This is a hard problem; one of the core challenges for socialist organisation. Various solutions have been attempted to the problem, most famously Leninist vanguardism, but also including the anarchist Especifismo school of thought and others.

The problem is that we know that mass movements are formed around struggle – most enduringly, the Trade Union movement – but also know that they always risk capture by the ruling class. Therefore we believe that it is vital that mass movements are guided by solid political-economic theory, that they are connected to the history of the working class, and that they carry forward the dream of a fairer, freer society.

In recent years Marxist hackers have begun to apply a materialist analysis to developments in information technology. A lack of economic knowledge in hackerdom has set us back some way; Kleiner’s observation that capitalism requires centralised web services is a brilliant bit of thinking, but if the hacker community was more used to thinking of economics as a power game then such thoughts would be common currency and Facebook would not have been such a horrible surprise.

So there is a clear need for Marxist hackers to band together in order to educate, agitate and organise our fellow geeks. Too often the hacker movement falls into thinking that technology alone can transform society, and is caught out of position when bricks-and-mortar politics intervenes.

The hacker movement is in many ways a classic mass movement founded on struggle. There is a difference of economic interest between technology workers (especially those who love to build and tinker) and the owners of technology companies. From that contradiction emerged not only a movement, but an entire subculture. As such, the usual questions around Communist parties apply here.

Leninist vanguardism would be very unpopular, and is inappropriate to the age we are in. Gramscian cultural hegemony is a far stronger model. In this model, Telekommunists would focus on education, agitation, and working with and within the institutions of hackerdom. The first tactical steps would be the formation of multiple think tank style groups to signal boost the agreed messages.

The word “communist” is problematic, because while on the one hand it links us to a vital tradition of thought, it is also completely off-putting to all the people who (quite reasonably) understand it to mean Stalinism. “Telekommunisten” is a pun on the old East German telephone company. Amusing as that may be, it doesn’t translate at all to English and has proved a barrier to adoption; even my Communist friends have been skeptical of reading the Manifesto on account of its odd name.

This article is more of a question than an answer itself; I look forward to the discussion ahead.

Dreaming a New Freedom

Originally posted on my tumblr.

Capitalism is in crisis… again. There is a glaring need for alternative visions of society, but few are being presented, and none taken seriously. The old alternative, the communist dream of a free and equal society, has been in a terminal crisis of its own for decades. Humanity desperately needs new dreams of freedom.

It was not so much Stalin’s terror that stripped communism of its utopian aura as it was the bureaucratic mediocrity of socialist life: the closed society, the out-of-date planned fashions, the state-mandated art forms. While Socialism in the East collapsed in economic failure and military defeat, the communist dream in Britain simply deflated.

Thatcher offered a home of your own and an entrepreneurial spirit. Socialists in Britain offered boring, restrictive central planning. They missed a sociological shift towards a new individualism, an increased desire to express one’s unique nature, especially through consumption. Where they recognised it, they could only see it as a threat to the principle of solidarity amongst the working class, the commodification of identity itself.

Socialism seems an ideology designed for a different people, living in a different material environment. Workers’ councils represent some of the highest points of human liberty, and will doubtless play an important role in any future free society. But we are in an era of individualism, in a country where there are few large manufacturing plants, at a time when decentralised just-in-time production is on the rise. Workers’ councils are not the answer to the immediate needs and desires of the people of Britain.

Capitalism as a system it is not necessarily oppressive, in that like Adam Smith we can imagine a market of small shop-owners and producers trading with relative freedom and equality. However we have seen from two centuries of actually existing capitalism that its reliance on ever-expanding pools of financial capital creates huge inequalities of wealth and power.

We could say that Capitalism tends towards inequality, and provides fertile ground for exploitation. Starting a successful business is out of the reach of most people, as seed funding usually comes from a bank loan or wealthy individuals. Most of us have to give over eight hours each day someone else’s plans. We produce for them, to their design and to their schedule, or we lose our homes.

What we need is a system that tends towards equality, and provides fertile ground for free association. It can’t be something we invent around a conference table or in long theoretical treatises – it has to be based on tendencies existing in the world around us, on the latest economic developments, on the everyday experience of the people.

The leading edge of production today is the information revolution. 20th century socialists saw huge centralised factories and the state intervention they required to stay afloat, and created central planning. We should look to the information economy and just-in-time manufacturing, and imagine a decentralised, unplanned future.

