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<nettime> Interview with Stefan Merten, Nov 2001
kadian antal on Fri, 7 Dec 2001 07:41:27 +0100 (CET)


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<nettime> Interview with Stefan Merten, Nov 2001


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//   FREE SOFTWARE &  G P L  SOCIETY   //

<< Interview with Stefan Merten, Oekonux, Germany 
>> by Joanne Richardson, November 2001

>> Q: Oekonux - an abbreviation of "OEKOnomie" and
"liNUX" -  is a German mailing list discussing the
revolutionary possibilities of Free Software. Many
people speak of Free Software and Open Source Software
interchangeably - could you explain how you understand
the differences between them?

The term "Free Software" is older than "Open Source".
"Free Software" is used by the Free Software
Foundation [http://www.fsf.org/] founded by Richard
Stallman in 1985. The term "Open Source" has been
developed by Eric S. Raymond and others, who, in 1998,
founded the Open Source Initiative
[http://www.opensource.org/]. It's not so much a
question of definition as of the philosophy behind the
two parts of the movement - the differences between
the definition of Open Source Software and Free
Software are relatively few. But whereas Free Software
emphasizes the freedom Free Software gives the users,
Open Source does not care about freedom. The Open
Source Initiative (OSI) was founded exactly for the
reason to make Free Software compatible with business
people's thinking, and the word "freedom" has been
considered harmful for that purpose. 

>> Q: Free software means the freedom to run, copy,
distribute, study, change and improve the software,
and these freedoms are protected by the GNU General
Public License. The definition presupposes open
sources as the necessary condition for studying how
the software works and for making changes, but it also
implies more. The definition of Open Source is quite
close: it means the ability to read, redistribute, and
modify the source code - but because this is a better,
faster way to improve software. Openess = speed = more
profit.  The Open Source Initiative proclaims quite
proudly that it exists in order to persuade the
"commercial world" of the superiority of open sources
on "the same pragmatic, business-case grounds that
motivated Netscape." But recently, it is the term
"Open Source" that has gained popularity  and by
analogy everything has become "Open"--open source
society, open source money, open source schooling (to
echo some of the titles of panels of the last Wizards
of OS conference in Berlin.)

Indeed the Open Source Initiative has been extremely
successful in pushing the freedom-subtracted term into
people's heads. Today people from the Free Software
Foundation always feel the need to emphasize that it's
the freedom that is important - more important than
the efficiency of production, which is the primary aim
behind open source. Of course open sources are a
precondition for most of this freedom, but open
sources are not the core idea of Free Software and so
Open Source is at least a misnomer. 

>> Q: How do you mean it's a "misnomer"?  The two
movements exist and the names correspond to the
different ideas behind them. And "Open Source" is the
name the people from this initiative chose for
themselves, and seems quite an accurate
characterization of their focus. 

Free Software and Open Source Software are not two
movements, but a single movement with two factions,
and as far as I can see the distinction plays a major
role mostly in the more ideological discussions
between members of the two factions. They are
collaborating on projects, and sometimes unite, for
instance, when it is a question of defending against
the attacks of Micro$oft
[http://perens.com/Articles/StandTogether.html]. 

And, no, "Open Source" is not an accurate
characterization of this faction, since their focus
has been making Free Software compatible with business
people's thinking. A more correct name would have been
"Free Software for Business" - or something like that.

>> Q: What seems misleading to me is that the leftist
intelligentsia has begun to use "Open Source" as a
cause to promote without realizing the pro-capitalist
connotations behind the term.

Today the widespread inflation of the term "Open
Source" has a deep negative impact. Often the core
idea behind Free Software - establishing the freedom
of the user - is not known to people who are only
talking of Open Source - be it leftist intelligentsia
or other people. I think this is a pity and would
recommend using only the term Free Software because
this is the correct term for the phenomenon. You don't
call "green" "red" if "green" is the right term - do
you? After all, even "Open Source" software would not
be successful if the practical aspect of freedom was
not inherent in its production and use. Interestingly,
in an article entitled "Its Time to Talk about Free
Software Again," one of the founders of the Open
Source Initiative also considers the current
development as wrong.
[http://www.perens.com/perens_com/Articles/ItsTimeToTalkAboutFreeSoftwareAgain.html]

>> Q: The idea behind Oekonux began, in kernel form at
the first Wizards of OS conference in Berlin in 1999.
How did the motivation to begin Oekonux develop from
this context? 

