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Re: <nettime> Interview with Christopher Kelty: the Culture of Free Soft
Florian Cramer on Wed, 27 Aug 2008 03:29:52 +0200 (CEST)


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Re: <nettime> Interview with Christopher Kelty: the Culture of Free Software


On Sunday, August 24 2008, 10:09 (+0200), Geert Lovink wrote:

> the dominance of  the conservative-libertarian pop ideology within open
> source/free  software circles (see www.slashdot.org). 

A small critical footnote: While Slashdot started as an Open
Source/Free Software site in the late 1990s, it has shifted its focus
some years ago towards "geek culture" in the broadest and most general
sense. While am writing this, only 3 of the 18 articles on the Slashdot
front page are on Open Source topics, while others such as "The Best
Gaming PC Money Can Buy" address users of non-free operating systems.
According to the Wikipedia article
<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slashdot>, "a poll on Slashdot suggests
that approximately half of all Slashdot visitors use Microsoft Windows
as their operating system, a third use some form of Linux, and above ten
percent use Mac OS X". It's been a long time - ten years, actually -
that the Slashdot forums were a Who's Who of FLOSS developers and
activists (just as it's been a long time that Nettime was the
communication hub of net art).

For Free Software developer culture, the site www.lwn.net has been
arguably the most important and influential voice and discussion forum
for quite some time. Neither its writing style, nor its content falls
into the category of "conservative-libertarian pop ideology". [Chris
himself brings up sound arguments to counter this assumption.] It is, in
fact, an excellent critical resource on technology and politics.

Chris says in the interview:

> In Two Bits, I wanted to capture why it is that a large and very  
> diverse global population of people recognize and find affinity with  
> each other. They do that by understanding, using and building free  
> software, which is in turn deeply interconnected with the growth and  
> spread of the Internet itself. So the type "geek" doesn't come first-- 
> it is the result of adopting certain practices and habits, learning  
> particular histories and myths, and becoming deeply committed to  
> certain political ideals--and changing them as well. 

[With a grain of salt, since I haven't read "Two Bits" yet:] The
Slashdot example shows how the equation of Free Software/Open Source and
"geek culture" indeed had its truth in the late 1990s. But I doubt that
it still works today:

- Open Source operating systems no longer unite all "geeks". While Linux
  might have carried that promise ten years ago, it has remained largely
  a server and embedded operating system, even for hardcore
  technologists.  Gamers, for example, are on Windows more than
  ever before [while in the late 1990s, Linux was ID Software's pet
  operating system]. Many people, including a sizable number of free
  software developers, who had once embraced Linux as a desktop OS 
  switched to Mac OS X. [One arbitrary source:
  http://humbleblogger.blogspot.com/2005/06/linux-gui-vs-mac-os-x-gui.html ]

  This goes along with shifts in "geek culture". For example, the mantra
  of "openness" is now sung for "Web 2.0" with its double-edged sword of
  user-generated content within frameworks and infrastructures under
  corporate control. This is the perfect IT equivalent of capitalist
  libertarianism, and most techno-libertarians have flocked there.

- Vice versa, Open Source has become a lot less "geeky" through
  projects like Mozilla, Ubuntu, Creative Commons [to the limited extent 
  that its licenses actually qualify as Open Source], and the common use
  of self-administered Linux-based web servers and content management
  systems through bloggers and other web publishers.

> CK: I wrote a lot of stuff before the book, arguing with Raymond  
> (mostly in my head) and trying to figure out how to position this  
> person who is the ultimate "principle informant" in anthropological  
> terms--someone who has deep experience of, and tries to formulate  
> theories and explanations about, the practices that an anthropologist  
> wants to explain. 

Another minor critique: Raymond had his few years of fame in the late
1990s after writing "The Cathedral and the Bazaar" and launching the
Open Source Initiative, but it's been more than half a decade now that
he has faded into utter irrelevance. His homepage was last updated in
2003, he is no longer involved with the Open Source Initiative or with
any software development projects I am aware of.  Younger free software
developers or users often do not know him anymore; he is hardly ever
discussed on sites like lwn.net or, if so, with overwhelmingly negative
feedback. It seems fair to say that he lost his credit in Open
Source/Free Software communities, comparable perhaps to how Hillary
Clinton lost credit as a progressive politician.  Along these lines,
Wikipedia's biographical summary on Raymond states that he became
"[a]fter the 1997 publication of "The Cathedral and the Bazaar" [...]
for a number of years, an informal representative of the open source
movement".

> into the vibrant phenomenon it is, and so I include him (and Stallman  
> and Torvalds and Perens and O'Reilly and others) as one component of  
> five--the "movement"--which makes up the practices of Free Software.  

Again, I would criticize this as outmoded, or a snapshot of what Open
Source/Free Software culture was in public perception roughly between
1997 and 2002. Perens has almost disappeared, too, O'Reilly has morphed
into the coiner and guru of Web 2.0. Even back in the late 1990s/early
2000s, the story of those "five" was a gross simplification, cooked up
by journalists in home stories, celebrity soap operas and false
mythologies like the one of "the Finnish student who wrote his own
operating system" in order to make a phenomenon based on large-scale and
mostly unglamorous collective labor more tangible to audiences that were
not yet familiar with such cultural dynamics. Back then, Free Software
development had already been a too large collective phenomenon to easily
funnel into standard media narratives. (In the news media coverage of
Wikipedia - singling out Jim Wales and fabricating Larry Sangers into
his antagonist - history repeats itself again.) 

