Characterising the Open Source Movement: It’s not the ‘new socialism’

Just as I reach the end of reading Rebel Code by Glyn Moody , a riveting (to my mind) early history of GNU/Linux (subtitled Linux and the Open Source Revolution), Kevin Kelly’s article in Wired mag comes to my attention. Kelly claims the open source movement is ‘the new socialism’.

No, it isn’t.

For example, there is no way on God’s earth that someone like Eric Raymond, author of The Cathedral and the Bazaar (not to mention The Hacker’s Dictionary) could sensibly be described as a socialist, and Kevin Kelly must surely know this. The same goes for Richard Stallman, who may be seen by some as a free software ‘fundamentalist’ but who is also, as Rebel Code notes, one of the first people to have made serious money selling the stuff (but then maybe he actually is a socialist). Indeed Kelly begins to acknowledge the libertarian streak in the Open Source ideology, but then, less helpfully, backs right off in favour of a rather superficial resort to ‘socialism’. I’m going to blame his editors.

He’s not completely wrong, of course. In some ways Open Source has a precedent in the Co-operative movement, (founded, arguably, by the entrepreneur Robert Owen) which has very successfully co-existed with capitalism for its entire existence. For example, in the UK, the largest funeral director is a co-operative and in the US, Visa is effectively based on the co-operative model. While Co-operation is easily characterised as a sub-set of socialism, I’d argue (but not here) that it isn’t that simple.

Further, the Open Source movement only partially resembles co-operative models, since the latter are resolutely Egalitarian, whereas the former clearly isn’t. With Open Source there is something else going on.

In terms of Grid-Group Cultural Theory, one of the chief subjects of this website, I think the Open Source movement can better be characterised as a ‘low grid’ phenomenon with two competing wings: Individualist and Egalitarian. In response to the ‘problem’ of software development it is a clumsy solution which tends to by-pass the Hierarchical culture of corporations such as Microsoft and Apple and cause that culture all sorts of conceptual headaches.

But where Open Source really comes into its own is where there is a successful marriage between low-grid open source and high-grid hierarchy. On the face of it this might seem impossible, but it’s a trick nicely pulled off by IBM, at one time the big blue epitomy of a hierarchical corporation. Note that IBM didn’t adopt open source because it suddenly saw the light and converted from Hierarchy to Individualism or Egalitarianism. The shift came about, rather, because in the face of a crisis – the cannibalization of the commercial UNIX market – Open Source presented a way forward, light at the end of the tunnel, and provided numerous benefits including convergence of standards and improved portability. Another example, of hundreds, is the BT Group, a multinational telecommunications company, which acknowledges using 29 Open Source products.
Neither IBM nor BT is now nor ever has been socialist.

Where Kelly is correct is to sense, however incompletely, that the long running so-called ‘crisis of the left’ , in which left-wing parties have only been able to gain power by moving to the right, might just have a solution in among these new currents of techno-sociability. His analysis could be misleading, though, to the extent that it conveys the impression that merely using Open Office instead of Word, WordPress instead of Blogger, is going to bring about ‘the change we need’. It’s hard to maintain the laughable view that as a side box to Kelly’s article puts it ‘Harsh penalties for criticizing leaders’ in the old socialism can be replaced by ‘Passionate opinions on the Huffington Post’ in the new. And furthermore, there’s endless opportunity for subversion, where companies such as Google offer (search) freedom with one hand while taking away (data) freedom with the other. As that famous old socialist Winston Churchill once averred: the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. There’s a lot more to be said about the need for the Open Source movement to be complemented by an Open Data movement. Because one without the other has no future.

One place the Left is reinventing itself today is in tech-enabled opposition to despotism and repression. By finding new means of sharing, sharing itself is being re-invented. Co-operation has been re-branded by the new technology of co-operation. Whereas once sharing was timeless, and therefore old-fashioned, these days it is timely and therefore it’s the latest thing.

This was seen to some extent in Obama’s ability to raise phenomenal micro-funds via online networking and is now seen in the Iranian opposition’s use of mobile technology to circumvent censorship around the recent elections. It would be easy to argue that the technology is merely a tool, but in truth both the tool itself and its mode of deployment help to shape the wielder. As Tim O’Reilly wrote in his open source paradigm shift paper:
‘We must understand the ways in which the means by which software is deployed changes the way in which it is created and used.’

An interesting read on all of this is Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody, and this can be supplemented by the considerably more radical Derek Wall’s Babylon and Beyond: The Economics of Anti-Capitalist, Anti-globalist Radical Green Movements.

These movements often look not much at all like 20th Century socialism and much more like the radical democracy of, dare I say it, the American (or even the English) Revolution. It’s as though someone gave Thomas Paine a web-enabled mobile phone. Better late than never.
See some of the essays in Rebooting America
Tom Watson said recently, resigning as a minister in the quasi-left wing UK Government:

“There are technologies that did not exist when Labour was elected in 1997, that if adopted, will allow a new Speaker to lead parliament into a new age of transparency and accountability.”

As I said, better late than never.


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