I had the idea that Free Software is something very
special and may have a real potential for a different
society beyond labor, money, exchange - in short:
capitalism - in 1998. In September 1998, I tried to
make that a topic on the Krisis mailing list. However,
next to nobody was interested. In July 1999, I
attended the first "Wizard of Open Source"
[http://www.mikro.org/Events/OS] conference organized
by mikro in Berlin, and was especially interested in
the topic "New economy?". However, in the context of
the idea I mentioned above - the potential to
transform society -  I found the ideas presented there
not very interesting. After the talks I took the
opportunity to organize a spontaneous BOF (Birds Of a
Feather) session and luckily it worked well. So we sat
there with about 20 people and discussed the ideas
presented in the talks. At the end I asked all the
people to give me their e-mail address.

After the WOS conference, mikro created a mailing list
for us - and that was the birth of the Oekonux mailing
list which is the core of the project. In December
1999 I created the web site [www.oekonux.de]. Its main
purpose is to archive the mailing list. Texts and
other material created in the context of the project
is presented there as well as links to web sites and
pages relevant to our discussion in some way. There is
also an English/international part of the project
([www.oekonux.org] archiving [list-en {AT} oekonux.org]),
which, however, is still nearly non-existent. I find
this a pity but unfortunately until now there is
nobody with enough free time and energy to give this
part of the project a real start. So until today all
the material is in German and there are only a few
translations of the texts. In June 2000 I created
another mailing list ([projekt {AT} oekonux.de]) which is
concerned with the organization of the project. 

During April 28-30, 2001 in Dortmund we had the first
Oekonux conference
([http://www.oekonux-konferenz.de/]), which brought
together people from different areas who were
interested in the principles of Free Software and the
possible consequences of these principles on their
particular field. The conference was attended by about
170 persons from a very broad range of ages and
backgrounds, from software developers, to political
theorists and scientists. It was a very exciting
conference with a perfect atmosphere and another
milestone in the way we and - if we're not completely
wrong - the whole world is going. The next conference
is planned to take place in Nov 1-3, 2002.

>> Q: How active and large is the list? 

>From the start we have had very interesting
discussions with some silent periods but usually an
average of 6-8 mails a day. The atmosphere on the list
is very pleasant and flames are nearly unknown.
Fortunately it has not been necessary to moderate the
list, as it regulates itself very well. The
discussions are very contentful and this interview
would not have been possible without them. They cover
a wide number of details but nearly always stay on the
central topic of the list: the possible impacts of
Free Software on society. At the moment we have about
200 subscribers at [liste {AT} oekonux.de], who come from a
wide range of intellectual traditions and areas of
interest. Though of course they all share a common
interest in political thought, there are people from
the Free Software and Hardware areas as well as
engineers of different brands, hard core political
people as well as people with a main interest in
culture and so on. Though the traffic is quite high we
have nearly no unsubscriptions which I think is a
proof for the quality of the list. 

>> Q: In a previous interview with Geert Lovink
[http://www.nettime.org/cgi-bin/wilma_hiliter/nettime/200104/msg00127.html?line=8]
 you mentioned that the relationship between free
software and Marxism is one of the central topics
debated on the list ... Do you think Marx is still
relevant for an analysis of contemporary society?
Could you give an idea of the scope of this debate on
the list?

First of all we recognize the difference between Marx'
views and the views of the different Marxist currents.
Although different brands of Marxism have distorted
Marx' thought to the point where it has become
unrecognizable, I tend to think that only Marx'
analysis gives us the chance to understand what is
going on today. The decline of the labor society we
are all witnessing in various ways cannot be
understood without that analysis. The Krisis group
[http://www.krisis.org] has offered a contemporary
reading of Marx, claiming that capitalism is in decay
because the basic movement of making money from labor
works less and less. This doesn't mean that capitalism
must end soon, but it won't ever be able to hold its
old promises of wealth for all. A number of people on
the Oekonux mailing list have built upon the Krisis
theories and carried them onto new ground. On the list
among other things we try to interpret Marx in the
context of Free Software. It's very interesting that
much of what Marx said about the final development of
capitalism can be seen in Free Software. In a sense,
we try to re-think Marx from a contemporary
perspective, and interpret current capitalism as
containing a germ form of a new society. 