Much of the world’s best computer software is already created and owned in common. This software is called Free Software – free as in freedom, “free speech not free beer”. Free software is the result of class struggle between technology workers and technology employers – IBM, Microsoft, Apple, Google, Facebook. Technology workers, like a kind of cyberspace Jewish Bund, have created a true counter-culture, one that produces a large amount of value and distributes it without exchange.

This has been possible because once you own a computer, both information goods and information capital can be copied infinitely at near-zero cost. The workers have no need for capitalists in order to produce. And so we have seen an explosion in production, first of software and then of all information goods. Never before have so many working class people published so much content. The value (and aesthetic quality) of a facebook status or youtube video might be minimal, but this is the crux – copying is so cheap that there is no harm in copying a valueless thing.

More and more of this production takes place without alienation, and without pay – people are producing for the sheer joy of producing. That’s the original communist dream in the truest sense. A part of the world’s production has gone over to a communitarian ethic, not because a communist political party used the state to organise the population to record millions of youtube videos, but because the development of personal computing created fertile ground for free production.

Often, the institutions of the free software world are not even formally democratic. Most projects are run by what the community jokingly calls their Benevolent Dictator For Life (usually the project founder). Shockingly, these dictatorships do not impinge on the freedom of those involved, nor do they alienate producers from their labour. This is very confusing if, like me, your political education was steeped in enlightenment values and classical liberalism – surely formal democracy is the only guarantee of freedom?

The truth is that in a capitalist system, political democracy is a sham because the power of financial interests is always be greater than the power of the people. In a peer production system, dictatorship is a sham because the power of the producers is always greater than the power of the Benevolent Dictator, leaving the ‘dictator’ little more than a forewoman or foreman. The producers can leave whenever they like, taking a free copy of the productive capital with them. The peer production system provides fertile ground for freedom.

Free software and free culture has been very successful in a very short space of time – most of world’s smartphones and the overwhelming majority of the web runs on free software; the free culture values of producing and sharing are more powerful than the entertainment industry values of buying and consuming.

Freedom in the coming decades will be won or lost by the extent to which the peer production system can take hold in physical manufacturing, food production, and resource extraction.

Capitalists have moved more and more to computerised just-in-time manufacturing, where robotic factories retool to different tasks as needed. Technology is forever miniaturising. At the forefront of the peer production movement today are efforts to create a factory in every home, a world where the cost of a physical good is the same as the cost of its raw materials and production is completely autonomous.

Food and resource production will be harder nuts to crack. There is hope: bio- and nanotechnology are still at a very early stage, and developing rapidly. The first home biotechnology tools, computer-controlled of course, are starting to appear. In the future, these could produce food of all kinds. This century we will begin harvesting ore from asteroids, many of which contain more rare metals than the entire upper crust of the Earth.

As new technologies emerge over the next century, we must make sure that they are structured to provide fertile ground for freedom. Until recently, the main challenge was to have free software widely distributed on client devices. Google’s Android has achieved that. Now we must decentralise the network hardware so that the internet cannot be switched off by governments, as happened during the 2011 Tunisian and Egyptian revolts. We must create alternatives to gmail and Facebook that allow people real control over their data.

In the coming decades, we must push our governments to provide access to any resources that remain necessary to distributed production.

Imagine if we gave every human a house, a renewable power source, and a computer that could manufacture any item or grow any foodstuff. If manufacturing decentralises far enough in a free computing environment, engaging in economic exploitation will become very very difficult indeed.

Trillions of Tiny Flowcharts

Trillions of tiny flowcharts, in everything we touch. Whirling around in decision-making circles, deciding what we can and cannot do, deciding who owns and who does not, deciding what can be said and what must be censored – lists of instructions enacting law itself. Lists of instructions in our cars, our fridges, our televisions. Instructions in our books and notepads and telephones. Trillions of automated ironclad laws, ruling every aspect of our lives with the inflexible precision of a machine. That is our future.

Computers can seem mysterious and magical, but they need not be – they are simply machines that perform a given list of instructions and make either/or decisions, just like a person reading a flowchart. They are not magical, but they seem so because the same computer can read and enact any flowchart we give it. The chart’s boxes could contain a huge series of either/or decisions based on joystick movements and instructions to display a fantastic fantasy world, or they could tell a washing machine’s drum to fill with water before beginning the spin cycle.

