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<nettime> Free Software as Collaborative Text
Florian Cramer on 19 Sep 2000 20:55:27 -0000


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<nettime> Free Software as Collaborative Text


(This is the manuscript of a lecture I held on the panel "Minor Media
Operations" at the Interface 5 conference in Hamburg. I hope it's of some
interest to Nettime subscribers. The text is also available in PDF and
html format from my homepage <http://userpage.fu-berlin.de/~cantsin> -FC)


                Free Software as Collaborative Text
                                  
                           Florian Cramer
                     <cantsin {AT} zedat.fu-berlin.de>
                                  
                        September 15, 2000 [1]
                                  
   
What is Free Software?

  Why discuss Free Software in the context of net arts and net
  cultures?
  
   Since about two years, Free Software--or "Open Source"--has
   drawn increasing attention from artistic net cultures. The
   Wizards of OS conference, first held in Berlin in 1999, was
   the most prolific event to bridge the gap between the arts,
   humanities and social sciences on the one hand and Free
   Software culture on the other. The politics of copyleft and
   free distribution of code and knowledge soon turned out to be
   a common ground of discourse. In this paper, I will take a
   different aspect into consideration by reading Free Software
   as a net culture and its code as a multi-layered,
   collaborative text. Seen as a literary practice, Free Software
   development is an avant-garde of writing in digital networks,
   and even more: Since Free Software is at the heart of the
   technical infrastructure of the Internet, it has--to a large
   extent--written its own digital network.
   
  Definition of Free Software
  
   In this paper, "Free Software" does not refer to
   "Freeware", "Shareware" or other proprietary software
   given away at no cost--like Microsoft Internet Explorer,
   QuickTime and Real Player--, but is understood in accordance
   with the definitions of Free Software Foundation
   http://www.fsf.org as software which is "free as free speech,
   not as free beer". Among the best-known examples of Free
   Software are the Linux kernel, the GNU tools and the Apache
   web server.
   
   Since 1998, the term "Free Software" competes with "Open
   Source", a term launched by a group around the writer and
   programmer Eric S. Raymond. According to this group, "Open
   Source" is only a different name for the same thing to gain
   more mainstream acceptance in the world of computing.[2] The
   Open Source Definition [Opeb] therefore draws upon the older
   Free Software Guidelines [Deb] of Debian, a non-commercial
   GNU/Linux distribution made by volunteers.[3] The guidelines 
   can be summarized as follows:
   
    1. Free Software may be freely copied.
    2. Not only the executable binary code, but also the program
       source code are freely available.
    3. The source code may be modified and used for other
       programs by anyone.
    4. There are no restrictions on the use of Free Software.
       Even if Free Software is used for commercial purposes, no
       license fees have to be paid.
    5. There are no restrictions on the distribution of Free
       Software. Free Software may be sold for money even without
       paying the programmers.
       
   Since the same criteria apply to "Open Source", the two
   concepts indeed do not differ in technical terms. Yet each of
   both terms has its ambiguities: While "Free Software" tends
   to get confused with Freeware and Shareware,[4] "Open Source"
   is easy to be mixed up with "open standards"--like the HTML
   format and the http protocol--and with software like Sun's Java
   whose source code is publicly available, but only under a
   restrictive license. It is particularly important to
   differentiate "Open Source" and "Free Software" from open
   standards. While open standards are unified technical
   specifications set up by committees like the Internet
   Engineering Taskforce (IETF) and the World Wide Web Consortium
   (W3C), "Open Source" or "Free Software" developers code
   whatever they like for their own fun, and they are free to
   split their projects and develop the code into separate
   directions if a consensus can no longer be reached.[5]
   
   Since misconceptions of "Open Source" are so common, I will
   stick with the less popular, but somewhat clearer term "Free
   Software".
   
  Free Software History
  
   It is not accidental that history of Free Software runs
   parallel to the history of the Internet. The Internet is built
   on Unix networking technology. Unix used to be free for
   academic institutions in the 1970s, and it has been either the
   base or model of the common Free Software operating systems
   BSD and GNU/Linux.
   