> GL: Rishab Ayer Ghosh and his Cooking Pot Theory would be another  
> case. But anyway. Maybe it was a missed opportunity that you have not  
> dwelled upon your Raymond criticism. There is no culture of debate  
> and criticism in these circles. Look at Stallman and how hysterically  
> he responds if you criticize him for his embarrassing lack of  
> knowledge of political philosophy, talking about freedom this and  
> that. We, social scientists and humanities scholars are supposed to  
> learn Linux, know the technical basics of operating systems, but the  
> other way around, forget it. 

Again, I see this as a perception of the aforementioned times, and the
dynamics of congresses like "Wizards of OS" [in whose programming and
organization I was involved, too, so the following is some self-
flagellation:] which were mostly made by and for an audience of
"social scientists and humanities scholars" and placed too much
importance on people considered political or philosophical spokespeople of
Free Software/Open Source.

The argument goes indeed both ways. Not only was, and is, the political
and social naivite among engineers sometimes shocking, but at "WOS" (in
Berlin) or "CODE" (in Cambridge) it was equally odd to see people from
the humanities and social sciences praise Linux on Powerpoint slides
from their Windows or Apple laptops; as if cultural Internet studies
would have been conducted by people who themselves were only on
CompuServe, AOL or Minitel back in the days when those still were their
own self-contained, closed, user-friendly networks while the actual
Internet was quirky to use and difficult to set up on PCs.

> Engineers can say whatever they want  about society, and get away with
> it. 

Maybe that was a weakness of the aforementioned conferences, and I
full-heartedly agree with Chris when he says:

> I would argue to the contrary, however, that there is indeed an  
> extremely well developed culture of debate in hacker circles, once  
> you get beyond the demagogues, and this is something Gabriella  
> Coleman has captured well in her work. Projects like Debian and  
> Ubuntu represent the best of that culture, I think, combining an even- 
> increasing understanding of the political and legal issues with the  
> technical sophistication. 

...although Ubuntu falls into the problematic realm of a project
controlled by a venture capital-funded, CEO-driven startup company
(Mark Shuttleworth's Canonical Inc.) with a somewhat problematic record
of upstream developer collaboration and an unclear business model. It's
not only the story of Web companies all over again, but is raising the
same concerns and controversial discussion within Free Software culture,
for example on LWN.net: http://lwn.net/Articles/294542/

> deeper issues have started to become clearer. A new generation of  
> "software studies" might be able to move beyond the logic of newness  
> that dominates the world of IT and software; it could be a chance to  
> identify a "longer duree" of political, economic and cultural issues  
> of which each new generation of cool tools and "new" ideas are seen  
> to be expressions. That might allow scholars to gain purchase on this  
> sense of rapid change and simultaneously to become more authentically  
> critical of the claims of each new generation of toys. That would be  
> a real achievement.

My understanding is that this is exactly what the more recent "Software
Studies" conferences and publications organized by Matthew Fuller and
Lev Manovich tried to achieve [with the "shameless plug"-caveat that
I, and my institution, have been involved in some of those].

> GL: Open and free are two key concepts if we want to understand the  
> significance of free software. There is a great chapter in your book  
> on the history, the use and abuse, of the term openness. You did not  
> write about the confusion about free and freedom. You have not  
> deconstructed the Cult of the Free into the realm of peer to peer  
> networks, or the debate about precarity, for instance. Why not?
> 
> CK: Well, in a way I've tried to do this in a different idiom--that  
> of publics and public spheres. For me, the language of freedom and  
> openness?and the concern with definitions, principles and the  
> enumeration of freedoms are a small part of the phenomenon of Free  
> Software. I repeatedly insist that what makes Free Software  
> interesting is that whether you call it free, libre or open, whether  
> you are with or against Stallman, as long as the other four practices  
> are in place (sharing source code, copyleft, coordinating  
> collaboration, open infrastructure debates), then the shouting  
> doesn't matter--it only matters that those vitriolic debates are  
> conducted *in the service of* the other four components, and the  
> phenomenon of FLOSS as such. The debates very rarely imply clear  
> practical choices about how to do FLOSS, they are much more often  
> about the meaning of it.

This can also be phrased in the politically more disillusioning terms
of my co-worker Calum Selkirk: The concept of "freedom" that serves as
the lowest common denominator of FLOSS simply is consumer rights,
nothing more, nothing less. It does, per se, not go any deeper than
Ralph Nader's "Consumer Task Force For Automotive Issues". The
"freedoms" that are defined, almost identically, in GNU's "Free Software
Definition", Debian's "Social Contract" and OSI's "Open Source
Definition" are nothing more than a educated common sense about computer
software that doesn't fuck its users in the small print and doesn't turn
them into proprietary upgrade dependents for the rest of their lives.
The popular comparison of FLOSS with a car whose hood isn't welded shut
therefore sums it all up.  The only difference, which not even many
FLOSS activists realized in the beginning, lies in the implication for
culture: that welding the hood of _information_ technology shut reaches
farther and is infinitely scarier than keeping transportation technology
proprietary.

-F

-- 
http://cramer.plaintext.cc:70
gopher://cramer.plaintext.cc


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