It is flowcharts that matter, not computers. In China, internet traffic passes through computers instructed to silently censor web pages containing forbidden words. Recently, Amazon pressed a button that brought a set of instructions to life in every Kindle e-book reader in America, remotely deleting illicit copies of 1984 and Animal Farm.

All we need to understand about computers is that they operate like the familiar flowchart. As more and more objects come to contain microchips, more and more objects are operated by lists of instructions and simple binary decisions. We are accelerating towards a pervasive computing future where every tool we touch and even our bodies contain microchips, all controlled by mindlessly-executed lists of instructions: a future of trillions of tiny flowcharts in everything we touch.

We will interact with these charts through user interfaces. User interfaces are form divorced from function. Word has no need to look like a printer’s typesetting equipment; twitter has no physical object to imitate at all. Interfaces encourage some behaviours, and discourage others. Together these things mean that interfaces are objects of pure ideology. Slavoj Zizek argues that the truest ideology is one you obey while denying it. We all share our lives on Facebook, even though we decry its centralisation and poor privacy controls.

Interfaces, and the instructions to be found under the hood, can be owned in two different ways. Some are owned by private companies and individuals, Microsoft Word is a good example. You may only buy copies of Word from Microsoft, and the copy they sell has a confusing flowchart that few humans can read. Microsoft keeps the human-readable copies secret, so only Microsoft can set what the flowcharts inside Word do – you, or your friendly neighbourhood programmer, cannot change their behaviour. Among other things, this allows Microsoft to make it difficult for word processors made by other companies to edit Word documents.

Facebook don’t even let you have an obfuscated copy of the instructions – instead they keep the diagrams locked away at Facebook HQ, along with all your personal information and photographs. The Facebook webpage is a user interface that gives us an illusion of control over instruction lists belonging to somebody else. Facebook’s interface has been deliberately designed by behavioural psychologists to encourage users to share more information more publicly, because users posting private details publicly is in Facebook’s financial interests. This is the replication of concrete ideology reduced to a mathematical science.

Interfaces and flowcharts can also be held in common. Software held in common is called Open Source, Free Software or Software Libre. Android phones are just one example. On the web, you can download hundreds of alternative versions of Google Android made by people who wanted their phone to behave differently from the norm. If our phones were ever changed to censor our conversations, Android users could turn off the behaviour. iPhone users could not.

In the near future we will not have personal computers. Instead, computers will pervade everything. Every tool will execute lists of instructions, flowcharts, laws. The network will be totalitarian. We are the generation who must answer an epochal question: who will control these new automated laws?

Peer Production: a New Economic Dawn?

I keep claiming that peer production is a new mode of production in the Marxist sense. This provoked Tom to be really annoying by asking intelligent, pertinent and challenging questions.

(nb: I earlier explored the history of peer production in Wikileaks, Karl Marx and You)

So was the Internet created by Big Government or Big Capital? The answer is: Neither.

Peer networks break from the conventions of states and corporations in several crucial respects. They lack the traditional economic incentives of the private sector: almost all of the key technology standards are not owned by any one individual or organization, and a vast majority of contributors to open-source projects do not receive direct compensation for their work. (The Harvard legal scholar Yochai Benkler has called this phenomenon “commons-based peer production.”) And yet because peer networks are decentralized, they don’t suffer from the sclerosis of government bureaucracies.

— Steven Johnson in the New York TImes

Of course the bare collection of historical influences are true, but the implications (that we should see this as prefigurative and ‘good’) and conclusions aren’t.

1. ‘We’ built everything. All modes of production are collaborative. By their nature ‘Big Government’ and ‘Big Capital’ create nothing directly, they simply prompt or take ownership.

2. The volunteerism that created the basic and less basic algorithms and protocols of the internet is nothing new; altruism is not innately good, nor does it necessarily have good outcomes.

3. Academic work has always been a state of exception, where the normal modes of exploitation are suspended somewhat. It is a recognition that extreme profit-motives always have a negative effect on the pursuit of knowledge. Affirming the academy may be useful at a time when it is being penetrated by market/government ideologies, but even modern academia has more to do with the monastery than the commune.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t radicalize the concept of the internet, I just think this argument doesn’t go far enough, and celebrates values that are essentially post-war consensus (under attack, but never that good).

— Tom Coles

I want to begin my restricting my claim. I don’t hold to a vulgar historical materialism, where a parade of modes of production emerge from technological progress, each more productive than the last, each overturning the last. I’m not sure that even Marx really believed in such a thing, and we certainly shouldn’t.