   Any ordinary E-Mail message still reveals the affinity of the
   Internet and Unix technology: E-Mail itself is nothing but the
   Unix mail command. An E-Mail address of the form xy {AT} z.com is
   made up of what's historically a user name on a multiuser Unix
   system and, following the " {AT} ", the system's host name. This
   host name is resolved via the free Unix software bind
   according to the Internet domain name system (DNS); DNS itself
   is nothing but a networked extension of the Unix system file
   /etc/hosts. Since the Internet has marginalized or even
   replaced proprietary computer networks like IBM's EARN/Bitnet,
   Compuserve, the German Btx and the French Minitel, Unix
   networking technology is standard on all computing platforms.
   
   In the 1970, Unix particularly attracted student hacker
   communities at the MIT and at the University of California at
   Berkeley. The concepts of open, decentralized computer
   networks and free Unix-like operating systems originated in 
   the computer science labs of these institutions. By
   the early 1990s, the "hacker" software written there had
   evolved into
   
    1. the BSD family of operating systems with the free versions
       FreeBSD, NetBSD and OpenBSD. All of them use a codebase
       that was originally developed in Berkeley under the
       project leadership of Bill Joy.

    2. the GNU/Linux operating system. All major Linux-based
       operating system distributions--RedHat Linux, SuSE Linux,
       Turbo Linux, Debian GNU/Linux, Mandrake Linux, Corel Linux
       OS and Caldera OpenLinux, to name only a few--build on the
       GNU software written since 1984 by the Free Software
       Foundation (FSF) and on the Linux kernel written since
       1991 under the project leadership of Linus Torvalds.[6] 
       The FSF was founded and is still being led by former MIT
       hacker Richard M. Stallman.
       
   Open technology has been a key factor for the acceptance of
   computers and networking: The open architecture of the IBM
   Personal Computer made computers cheap and popular since the
   1980s, and with the open architecture of the Internet,
   networking became popular in the early 1990s. Lately, Free
   Software has made high-end Unix server computing available to
   anyone willing to learn the technical details. Whether Free
   Software can become as popular on mainstream desktop computers
   and eventually de-commoditize all computer software, remains
   to be seen, but is not the question I want to investigate
   here.
   
Free Software as a Net Culture

   In the middle of the 1990s, "net culture" became the keyword
   for artistic, art-critical and political discourse in the
   Internet. The term was closely identified with mailing lists
   like Nettime http://www.nettime.org and Rhizome
   http://www.rhizome.org, conferences like the one where I
   present this paper and print publications like the Nettime
   anthology [BMBB^+99]. "Net culture" used to be pronounced as
   a singular noun in these forums and media referring only to
   the discourse they created.
   
   Free Software is an outstanding example that there is not one,
   but many net cultures. It predates artistic net cultures in
   the Internet by roughly twenty years. The Free Software
   copyleft can be seen as the quintessential reflection of this
   long experience. Invented to preserve the traditional
   academic-artistic freedom of speech and citation in the
   digital realm, the copyleft has radically rewritten it
   nevertheless. The concept that code, i.e. text, may not only
   be freely copied, but even modified ("patched"), willfully
   recycled and commercially redistributed by anyone without the
   author's permit is foreign to the post-medieval Western arts
   and sciences. In print culture, such practices are considered
   plagiarism and theft.
   
   Even for the digital net arts, the copyleft remains an
   unresolved challenge. Many, if not most net artworks depend on
   proprietary authoring and display software,[7] and the
   distribution terms of their code are rarely clarified.[8] Yet
   Free Software has as subtly as significantly influenced the
   digitally networked arts. Without free E-mail server software
   like Majordomo http://www.greatcircle.com/majordomo/ and
   Sendmail http://www.sendmail.org--and the overall possibility 
   to set up inexpensive servers using the GNU/Linux and BSD
   operating systems on stock PC hardware--, the artistic net
   cultures of Nettime et.al. hardly could have operated
   non-commercially and with free participation.[9] Friedrich
   Kittler's observation that artistic tools conceptually shape
   what is made with them [Kit85] also applies to the net arts.
   The fact that Majordomo and Sendmail became major tools of
   artistic net activity is an important--but of course not the
   sole--explanation why contemporary Net.art tends towards
   conceptual, discursive and text-heavy work instead of the
   immersive "virtual reality" environments many critics had
   expected them to deliver. The latter would have required
   expensive proprietary software for design and display, closed
   high-speed networks and, as a result, dependence on highly
   funded institutional infrastructures, limited community
   participation and top-down instead of bottom-up organization
   of this particular net culture.
   
