Posts Tagged ‘ Free Software ’

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.

Wikileaks, Karl Marx and You

Originally published on

Despite blanket media coverage of Wikileaks and Julian Assange, there has been little discussion of the fact that Assange is merely one leader within a large and complicated social movement. The better analyses have found it interesting that the Swedish Pirate Party are aiding Wikileaks; some note links to the German Chaos Computer Club. But only “geeks” and “hackers” (technology workers) are aware that all of these organisations are members of the same movement.

This social movement, which has been termed the “free culture movement”, has a thirty year history. It incorporates elements reminiscent of earlier workers’ movements: elements of class struggle, political agitation, and radical economics. The movement’s cadre, mainly technology workers, have been locked in conflict with the ruling class over the political and economic nature of information itself. As Wikileaks demonstrates, the outcome will have implications for all of us.

The free culture movement exists as a consequence of the internet’s political economy. Personal computers have radically transformed the economic nature of information. Before the 1970s, a given piece of information was tied to a physical object – a piece of paper, an LP, a roll of film. Entire industries were built on selling paper, LP’s and rolls of film with particular bits of information on them. Then the personal computer arrived and suddenly information of all kinds could be duplicated infinitely at minimal cost – and distributed by the internet to a global audience. Every human could have a copy of every piece of art ever created for the cost of a broadband connection.

In the terms of capitalist economics, every good has a marginal cost, which is the cost of producing one more item. Computers reduce the marginal cost of information to zero, and the internet makes distribution, legal or otherwise, trivial. Information has become “non-excludable” (copying cannot be prevented) and “non-rivalrous” (if I give you information, I keep my copy of that information). In this situation, it is almost impossible to treat information as a commodity – as capitalist economics would have it, information is a public good, like roads or national defense.

As a result, there is a contradiction within capitalism. The most obvious source of profit, the very reason for a capitalist society to invest in information technology, is to extract value by selling information as a commodity. Meanwhile information technology has steadily undermined the practicality of treating information as property.

As computers have rendered “intellectual property rights” unenforceable, the remaining method of privatising information is secrecy. Information collection and secrecy is the business model of Google and Facebook – collecting and selling information about us to their advertisers. Information collection and secrecy are also the core functions of the modern security state. It is in this context that the immense social significance of Wikileaks’ actions becomes apparent: Wikileaks is a key part of the free culture movement’s assault on the bastions of privatised information.

The present situation was predicted by visionary hackers over thirty years ago, and they set out to ensure the victory of free culture over proprietary culture, open organisation over closed, and privacy over Big Brother.

The word hacker predates the personal computer, originating at the MIT Tech Model Rail Club in the 1950s. Amongst geeks, it is used to mean a technically skilled individual who is driven to learn and experiment, a person who believes in sharing what they’ve learned with the community.

Hacker culture proper originated in the 1970s, in hobbyist clubs dedicated to the first personal computers. Hackers quickly became used to copying software freely – after all, it cost nothing to share, and reading the software’s “source code” was educational. Software became the first modern information good: infinitely replicable, at no cost.

However, others were already seeking to change the nature of software, to turn it into a commodity. How else, they asked, could the creators afford to eat? In 1976, Bill Gates famously complained:

As the majority of hobbyists must be aware, most of you steal your software. Hardware must be paid for, but software is something to share. Who cares if the people who worked on it get paid? Is this fair?

Who can afford to do professional work for nothing?

The fact is, no one besides us has invested a lot of money in hobby software …but there is very little incentive to make this software available to hobbyists. Most directly, the thing you do is theft.

This was an early appearance of the new contradiction in capitalism – a conflict between the path of greatest production (infinite copying) and the existing source of profits (artificial scarcity). Karl Marx argued that conflict between new and old modes of production is at the core of social change:

The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.

At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or – this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms – with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.

–Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy

As Marx might have predicted, Gates’ plea fell on deaf ears. By the mid 1980s, sharing software had never been easier and Internet Bulletin Boards were widespread. Hackers and others would make a computer-to-computer phone call to join discussions, and to download illegal copies of software. Hacker conferences and organisations emerged, including the left-wing Chaos Computer Club in Germany, and later the apolitical DefCon and “liberal” HOPE in the United States.

From its experiences of the new technology, this anarchic subculture developed a shared political and moral sense, now known as the Hacker Ethic:

  • Access to computers – and anything which might teach you something about the way the world works – should be unlimited and total.
  • Mistrust authority – promote decentralization.
  • You can create art and beauty on a computer.
  • Computers can change your life for the better.
  • All information should be free.

Steven Levy

The similarity of the ethic to older conceptions of an egalitarian society has been noted by the discussion group Project Oekonux:

The critique of market exchange and of money, the rejection of hierarchy and borders, the critique of contemporary work and the revindication of passion and freedom as primary motivations, of cooperation and of sharing as the foundations of new relations, all this is found, to a degree more or less elaborated and coherent, in the “hacker ethic.” Now these are elements that form part of the foundation of the communist project.

Some thinkers sought to move beyond an ethic and develop a political programme. The first and most important anti-propertarian theorist and organiser to emerge from the hacker world was Richard M Stallman. Stallman is a controversial figure, a geek’s geek and not always polite to his political opponents. In spite of his apparent interpersonal shortcomings, he is widely respected as the founder of the free culture movement, perhaps the first person to understand the new economic situation, and certainly the first person to do anything concrete about it.

Stallman was driven to action when he saw the nature of software begin to change – increasingly, companies kept secret the details necessary to modify their programs, and sued anyone who distributed copies. The first modern information good was becoming a commodity, against its economic nature and against the Hacker Ethic.

In response, Stallman created a new ideology, Free Software, declaring software-as-commodity to be a moral evil:

Free software is a matter of the users’ freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software.

  • The freedom to run the program, for any purpose
  • The freedom to study how the program works, and adapt it to your needs
  • The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor
  • The freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements to the public, so that the whole community benefits

(note that “free” here does not refer to the cost, as in “free beer”, but to freedom, as in “free speech” – the word has two meanings in English)

As information workers, Stallman and his peers owned their means of production and had access to the means of distribution – by the 1980s, all they needed to bypass capital entirely was a computer and a phone line. In 1984, Stallman began a public collaborative effort to build a complete set of software that respected the four freedoms, announcing it with the declaration:

I consider that the Golden Rule requires that if I like a program I must share it with other people who like it. Software sellers want to divide the users and conquer them, making each user agree not to share with others. I refuse to break solidarity with other users in this way. I cannot in good conscience sign a nondisclosure agreement or a software license agreement.

So that I can continue to use computers without dishonor, I have decided to put together a sufficient body of free software so that I will be able to get along without any software that is not free.

He founded a political group, the Free Software Foundation, and in collaboration with the lawyer and free software leader Eben Moglen popularised another new concept – copyleft. A “copyleft” license is a special copyright license that brings legal enforcement to the four freedoms. It grants anyone the right to modify and share an information good, provided that any modifications are shared according to the same license. In other words, you may treat the work as communal property, as long as your own modifications also become communal property.

To hackers, avid readers of science fiction, it seemed obvious that in the near future all of humanity’s information would be stored on a global computer network. Stallman realised that if state or private interests controlled the software running the network, they could monitor or censor any information they wished – and decided that humanity as a whole must have the ability to share and modify all software. This idea was most fully developed by the lawyer Lawrence Lessig when he coined the phrase code is law.

In real space, we recognize how laws regulate – through constitutions, statutes, and other legal codes. In cyberspace we must understand how a different “code” regulates – how the software and hardware (i.e., the “code” of cyberspace) that make cyberspace what it is also regulate cyberspace as it is. As William Mitchell puts it, this code is cyberspace’s “law.” “Lex Informatica,” as Joel Reidenberg first put it, or better, “code is law.”