>> Q: According to many circles, Marx is obsolete - he
was already obsolete in the sixties, when the mass
social upheavals and the so-called new social
movements showed that not class but other forms of
oppressive power had become determining instances and
that the economic base was not the motor that moved
contradictions.

I think that at that time the economic base was not as
mature as it has become today. In the last ten to
twenty years Western societies started to base their
material production and all of society more and more
on information goods. The development of computers as
universal information processors with ever increasing
capacity is shifting the focal point of production
from the material side to the immaterial, information
side. I think that today the development of the means
of production in capitalism has entered a new
historical phase.

The most important thing in this shift in the means of
production is that information has very different
features than matter. First of all, information may be
copied without loss - at least digital information
using computers. Second and equally important, the
most effective way to produce interesting information
is to foster creativity. Free Software combines these
two aspects, resulting in a new form of production.
Obviously Free Software uses the digital copy as a
technical basis. Thus Free Software, like any digital
information, is not a scarce good; contrary to the IPR
(intellectual property rights) people, the Free
Software movement explicitly prevents making Free
Software scarce. So, scarcity, which has always been a
fundamental basis for capitalism, is not present in
Free Software: Existing Free Software is available for
next to zero price.

More importantly, however, the organization of the
production of Free Software differs widely from that
of commodities produced for maximizing profit. For
most Free Software producers there is no other reason
than their own desire to develop that software. So the
development of Free Software is based on the
self-unfolding or self-actualization of the single
individual. This form of non-alienated production
results in better software because the use of the
product is the first and most important aim of the
developer - there simply is no profit which could be
maximized. The self-unfolding of the single person is
present in the process of production, and the
self-unfolding of the many is ensured by the
availability of high quality Free Software.

Another important factor is that capitalism is in deep
crisis.Until the 1970s capitalism promised a better
world to people in the Western countries, to people in
the former Soviet bloc and to the
Third World. It stopped doing it starting in the 1980s
and dismissed it completely in the 1990s. Today the
capitalist leaders are glad if they are able to fix
the biggest leaks in the sinking
ship. The resources used for that repair are
permanently increasing- be it financial operations to
protect Third World states from the inability to pay
their debt, or the kind of military operations we see
in Afghanistan today.

These processes were not mature in the 1960s but they
are today. Maybe today for the first time in history
we are able to overcome capitalism on the bases it has
provided, by transcending it into a new society that
is less harmful than the one we have.

>> Q: How can Free Software "overcome" capitalism from
the bases it has provided? The idea of a dialectical
negation of capitalism (an immanent critique from the
inside that takes over the same presuppositions of the
system it negates) has frequently been discredited.
Both Marx and Lenin's ideas of a dialectical negation
of capitalism preserved the imperative of
productivity, the utility of instrumental technology,
the repressive apparatus of the State, police and
standing army, as a necessary "first stage."  And if
you start from the inside, you will never get anywhere
else . . .  the argument goes. 

Free Software is both inside and outside capitalism.
On the one hand, the social basis for Free Software
clearly would not exist without a flourishing
capitalism. Only a flourishing capitalism can provide
the opportunity to develop something that is not for
exchange. On the other hand, Free Software is outside
of capitalism for the reasons I mentioned above:
absence of scarcity and self-unfolding instead of the
alienation of labor in a command economy. This kind of
relationship between the old and the new system is
typical for germ forms - for instance you can see it
in the early stage of capitalist development, when
feudalism was still strong.

>> Q: In what sense is the production of Free Software
not "alienated"? One of the reasons that labor is
alienated is because the workers sells a living thing
- qualitatively different forms of productive activity
which in principle can't be measured - in exchange for
a general measure, money. As Marx said somewhere, the
worker does not care about the shitty commodities he
is producing, he just does it for this abstract
equivalent, the money he receives as compensation. 