Free Software as Writing

   The relevance of Free Software for other net cultures is not
   limited to the tools it has created and the infrastructures it
   has made possible, simply because those tools themselves are
   the very object of Free Software culture: they are text,
   results of complex textual processing. Moreover, this text is
   being produced with tools which themselves are free code.
   
   While the phenomenon that text is being built with tools which
   are source text themselves applies to the proprietary software
   as well, there is an important difference: Free Software
   source text is not withdrawn from the public. It cannot be
   abandoned by company management and does not disappear when
   development has ceased. All Free Software builds up to a
   public repository of text-coded, free-to-use knowledge. It
   accumulates to an archive. Instead of being written from
   scratch, new Free Software can be built from whatsoever is in
   that archive. Free Software therefore is highly intertextual.
   Free Software development is the earliest and still most
   successful practice of collaborative writing in computer
   networks. With its system of textual production and politics
   of code, Free Software is by far the more advanced net
   literature than what is commonly understood as net poetry and
   net fiction.[10] Free Software may be seen simultaneously as
   
     * a freely accessible, ever-growing body of code--a text
       archive;
     * recursive (i.e. self-applied) text processing, since
       available text is used both as a source and as a building
       tool to create new code;
     * text processing even through the medium of text, because
       Free Software development infrastructures mostly depend on
       mailing lists and command-based version control systems.
     * a "hacker" culture which advocates freedom of
       information and codes its politics into the legal texts of
       the copyleft.
       
   The coded copyleft might be the clearest interstice between
   Free Software as a net culture and Free Software as net text.
   Both these aspects already come into play when Free Software
   is being written. Free Software development is typically
   achieved by self-organized volunteer projects whose members
   communicate and collaborate via the Internet. The development
   work consists of:
   
    1. Writing program source text
       This involves evaluting of available Free Software source
       code for possible inclusion and adaption. It also involves
       picking--and compiling--the coding tools which themselves
       are Free Software source text.
       To accomodate its own needs, Free Software has developed
       the arguably most sophisticated writing tools for the
       distributed authoring of text. Particularly outstanding is
       the Concurrent Versioning System (CVS) [Ced99] which
       allows authors to take portions of text--regardless whether
       it is written in programming language or in natural
       language--over the Internet, work on them at home, and
       synchronize the changes with the revisions of other
       collaborators any time. CVS-based writing might be the
       technically most radical departure from the
       typewriter-and-mail paradigm in text editing to date.
    2. Writing documentation text
       Documentation is both internal and external to the program
       source text when the latter contains annotations and
       separate reference documentation is being written.
       Free manuals remain a political issue within Free Software
       development. A number of companies base their business
       model on giving away the software under free licenses and
       charging for documentation and support.[11] In the ideal
       case however, a second textual recursion occurs within in
       Free Software which is common in all modern knowledge
       systems since Diderot's and d'Alembert's Encyclopédie:[12]
       The text teaches the reader all steps which were necessary
       for its creation so that all the information it contains
       may be re-applied to itself.
    3. Communication over mailing lists, bugtracking systems and
       IRC
       Free Software development teams almost exclusively
       constitute themselves and communicate over the Internet,
       in mailing lists and on IRC servers. Interpersonal
       communication therefore is a third layer of text which
       regulates the design of both program and documentation
       source text. It operates as a cybernetic feedback loop for
       the development process.
    4. Writing legal text
       Free Software is legally defined. It is software under
       certain licenses, i.e. legal documents. The most common
       types of copyleft include the GNU General Public License
       http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/gpl.html, the BSD License and
       the Perl Artistic License. Whether program source text is
       free solely depends on whether it is copylefted. Legal
       text therefore is the fourth layer of text regulating the
       entire flow of text generated in Free Software projects.
       
   Free Software is thus a highly sophisticated system of
   recursive text generation for a public pool of knowledge. It
   is text code created from text code with text-coded tools and
   textual communication over networks. The types of texts
   processed in Free Software are extremely diverse: They include
   executable binaries,[13] text written in programming languages,
   text written in natural languages for documentation, text
   written in natural languages for communicating and steering
   development, and legal texts defining the fair-play rules of
   the recursive textual processing.
   