Cyberspace is regulated by software, much as the real world is regulated by law. It follows that if there is to be a free culture, then software must be free – otherwise, corporate and state interests have an unacceptable ability to collect and censor information.

These trends – the end of information scarcity, the distribution of the means of production into the hands of information workers, the development of a broader hacker community and ethic, the emergence of ideological leaders and organisations, and the creation of a legal theory – combined in the 1990s to produce an extremely rare economic event: the arrival of an entirely new mode of production. The first example of the new mode was the Linux project.

By the early 1990s, the Free Software Foundation’s GNU Project had assembled all the free software necessary to run a computer apart from one, known as the “kernel”. Finnish hacker Linus Torvalds created the free kernel “Linux” as a hobby project, licensing it under the FSF’s copyleft license. Linus’ hobby soon became the first large engineering project to be conducted entirely online, and it developed faster than anyone envisaged. Twenty years later, it has benefited from millions of contributions from many thousands of workers around the world.

Free software – built on GNU and Linux – is now ubiquitous on internet servers, and recently began leading the market in smartphones (thanks to Google’s Android). The GNU/Linux ecosystem is a completely unique phenomenon – an engineering and artistic project of immense scope conducted across thirty years using a global workforce, with most of the work coming from volunteers simply because they enjoyed contributing.

Eric S Raymond, in his seminal essay the Cathedral and the Bazaar, made an early attempt to explain what was going on:

Linux was the first project for which a conscious and successful effort to use the entire world as its talent pool was made. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the gestation period of Linux coincided with the birth of the World Wide Web, and that Linux left its infancy during the same period in 1993 – 1994 that saw the takeoff of the ISP industry and the explosion of mainstream interest in the Internet. Linus was the first person who learned how to play by the new rules that pervasive Internet access made possible.

While cheap Internet was a necessary condition for the Linux model to evolve, I think it was not by itself a sufficient condition. Another vital factor was the development of a leadership style and set of cooperative customs that could allow developers to attract co-developers and get maximum leverage out of the medium.

But what is this leadership style and what are these customs? They cannot be based on power relationships – and even if they could be, leadership by coercion would not produce the results we see.

Information workers were cooperating globally and without coercion to produce property that was to be communally owned. Non-coercive productive relations were inevitable given the underlying economic truth – a computer, internet access, and communally-owned free software are all the productive capital a computer programmer needs. The cooperative, ad-hoc and voluntary nature of GNU/Linux development is exactly the behaviour Marx predicted would emerge from free access to productive capital:

Within the co-operative society based on common ownership of the means of production, the producers do not exchange their products; just as little does the labor employed on the products appear here as the value of these products, as a material quality possessed by them, since now, in contrast to capitalist society, individual labor no longer exists in an indirect fashion but directly as a component part of total labor. The phrase “proceeds of labor”, objectionable also today on account of its ambiguity, thus loses all meaning.

labor [will] become not only a means of life but life’s prime want

— Karl Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme

Always confining themselves to information property alone, because of its non-scarce nature, the philosophers of the free software movement started to sound like libertarian communists – even though many in the community would not subscribe to leftist politics. FSF Lawyer Eben Moglen made the case forcefully in his essay Anarchism Triumphant:

At the center of the digital revolution, with the executable bitstreams that make everything else possible, propertarian regimes not only do not make things better, they can make things radically worse. Property concepts, whatever else may be wrong with them, do not enable and have in fact retarded progress.

In the network society, anarchism (or more properly, anti-possessive individualism) is a viable political philosophy … because defection is impossible, free riders are welcome, which resolves one of the central puzzles of collective action in a propertarian social system.

Some hackers were unhappy with these ideological developments. On the grounds that business was perturbed by the FSF’s rhetoric, Eric S Raymond formed the breakaway Open Source Initiative to focus discussion on the technical superiority of open development models, avoiding troublesome talk about “freedom” and the nature of property.

