Florian Cramer on Mon, 2 Nov 1998 19:14:53 +0100

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<nettime> Re: The Hi-Tech Gift Economy

I would like to address some issues in Richard Barbrook's essay. To write of


...might reflect a popular view of the Internet in the early 1990s, but
perhaps needs to be revised today.

>computer-mediated communications. On the contrary, they were developing
>these new technologies to advance their careers inside the academic gift
>economy. Far from wanting to enforce copyright, the pioneers of the Net
>tried to eliminate all barriers to the distribution of scientific research.

One shouldn't overlook that these academically developped technologies
served their inventors to leave the universities and get high-profile
(closed technology) jobs in the computing industry.

>manipulate information with the minimum of impediments. The design of the
>Net therefore assumes that intellectual property is technically and
>socially obsolete. (13)

Really? The design of the Net is equally perfect for exchanging encrypted
information and, with the help of digital signatures, provide extremely
secure protection of copyrights and intellectual ownership. If this kind of
traffic is not visible to you, it doesn't mean that it's not a relevant
aspect of the Internet.

>In France, the nationalised telephone monopoly has accustomed people to
>paying for the on-line services provided by Minitel. In contrast, the Net
>remains predominantly a gift economy even though the system has expanded
>far beyond the university. From scientists through hobbyists to the general

Isn't this calculation too simple? The infrastructure of the Internet
*costs* money, companies like UUnet and the national telecoms make enormous
profits from it, users *have* to pay for it. (And even if you have "free"
Internet access at your workplace, the university - or rather the students
with their tuition - pay for network access.) The content provided "freely"
on the Internet is a huge source of profit, only that it's not the content
providers who see the money. If you take into account provider fees,
telephone rates and the costs of the computer hardware which needs to be
upgraded or replaced every few years, then it's more expensive to read
Homer's Odyssey in the Net than in a paperback.

>The hi-tech gift economy is even at the forefront of software development.
>For instance, Bill Gates admits that Microsoft's biggest competitor in the
>provision of web servers comes from the Apache program. (20) Instead of
>being marketed by a commercial company, this program is shareware. (21)

I think you mixed up shareware (i.e. closed-source commercial software
whose license allows a limited free use of the binary program) and
free/open source software (software, which may not only be used freely, but
whose distribution contains the sourcecode and allows everyone to modify or
reuse it). <http://www.opensource.org> and <http://www.gnu.org> have the
gory details.

But, to turn to the core of my critique: speaking of "shareware", you write:

>The greater social and technical efficiency of anarcho-communism is
>therefore inhibiting the commercial take-over of the Net. Shareware
>programs are now beginning to threaten the core product of the Microsoft
>empire: the Windows operating system. Starting from the original software
>program by Linus Torvalds, a community of user-developers are together
>building their own non-proprietary operating system: Linux. For the first
>time, Windows has a serious competitor. Anarcho-communism is now the only
>alternative to the dominance of monopoly capitalism.

I think there is much evidence against your assumptions, and I would like
to encourage you to do more reading in this field. The political motives of
Free/Open Source software are extremely diverse and can't be pinned down to
"left-wing" politics, let alone to "anarcho communism" in particular.

First of all, it's the open source community itself which has insisted on
"free software" not being opposed to capitalism. All open source licenses
(the GNU General Public License, the BSD license, the Perl Artistic License
or the Mozilla License, to name a few) permit and even encourage commercial
distribution of free software. Companies like RedHat, Caldera, Cygnus make
several million dollars a year selling free software.

If you take leading open source developers like Richard M. Stallman
(developer of Emacs and founder of the GNU project), Linus Torvalds, Eric
S. Raymond (whose papers "The Cathedral and the Bazaar" and "Homesteading
the Noosphere" have been posted to Nettime) and Larry Wall (creator of the
Perl scripting language), the assumption of "anarcho communism" seems all
the more questionable. Wall, who was recently given the first "Free
Software Award", explains his "gift economy" with his strong religious
background; Torvalds is notorious in the community for his uncompromisingly
pragmatist politics; Raymond, widely referred to as the chief "evangelist"
and intellectual exponent of the community, actually comes from the far
libertarian right, has a philosophical background in anthropology and
deliberately uses colonialist metaphorics in "Homesteading the Noosphere".
Of these four, Stallman is the only leftist (or kind-of "anarcho
communist"), and his politics have made him the target of never-ceasing
flames from within the open source community.

>existing form of anarcho-communism is being constructed within the Net,
>especially by people living in the USA. When they go on-line, almost
>everyone spends most of their time participating within the gift economy
>rather than engaging in market competition. Because users receive much more

Quite on the contrary, I would argue that open source culture has very
strong market competition, namely the competition of projects in their
attempts to attract other developers and support. This competition leads,
just as in any capitalism, to compromised solutions for the user/customer.
The success of the Linux kernel, for example, has marginalized the better
designed GNU Hurd kernel while the popularity of the KDE and Gnome desktop
environments with their Windows-like interface paradigms is marginalizing
the technically more ambitious GNUstep project, and so on.

I only see two differences between the open source and the closed source
commercial software development model:

1) The currency on the open source market is fame instead of money;
2) Free software is chiefly been developed by system
programmers/administrators to speed up and improve the efficiency of their
daily wage work - which, after all, is also a capitalist incentive;
3) Even if free software would entirely replace commercial software, it
would create a huge support industry (distributors, journals, book
publishers) because the more software is freely available, the more
software will be used. This business model is currently employed by
O'Reilly publishers and has proved remarkably successful for them;
4) Free software will sell more hardware. Consumer PCs would be about $100
cheaper - or gain their manufacturers $100 more profit - without commercial
licenses for bundled software. If free software revises the paradigm that
"computers always crash" because it's less buggy than commercial software,
even more people will buy PCs and make Compaq and Dell rich. For vendors of
server hardware with proprietary, highly-integrated Unix operating systems
(Sun, HP, IBM, Compaq/Digital), free software already offers a viable path
to decrease their development costs by reimplementing their OSs on BSD or
Linux code.
5) Open source OSs will increase competition (and hence "sane capitalism")
in the hardware market. Since Linux and BSD can be quickly ported to new
hardware platforms, binary compatibility and chip architecture legacy (like
x86) have already become less an issue as Corel's "Netwinder" and the
rumored TransMeta chip demonstrate.

After all, the industry itself has understood the capitalist potential of
free software. Big players like Intel, Compaq/Digital, HP, Corel and Sun
actively invest in the developement of Linux. I would be surprised if their
motives were rooted in "anarcho-communism".

Florian Cramer

Florian Cramer <paragram@gmx.net>, PGP public key ID 6440BA05
combinatory poetry site: <http://permutations.home.ml.org>
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