It seems you're talking about the difference between
use value - the use of goods or labor  - and exchange
value - reflected in the price of the commodities that
goods or labor are  transformed into by being sold on
the market. It's true that the use value of goods as
well as labor is qualitatively different. It's also
true that the exchange value of a commodity - be it a
commodity or wage labor - is a common measure, an
abstraction of the qualitative features of a product.
But after all you need a common measure to base an
exchange on. One of the problems of capitalism is that
this abstraction is the central motor of society. The
use of something - which would be the important thing
in a society focusing on living well - is only loosely
bound to that abstraction. That is the basis of the
alienation of work performed for a wage. In Free
Software because the product can be taken with only
marginal cost and, more importantly, is not created
for being exchanged, the exchange value of the product
is zero. Free Software is worthless in the dominant
sense of exchange.

Free Software may be produced for numerous reasons -
but not for exchange. If there is no external
motivation - like making money - there must be
internal motivations for the developers. These
internal motivations, which are individually very
different, are what we call self-unfolding (from the
German term "Selbstentfaltung", similar but not
completly the same as "self-development"). Without
external motivations, there is not much room for
alienation.

Of course self-unfolding is a common phenomenon in
other areas, such as art or hobbies. However, Free
Software surpasses the older forms of self-unfolding
in several ways and this is what makes it interesting
on the level of social change:

* Most products of self-unfolding may be useful for
some persons, but this use is relatively limited. Free
Software, however, delivers goods which are useful for
a large number of persons - virtually everybody with a
computer.

* Most products of self-unfolding are the results of
outmoded forms of production, like craft-work. Free
Software is produced using the most advanced means of
production mankind has available.

* Most products of self-unfolding are the fruits of
the work of one individual. Free Software depends on
collaborative work - it is usually developed by
international teams and with help from the users of
the product.

* All products of self-unfolding I can think of have
been pushed away once the same product becomes
available on the market. By contrast, Free Software
has already started to push away software developed
for maximizing profit in some areas, and currently
there seems to be no general limit to this process.

So contrary to older forms of self-unfolding Free
Software provides a model in which self-unfolding
becomes relevant on a social level. The products of
this sort of self-unfolding can even be interesting
for commercial use.

>> Q: Some theorists have analyzed the internet as a
kind of "gift" economy. In other words, it is not
subject to measure and exchange. Things are freely
produced and freely taken. And unlike exchange, which
has a kind of finality (I pay one dollar I buy one
bottle of Coca Cola, and it's over), the gift, since
it cannot be measured, is a kind of infinite
reciprocity. Gifts are not about calculation of value,
but about building social relationships. Do you see
Free Software as a gift "economy"?

I don't like talking about gifts in Free Software or
in terms of the Internet in general. There is no
reciprocity in Free Software as, similarly, there is
no reciprocity on the Internet. I have used thousands
of web pages and millions of lines of code contained
in Free Software without giving anything back. There
simply is no reciprocity and even better: there is no
need for reciprocity. You simply take what you need
and you provide what you like. It's not by chance,
that this reflects the old demand of "Everybody
according to his/her needs".

Indeed there are several attempts, which are at best
misleading, to understand the Internet and/or Free
Software in terms of capitalist dogmas. The talk about
"gift economies" is one of them, because it focuses on
gifts as some sort of - non-capitalist but nonetheless
- exchange. Even worse is the talk of an "attention
economy" which defines attention as a kind of
currency. The Internet, and especially Free Software
are new phenomena which can't be understood adequately
by using the familiar thought patterns of capitalism.

>> Q: In what sense is "GPL Society" beyond the
familiar thought patterns of capitalism? 

With the term "GPL Society" we named a society based
on the principles of production of Free Software.
These principles are:

* self-unfolding as the main motivation for
production,
* irrelevance of exchange value, so the focus is on
the use value,
* free cooperation between people,
* international teams. 