Raymond had been invited out by Netscape to help them plan their browser source-code release … we might finally be able to get the corporate world to listen to what the hacker community had to teach about the superiority of an open development process.

The conferees decided it was time to dump the moralizing and confrontational attitude that had been associated with “free software” in the past and sell the idea strictly on the same pragmatic, business-case grounds that had motivated Netscape. They brainstormed about tactics and a new label. “Open source”, contributed by Chris Peterson, was the best thing they came up with.

The Open Source Initiative helped to make business comfortable in the free software world, but the internet continued to have a troubled relationship with capitalism.

From the 1990s hackers and artists found themselves caught in an intensifying class conflict, as intellectual property owners manipulated the political process to strengthen laws protecting information’s status as property, even as that status became increasingly unenforceable in practise. To hackers, this could only be seen as an attempt to extract needless rent from a naturally abundant resource.

“Content owners”, alarmed by the emergence of file-sharing websites, began building digital locks, called Digital Rights Management (DRM), into DVDs, mp3s and even e-books. The hacker community was deeply offended by the idea of books that could not be resold or lent, and set about breaking the locks as fast as they could be designed. A class struggle was being fought simultaneously at the points of information production and consumption, because in the world of computers the point of production is the point of consumption.

Under intense music industry lobbying, several countries including the United States implemented laws banning any technology capable of bypassing DRM to allow copying. A series of high-profile prosecutions followed, most famously that of Russian programmer Dmitri Skylarov, who was arrested after giving a conference speech in the United States explaining how to break Adobe’s e-book DRM.

Under increasing attack, the wider geek and hacker communities began to radicalise to defend free speech and free information. The Electronic Frontier Foundation was formed to offer legal support. Various hacker groups adopted political aims, most often aimed at guaranteeing free speech and defending the free internet.

The hackers were fighting the struggle, but during the 2000s the means of production and distribution for every kind of artist became available to anyone with a computer – free software began to allow the creation of a truly free culture.

Lawrence Lessig, who had predicted this as part of his “Code is Law” theory, founded Creative Commons, an organisation dedicated to giving individual writers, musicians and artists easy-to-understand ways of allowing others to share and modify their work, with the stated aim of bringing the freedoms of free software to all art:

It is no accident that those who understand this are those closest to technology. Our challenge will be to find ways to explain it so other creators get it as well …. Our single, overarching aim: build the public domain, by building projects that expand the range of creative work available for others to build upon.

Perhaps most importantly, they created a copyleft license for non-software works. Creative Commons provided the legal framework for the current flowering of free culture – Wikipedia, for example, may be copied and modified by anyone under a Creative Commons copyleft license. Artists began to join the free culture movement, dissatisfied with capital’s notion of them as interchangeable “content creators” and enticed by the possibilities of distribution free from industry control.

In 2003 now-infamous filesharing website the Pirate Bay, which has pioneered partnerships with Creative Commons artists, was spun off from Swedish group Piratbyrån. Piratbyrån was a think-tank on the nature of intellectual property created by hackers, artists and left activists to counter the Swedish Antipiratbyrån (Anti-Piracy Bureau). In 2006, they founded the Pirate Party, winning two seats in the European Parliament. and there are now Pirate Parties in countries across the globe campaigning for weaker intellectual property laws and free speech on the internet.

At least some members of Piratbyrån are radically anti-intellectual property, and their vision is consciously opposed to information as a commodity:

The copyright industry today likes to present the problem as if internet were just a way for so-called “consumers” to get so-called ”content”, and that we now just got to have ”a reasonable distribution” of money between ISP’s and content industry

It is totally wrong to regard our role as to represent “consumer interests”. On the contrary, it’s all about leaving the artificial division of humanity into the two groups ”producers” and ”consumers” behind.

We are now pounding the old mass medial aura and we are in a state of transgressing the hierarchical consumer-producer society.