Objections

   Both the Free Software engineering and the net artistic camps
   are traditionally skeptical about attempts to read Free
   Software in terms of the net arts. The objections were
   particularly voiced when the Linux kernel was awarded the
   Golden Nica in the "net" category of Ars Electronica 1999.
   At the Wizards of OS conference in the same year, the net
   artist Alexej Shulgin argued that Free Software is
   "functional" while Net.art is "non-functional",
   self-sufficient code.[14]
   
   I do not find this point viable from an analytical
   perspective, since the division between "functional" and
   "non-functional" is purely arbitrary and subjective. I/O/D's
   Web Stalker [I/O97], an experimental Web browser and
   well-known Net.art work, is arguably more "functional" than
   the teddy bear desktop emblem xteddy which is contained in all
   major GNU/Linux distributions. Moreover, the dinstiction
   between "functional" Free Software and "non-functional"
   Net.art falls back into late-romanticist notions of the
   absolute artwork versus lower craftsmanship. It also neglects
   that with its multiple self-applications of text, the
   development and use of Free Software is to a large extent its
   own purpose. No other operating system is as open and
   seductive to be used as an end to itself as GNU/Linux.
   
   Just as arbitrary as the distinction between "functional"
   and "non-functional" software is that between program source
   code and poetry. To date, all attempts to formally define
   poetry and poetic language have failed. The decision whether a
   text is poetry will always be up to the reader. The notion of
   "program code" versus "poetry" was first put into question
   by the French poet and mathematician François le Lionnais, who
   co-founded the Oulipo group with Raymond Queneau. In 1973, le
   Lionnais released a volume of poetry written in the
   programming language Algol. The practice has been revived in
   the 1990s by people who write poems in the Perl scripting
   language.
   
Conclusion

   Read as a net literature and a net culture, Free Software is a
   highly sophisticated system of self-applied text and social
   interactions. No other net culture has invented its computer
   code as thoroughly, and no other net culture has acquired a
   similar awareness of the culture and politics of the digital
   text.
   
   Much Net.art, net literature and critical discourse about them
   has focused on the aesthetics and politics of desktop user
   interfaces. In its focus on code, Free Software shows that net
   cultures are about more than just what is between people and
   the network. To date, it remains a rare example of electronic
   literature which does not confuse the Internet with web
   browsers.
   
   (Acknowledgement: This paper was written using the Free
   Software programs LyX, LaTeX, bibtex, bibtools, pdflatex,
   latex2html, lynx, XEmacs and GNU Ghostscript on an office and
   a home PC running Debian GNU/Linux with reiserfs, XFree86 and
   larswm.)
   
References

   [BMBB^+99]
          Josephine Bosma, Pauline van Mourik Broekman, Ted
          Byfield, Matthew Fuller, Geert Lovink, Diana McCarthy,
          Pit Schultz, Felix Stalder, McKenzie Wark, and Faith
          Wilding, editors. Readme! Filtered by Nettime.
          Autonomedia, Brooklyn, 1999.
   [Bos98]
          Josephine Bosma. Is It a Commercial? Nooo... Is It
          Spam? ... Nooo - It's Net Art. Mute, 10:73-74, 1998.
   [Ced99]
          Per Cederqvist. Version Management with CVS. Signum
          Support AB, Link oping, 1992-1999.
          http://www.lorai.fr/~molli/cvs-index.html.
   [Cra00]
          Florian Cramer. Warum es zuwenig interessante
          Netzdichtung gibt: Neun Thesen, 2000.
          http://userpage.fu-berlin.de/~cantsin/aufsaetze/netzlit
          eratur/karlsruher_thesen.pdf.
   [Deb]
          Debian Project. The Debian Free Software Guidelines.
          http://www.debian.org/social_contract.html
   [Hof99]
          Jeanette Hofmann. Der Erfolg offener Standards und
          seine Nebenwirkungen. Telepolis, 7 1999.
          http://www.heise.de/tp/deutsch/special/wos/6453/1.html.
   [I/O97]
          I/O/D. I/O/D 4: The Web Stalker, 1997.
          http://bak.spc.org/iod/.
   [Kit85]
          Friedrich Kittler. Aufschreibesysteme 1800 1900. Fink,
          München, 1985.
   [Opea]
          The Open Source Initiative. Frequently asked questions
          about open source. http://www.opensource.org/faq.html.
   [Opeb]
          The Open Source Initiative. Open Source Definition.
          http://www.opensource.org/osd.html.
     _________________________________________________________
   
