Jun 1st, 2006 by ravi
Open Source and the Left

I am a member of a few "left" mailing lists, which are typically dominated by Western Orthodox Leftists (typically Marxists) and even tentative mention of open source, by me (an admitted amateur in left theory), is dismissed as irrelevant to left goals, actions, etc. I never quite understood why not. Open source development seems to provide an interesting and successful example of communal effort and production, underpinned by certain ideals (from each according to his abilities and to each according to his need! ;-)) that should warm the heart of leftists.

Not all of the free software / open source movement's principles and functioning is leftist of course. There is a strong libertarian streak running through open source development and certain larger issues (participation within a capitalist system) are poorly addressed. These differences are known within the community, however, and are the subject of ongoing debate. Richard Stallman, the father of what we call today Open Source, goes to great length to stress the political considerations of his movement, and defends his precepts successfully against the newer school (Cathedral/Bazaar types). It seemed strange to me, therefore, that all of this would be so easily dismissed by the entrenched left.

Today, I came across a couple of texts that do seem to take open source a bit more seriously.

One of them is Yochai Benkler's (Yale Law School) book The Wealth of Networks (PDF), the Introduction of which I quote from below:

[A]dvanced economies have shifted from an economy based on production of physical goods and services (e.g., automobiles and textiles, mining and construction) to an economy centered on the production of information goods and services (e.g., cinema and software, legal representation and financial planning).

Second, advanced economies have shifted from a communications
environment relies on an expensive centralized communicator that
broadcasts to a wide audience (e.g., radio, television) to an
environment that relies on a multitude of cheap processors with high computing capacity that are interconnected with one another (i.e., the Internet).

These two shifts make it possible to lessen the market’s
influence over political values. The second shift allows decentralized, non-market production. The first shift means that this new form of production will play a central, rather than peripheral role, in advanced economies.

The first part of this book explores in detail the economic
implications of these two parallel shifts. The central thesis is that a new stage of the information economy is emerging. The industrial information economy of the mid nineteenth and twentieth centuries is now being displaced by the “networked information economy.” The networked information economy is characterized by decentralized individual action carried out through willed distributed, nonmarket means that do not depend on market strategies.

I haven't read the entire book yet, but it promises to be an interesting read. Another book in a similar vein (which Benkler refers to also) is Steven Weber's The Success of Open Source which funnily enough begins:

Several years ago when I began thinking about open source software, I had to convince just about everyone I talked to, outside of a narrow technology community, that this was a real phenomenon and something worth studying in a serious way. I no longer have to make that case.

Clearly, Weber can speak more intelligently of the matter than I can ;-). In the Preface, he goes on to say:

I became interested in open source as an emerging technological community that seemed to solve what I see as very tricky but basically familiar governance problems, in a very unfamiliar and intriguing way. In the end I’ve decided, and I argue in this book, that the open source community has done something even more important. By experimenting with fundamental notions of what constitutes property, this community has reframed and recast some of the most basic problems of governance. At the same time, it is remaking the politics and economics of the software world. If you believe (as I do) that software constitutes at once some of the core tools and core rules for the future of how human beings work together to create wealth, beauty, new ideas, and solutions to problems, then understanding how open source can change those processes is very important.

Now, why couldn't I have put it that way, when arguing for the importance of examining open source! Below is a bit more from the Introduction, followed by a link:

This is a book about property and how it underpins the social organization of cooperation and production in a digital era. I mean “property” in a broad sense—not only who owns what, but what it means to own something, what rights and responsibilities property confers, and where those ideas come from and how they spread. It is a story of how social organization can change the meaning of property, and conversely, how shifting notions of property can alter the possibilities of social organization. I explain the creation of a particular kind of software—open source software—as an experiment in social organization around a distinctive notion of property. The conventional notion of property is, of course, the right to exclude you from using something that belongs to me. Property in open source is configured fundamentally around the right to distribute, not the right to exclude. If that sentence feels awkward on first reading, that is a testimony to just how deeply embedded in our intuitions and institutions the exclusion view of property really is. Open source is an experiment in building a political economy—that is, a system of sustainable value creation and a set of governance mechanisms. In this case it is a governance system that holds together a community of producers around this counterintuitive notion of property rights as distribution. It is also a political economy that taps into a broad range of human motivations and relies on a creative and evolving set of organizational structures to coordinate behavior.

There is an excerpt in PDF from the book available for download from Harvard University Press.

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2 Responses

  • Doyle Saylor says:

    Well I’m glad you posted this to Pen-L. When I raised the importance of Networked computing I think 4 years ago it was roundly discouraged in Pen-L as a part of the hype related to the dotcom bubble.

    I think the open source model is just a prelimenary until we gain better understanding of human cognitive abilities; emotion structure, the distinction between language and other forms of mental work processes.

    Bit Torrent demonstrates how networked processes are difficult to construct and the necessary experience base is limited. It’s success of course shows how unexplored the possibilities are.

    In my view what really drives networked culture is the large size of files that could be further utilized if the network properties were better served by support applications. This requires I think some gathering of design ideas from nervous system structures, more generally available tools to work with, and better networked hardware.
    Doyle Saylor

  • […] I have mentioned earlier the downplaying of the open source movement within the more orthodox segments of the western left. James Boyle writes in the Financial Times about this close-mindedness bias (he is speaking about the general population): A closed mind about an open world By James Boyle […]

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