It is also important to consider that we are dealing here with universals in dialectical conflict, that is, with things that don’t exist in pure form. Every real capitalist economy has contained vital elements of both slavery and feudalism, for example, but for analytical purposes we still consider some idealised form of manufacturing-based capitalism, with real-world workplaces being a reflection of both the class tensions within capitalism and the historical tension between universal feudalism and universal capitalism.

Therefore I actually take post-Fordism as evidence for, not against, my claim that peer production is a new mode of production. It is a concrete manifestation of the tension between universal capitalism and universal peer production. In a world ruled ever-more by Marx’s general intellect, capitalist workplaces have been forced to adapt.

Zizek has made two important observations on this subject: firstly that Marx did not anticipate that the general intellect could be privatised (an oversight that shows pretty clearly the weakness of vulgar historical materialism!) and secondly that if the general intellect is privatised, a form of rentier capitalism can continue to exist.

Marx’s universal capitalism is about exploiting workers to extract their surplus labour. It is about the M->C->M’ process, where money invested begets fresh money to be reinvested. Which workers did Bill Gate exploit to the tune of $65bn? He simply doesn’t have enough employees for that to add up.

The explanation is simple; since the 1990s, information goods have no marginal cost worth speaking of. Their reproduction requires no capital and no labour – only their original creation involves an investment at all. The money Gates earns is best understood as rent extracted by fencing off a section of the intellectual commons.

It’s trivial to show that peer production itself is unprecedented in nature. Never before have tens of thousands of highly-skilled people collaborated on an international scale to create market-leading goods that they then simply give away. Analysis has shown it’s not even a potlatch-esque status game; the biggest motivation for most creators is personal mastery and enjoyment. This is only possible because the nature of the good is radically different to those that went before

Something similar is starting to happen to physical goods, thanks to 3D printing and just-in-time manufacturing. Increasingly, ongoing labour costs are being removed from the equation.

We are living in the midst of the biggest explosion of information production humanity has ever seen, and what is most stunning is just how little money is being extracted from the process. If all the new production of the last 40 years could be effectively monetised, there would be no crisis.

However we rarely see peer production in its pure form. Just as with capitalism and feudalism we see two sets of tensions.

Firstly a tension between the two universal forms of production, capitalist manufacturing and peer production. This manifests itself in new economic activities – both the Bill Gates rentier manifestation, and the Red Hat-style building of capitalist businesses on the principle of giving away goods. These are two different compromise positions between the universals.

Secondly a class tension, between those empowered by each economic form. There is an extremely heated class struggle between the owners of information goods, especially those with older business models, and the world of peer production. Our side in this struggle has a full array of class organisations, all the way from political groupings (Pirate Party, Free Software Foundation) through to anarchic terrorist groups (Anonymous).

There is no guarantee that either of these conflicts will resolve in our favour, it is simply too early to know the balance of forces. The great white hope is a world of pure peer-production, structured by free sharing of everything and ad-hoc direct democracy. The terrible danger is a rentier economy enforced by a total surveillance state.

Free culture is an alternate world-system

There are two major economic-cultural systems in existence at present: capitalism and free culture. Free culture is the leading edge of production, and the capitalist system has only been able to skim relatively small profits from it.

They are in conflict, because capitalism requires scarcity to function, whereas free culture requires abundance. Although it is rooted in technology and economics, this has consequences across culture, art, politics and law.

I think we’ll win, but it’s not guaranteed.

My thoughts on the Facebook IPO

Originally in reply to Gerry Hassan

Facebook is extremely dangerous. The theory from both sides (net entrepeneurs and hackers, basically mirroring capitalists and workers) about information as a commodity is extremely advanced. In brief, computers + the internet allow anyone to copy infinitely and share any information securely and anonymously.

This poses a threat to profit, so far largely in the creative industries. There are two capitalist responses: The entertainment industry favours Digital Rights Management (attempts to make your PC enforce the law whether you want it to or not), ie turning information goods back into regular, controllable commodities.

Zuckerberg is offering a second way. The theory is that by centralising our social interactions through computers they control, they can commoditise data about those interactions, and perhaps even turn social relationships themselves into a quantifiable, tradable currency

I have a more extensive dissection aimed at non-technical left wing people, here:

Cory Doctrow sumarises the political implications to a technical audience here:

Eben Moglen outlines the hacker community’s plan to save us all here:

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