— Rasmus Fleischer of Piratbyrån speaking at the 2005 Chaos Communication Congress

The Pirate Bay were not merely pirates – they saw themselves as taking deliberate political actions to undermine the existing economic structure in favour of a new mode of production..

Piratbyrån itself disbanded in June 2010 and the Pirate Bay was sold, however the high level of support for Wikileaks provided by Scandinavian activists and the Pirate Party suggests that the wider milieu is alive and well.

Wikileaks also has roots in an influential 1990s discussion group, the Cypherpunk mailing list. “Cypherpunk”, formed from the words “cipher”, or code, and “cyberpunk”, a science fiction genre full of rogue hackers fighting corporate tyrants, indicates the members’ loose ideology – that the anonymity and security provided by computerised cryptography (“crypto”) could create a new society free from coercion, a system know as crypto-anarchy.

Many of us see strong crypto as the key enabling technology for a new economic and social system, a system which will develop as cyberspace becomes more important. A system which dispenses with national boundaries, which is based on voluntary (even if anonymous) free trade. At issue is the end of governments as we know them today.

Strong crypto permits unbreakable encryption, unforgeable signatures, untraceable electronic messages, and unlinkable pseudonymous identities. This ensures that some transactions and communications can be entered into only voluntarily. External force, law, and regulation cannot be applied. This is “anarchy,” in the sense of no outside rulers and laws.

The cypherpunks were ahead of their time, clearly anticipating Wikileaks’s use of anonymous, encrypted internet drop-boxes by 15 years or more – but then Julian Assange was a regular poster to the list. The hacker community has created the future it used to speculate about.

In one notorious incident, cypherpunk Jim Bell published an essay entitled “Assassination Politics”, which discussed the creation of a completely anonymous site where users could sponsor the assassination of corrupt politicians. Bell was later jailed for spying on federal agents, themselves sent to spy on him for writing the essay.

Assange laid the philosophical groundwork for Wikileaks when he replied to Assassination Politics in his State and Terrorist Conspiracies:

How can we reduce the ability of a conspiracy to act? … We can split the conspiracy, reduce or eliminating important communication between a few high weight links or many low weight links. Traditional attacks on conspiratorial power groupings, such as assassination, have cut high weight links by killing, kidnapping, blackmailing or otherwise marginalizing or isolating some of the conspirators they were connected to.

The more secretive or unjust an organization is, the more leaks induce fear and paranoia in its leadership and planning coterie. This must result in minimization of efficient internal communications mechanisms (an increase in cognitive “secrecy tax”) and consequent system-wide cognitive decline resulting in decreased ability to hold onto power as the environment demands adaption. Hence in a world where leaking is easy, secretive or unjust systems are nonlinearly hit relative to open, just systems. Since unjust systems, by their nature induce opponents, and in many places barely have the upper hand, mass leaking leaves them exquisitely vulnerable to those who seek to replace them with more open forms of governance.

With a single mechanism, Assange demonstrates the political implications of the new economics of information. If all information is can be copied freely, then organisations may be faced with no choice but to conduct the majority of their dealings openly. He has simply carried Eric S Raymond’s conclusion about Linux – that its open organisational model would always be more efficient than Microsoft’s closed model – into the political realm.

Wikileaks is the first concrete realisation of the crypto-anarchist dream: completely anonymous leaking, dealing blows to tyranny. However it has also highlighted the weak points in the free internet, surviving dangers to freedom of speech and the new mode of production.

Perhaps the most obvious is that large corporations control the physical infrastructure of the internet – the big servers and all the actual wires from place to place. Another danger is the monopolisation of some services – social networking by Facebook, search by Google. And with the recent cutting-off of Wikileaks funds by PayPal, Visa and Mastercard, the danger of state-corporate action to deny funds has become starkly apparent.