  Footnotes:
  
   1 This paper was presented at the conference Interface 5 on the
   panel Minor Media Operations, Hamburg, Warburg-Haus, September
   15, 2000
   
   2 To quote from Raymond's Frequently Asked Questions about Open
   Source: "The Open Source Initiative is a marketing program
   for free software. It's a pitch for free software on solid
   pragmatic grounds rather than ideological tub-thumping. The
   winning substance has not changed, the losing attitude and
   symbolism have." [Opea]
   
   3 Both the Debian Free Software Guidelines and the Open Source
   Definition were originally drafted by Bruce Perens, a Free
   Software developer and editor of the website technocrat.net
   http://www.technocrat.net.
   
   4 I.e. binary-only software which can be downloaded freely and
   used without licenses fees (Freeware) or by paying
   comparatively small licenses fees (Shareware).
   
   5 A prominent example is the XEmacs http://www.xemacs.orgtext
   editor which "forked" its codebase from GNU Emacs
   http://www.gnu.org/software/emacs/emacs.htm. The same would be
   impossible in open standards development. The social dynamics
   and institutional control of open standards development is
   excellently described in Jeanette Hofmanns (German) essay Der
   Erfolg offener Standards und seine Nebenwirkungen [Hof99].
   
   6 There is an ongoing debate in Free Software culture whether
   operating systems based on the Linux kernel should be called
   "Linux" or rather "GNU/Linux". In order to be functional
   at all, a "Linux" setup relies upon the GNU C Compiler (gcc)
   to translate all program sourcecode into machine-executable
   binary software, the GNU C Library (glibc) as the interface
   between the Linux kernel and userspace applications, and the
   GNU tools for the basic user commands. Although it is possible
   to replace at least the GNU tools and the glibc with non-GNU
   workalikes, all common "Linux" distributions use the Linux +
   GNU software setup. I will therefore stick with the name
   "GNU/Linux" where I refer not only to the kernel, but to the
   whole operating system.
   
   7 Such as Macromedia's Shockwave and Flash in "Net.art",
   Opcode's MAX in electronic music and Eastgate's Storyspace in
   hypertext fictions.
   
   8 The artist group 0100101110101101.ORG
   http://www.0100101110101101.org put this issue up front when
   it mirrored and partially modified well-known Net.art web
   sites on its own web site.
   
   9 Early artistic computer networks like the Thing BBS
   http://www.thing.net charged their subscribers (at least in
   Berlin) before they migrated into the Internet.
   
   10 How net literature--"hyperfiction" and "new media
   poetry"--relates to poetic practices rooted in programmer's
   cultures is discussed in more detail in my (German) paper
   [Cra00].
   
   11 Among those companies are O'Reilly publishers, Sendmail
   Inc., VA Linux, Scriptics, Helix Code and Eazel. All of them
   are involved in the development or documentation of critical
   components of GNU/Linux operating systems.
   
   12 I thank Wau Holland for pointing this out to me in a
   prepatory meeting for the first Wizards of OS conference.
   
   13 Which can be read as "text" if text is linguistically and
   semiotically defined as a finite number of discrete signs
   chosen from a finite set of signs. In computing, "text" is
   rather colloquially understood as code from natural-language
   alphabets as opposed to binary code. Being a philologist, I
   refer to the prior concept of "text".
   
   14 According to [Bos98], the label "Net.art" was coined in 1996
   by the net artist Vuk Cosic. It has been associated with a
   particular generation of net artists since (involving, among
   others, Cosic himself, Heath Bunting, Olia Lialina, Alexej
   Shulgin, jodi and I/O/D).


      c/o Freie Universität Berlin, Seminar für Allgemeine und
   Vergleichende Literaturwissenschaft, Hüttenweg 9, 14195 Berlin


-- 
Florian Cramer, PGP public key ID 6440BA05
<http://userpage.fu-berlin.de/~cantsin/>





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