Though the term has been controversial for some time,
today it is widely accepted in Oekonux. I like the
term particularly *because* you can't associate
anything with it that you already know. GPL Society
describes something new, which we try to discover,
explore and understand in the Oekonux project.
Ironically, part of this process of understanding has
reached the conclusion that a GPL Society would no
longer need General Public License because there won't
be any copyright. So at least at this time maybe it
should be renamed ;-) .

As I tried to explain Free Software is not based on
exchange so neither is a GPL Society. How a GPL
Society may look like concretely can't be determined
fully today. However, at present there are many
developments which already point in that direction.

* One development is the increasing obsolescence of
human labor. The more production is done by machines
the less human labor is needed in the production
process. If freed from the chains of capitalism this
development would mean freedom from more and more
necessities, making room for more processes of
self-unfolding - be it productive processes like Free
Software or non-productive ones like many hobbies. So
contrary to capitalism, in which increasing automation
always destroys the work places for people and thus
their means to live, in a GPL Society maximum
automation would be an important aim of the whole
society.

* In every society based on exchange - which includes
the former Soviet bloc - making money is the dominant
aim. Because a GPL Society would not be based on
exchange, there would be no need for money anymore.
Instead of the abstract goal of maximizing profit, the
human oriented goal of fulfilling the needs of
individuals as well as of mankind as a whole would be
the focus of all activities.

* The increased communication possibilities of the
Internet will become even more important than today.
An ever increasing part of production and development
will take place on the Internet or will be based on
it. The B2B (business to business) concept, which is
about improving the information flow between
businesses producing commodities, shows us that the
integration of production into information has just
started. On the other hand the already visible
phenomenon of people interested in a particular area
finding each other on the Internet will become central
for the development of self-unfolding groups.

* The difference between consumers and producers will
vanish more and more. Already today the user can
configure complex commodities like cars or furniture
to some degree, which makes virtually each product an
individual one, fully customized to the needs of the
consumer. This increasing configurability of products
is a result of the always increasing flexibility of
the production machines. If this is combined with good
software you could initiate the production of highly
customized material goods allowing a maximum of
self-unfolding - from your web browser up to the point
of delivery.

* Machines will become even more flexible. New type of
machines available for some years now (fabbers,
[http://www.ennex.com/fabbers/index.sht]) are already
more universal in some areas than modern industrial
robots - not to mention stupid machines like a punch.
The flexibility of the machines is a result of the
fact that  material production is increasingly based
on information. At the same time the increasing
flexibility of the machines gives the users more room
for creativity and thus for self-unfolding.

* In a GPL society there is no more reason for a
competition beyond the type of competition we see in
sports. Instead various kinds of fruitful cooperation
will take place. You can see that today not only in
Free Software but also (partly) in science and for
instance in cooking recipes: Imagine your daily meal
if cooking recipes would be proprietary and available
only after paying a license fee instead of being the
result of a world-wide cooperation of cooks.

>> Q: This sounds very utopian: Free Software as the
sign of the end of capitalism and the transformation
of the new society? How do you predict this
transformation coming about - spontaneously, as the
economic basis of capitalist production just withers
away? 

I hope these more or less utopian thoughts give an
idea of the notion of a GPL Society as it is currently
discussed within the Oekonux project. And it's not
Free Software in itself which may transform
capitalism. Instead, the principles of the production
of Free Software - which have developed within
capitalism! - provide a more effective way of
production on the one hand and more freedom on the
other. The main question is how is it possible to
translate these principles to other areas. 

I tried to explain how Free Software - as a germ form
of the GPL society - is inside as well as outside of
capitalism. I think Free Software is only the most
visible of the new forms which together have the
potential to lead us into a different society.
Capitalism has developed the means of production to
such an extent that people can use them for something
new.  Of course, the transformation also requires a
political process and although historically the
preconditions now are better than ever before there is
no automatic step that will lead to the GPL society.
People have to want this process. However, I'm quite
optimistic that they will, because Free Software shows
us, in microcosm, how a better life would look, so the
GPL Society is in the best interest of people. And
Oekonux is there to understand the process of this
change, and perhaps at some point our thoughts may
help to push the development forward :-) .



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