As is typical, the hacker community has been working on solutions for some time. There are projects to create wireless “mesh” networks, and projects to create distributed, open alternatives to Facebook and Google. There is even the Bitcoin project, which has the ambitious goal of creating a distributed virtual currency.

Marx described, in broad strokes, the ways in which political economy shapes society and history, but left the detail up to those alive at the time. The activism, organisation and ideology we see in the hacker community today are the material consequence of a new mode of production, a fundamental shift in the political economy of information. The free culture movement has (so far) defeated all attempts, both legal and technological, to reimpose information scarcity. If Marx was right then this is simply because the winds of history are behind us.

There is no way to predict where this will end – some hackers theorise that in the future, manufacturing will decentralise in the same way as information production, a miniature factory in every home if you will. The processes favouring decentralisation and organisational openness will continue to gain strength, as will the reaction against those processes. The only certainty is that the economic nature of information has changed forever. That fact will still be transforming our society a century from now.

© 2010 Alistair Davidson. Originally published at Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 3.0.

Intellectual Property

Tom foolishly asked me about Intellectual Property… read this and learn why you shouldn’t ask me about it!

So, first off, “Intellectual Property” describes three distinct things: trademarks, patents, and copyright. Intellectual property is a monopoly granted by the state.

Traditionally, in the English-speaking countries, it is formulated as a bargain, where the public trades its right to use an item of IP in return for some benefit. For example, give Dyson a monopoly on the production of cyclone hoovers, to justify all the years he spent inventing cyclone hoovers.

In Europe, patents and copyright tend to be seen as a moral right of the creator. I don’t know much more about that.

Personally, I think there are two important, distinct ways in which IP is property (functionally; morally I’ll get to…). Firstly, by law it cannot be copied – this is IP as a commodity. Secondly, it cannot be reused to make something new – this is IP as a means of production.

In the latter case, I’d say all the usual Marxist observations apply.

Trademarks are simplest – they ban multiple uses of the same name in the same market. This actually seems pretty damn sensible to me – nobody can make another beer called “Belhaven Best” and trick me into drinking it, but someone could set up “Belhaven’s Best Chip Shop” without having to think twice.

Patents seem pretty sensible in the case of Mr Dyson, if you’re going to have a market system. People invest in making physical things, and then they get a time-limited monopoly on their use.

It should be recognised, though, that this does hold back human progress – I can’t invent and sell the Al hoover, a Dyson that can also make you tea, until the monopoly expires. I dislike patents for that reason, but I think they are necessary if you want private capitalists to invest in R&D.

Where it stops being an annoyance and becomes morally abhorrent is medicine. I’m sure you’ve seen a zillion news stories about drug patents and the third world, I won’t regurgitate them.

Software patents are also a menace. The field moves too quickly for a 20 year monopoly, and the same objections as I’m about to make to copyright apply…

Copyright is completely, 100% fucked. Dead in the water. This is because the marginal cost of copying information is now pretty much zero, and (broadly speaking) anyone can get copies of any public information.

Interestingly, this makes copyrightable works a public good ( ) – so even capitalist economics agrees here.

I think that in the case of software, free licensing (where the software can be copied and modified) is essential, because software now controls so much of our lives. Lawrence Lessig (google him) argues that software is now similar to law in this sense.

Most importantly to me, the free internet represents an enormous opportunity for human progress. The last time the cost of copying information fell so drastically was the printing press, and that enabled the reformation, the enlightenment, and the American revolution! There’s no way we can keep the internet free if the programs running on it are controlled by powerful minority interests such as the state, Microsoft, or Apple.

( for more on free software )

The economic effect also applies to music, films, games etc. Leaving the moral debate to one side, it simply isn’t possible to enforce copyright any more. If someone wants to be a professional artist, they will have to find something other than sales of a freely copyable good to make ends meet. Morality doesn’t matter, it’s just a fact.

Oh, and sharing is a moral right, and if we can ‘steal’ ideas from each other we get lots more better ideas quicker.

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