Geert Lovink on Tue, 20 Jul 1999 02:15:18 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Report from Wizards of OS/Berlin

Wizards of OS
Some Impressions, part I
Friday, July 16, 7 PM
By Geert Lovink

The crew of can be satisfied about the results of today. 
Fortunately, enough audience showed up, some 300-400, in the Berlin
Kongressehalle, a typical modernist, cold war conference centre in the
Tiergarten park, in the vicinity of the Reichstag and the Brandenburger
Gate. The atmosphere is that of an easy going academic computer
conference:  a mostly male audience of programmers, sys-ops, some senior
computer scientists, with the new class of IT-entrepreneurs in their role
as New Kids on the Block. Remember, this is Germany, and it is not done
here to misbehave by showing too much obvious commercialism on stage. This
is an Open Source meeting, so business should be done in a decent way. 

Presentations today have been soft, sometimes even shy, careful, at times
even dull. Unlike one would expect from the German debating culture. The
Open Source movement has been tactical in avoiding controversies. It is
managing to counter the obvious criticisms in a thoughtful, diplomatic
way.  In part, this is related to the fact that only now, 10-15 years
after its beginning, Open Source is only now reaching a level of
acceptance, with hyper growth rates. And the hype has to be fuelled. In
this stage it remains important to explain the very basics of
collaborative software production. The organisers of this Berlin meeting
must have had a pretty broad public in mind, as most of the day was spent
with short presentations of both free projects, and its related support

The morning session started off in a rather different manner, with a
dense, brilliant lecture by Wolfgang Hagen, an expert on computer history.
Hagen is typical representative of the German techno-determinist school,
which states that hardware is dictating software. In other words: software
was, and always will be a by-product of the hardware and its logic. The
speed and mode of calculation is merely a question of the flip-flops, the
frequency of the electronic pulses. In the first generation of computers
the software was literally inscribed in the architecture of the hardware,
and only gradually became a matter of language, so Hagen. The historical
images of the first decade of the computer do always impress audiences. It
is good to keep in mind that the earliest computer network, and the
Internet, can be found in Whirlwind, the computer built during the Korean
War for the Pentagon. And that the first programmers conference took place
in 1954 as a results of Whirlwind, which then let, amongst others, to
Fortran, developed by John Backus, which Hagen used as reference to the
early models of ENIAC. The two speakers which followed took the historical
thread further to BARN, bitnet and usenet and the way Internet was
introduced in Germany at the academic research centres. Some interesting
remarks were made about the dominating role of German politics, which
until recently has tried to come up with very ordered, top-down standards
which had to counter the chaotic, distributed American models such as
TCP/IP. But these German dreams, and of those other Europeans have long
gone. It is now a matter of keeping up. Or not quiet. The participation
and development of Open Source projects has a long and rich history. KDE,
the K Desktop Environment is a good example ( It originates
from here.  German participation in BSD, linux, apache and xfree86 are
considerable. It is much more a question of visibility in culture at
large, which seems to be the problem. In this highly technological
country, the computer has had a bad image in the public opinion, and in
that sense WOS is a important breakthrough, putting the Open Source within
a larger cultural context.  Controversies will come later, for sure. 

Wizards of OS
Some Impressions, part II
Saturday, July 17, 1999

Before we go to the second day, let's not forget to mention Friday night. 
First Andreas Haas spoke, a German marketing guy of Apple. Recently Apple
launched some 'public code' but had to rearrange its licences under
pressure of OS activists. It is a learning company, Haas admitted. Still,
this did not impress the free software community whatsoever, also not this
German audience. A fancy demo of the latest version of QuickTime is not a
real issue on a conference like this. His sales talk failed in a dramatic
way. After an hour of Q & As this poor Andreas could only repeat the
obvious that Apple just has to make profit and ship products and could
therefor not do this or that... Bits of open QuickTime4 source, which
might become the basis for the new MPEG4, was his only offer. Apple has
always been the radical opposite of free and open standards. They stopped
licensing their hardware. The MAC OS will not be free software in the
foreseeable future. So much for Apple. 

Tim O'Reilly, the publisher of countless of the free software manuals
(Perl, Linux, Apache, etc.) came up with the statement that he indeed had
made a lot of millions of $. Walking up and down the stage, like real Net
gurus do, he gave a speech which can be read, almost word by word, in one
of O'Reilly's recent anthologies 'Open Sources, Voices from the Open
Source Revolution.' (which gives quite a good overview, btw). Unlike the
geek masses, Tim O'Reilly is travelling to other universes within the
computer branch. This might be the reason that he took the role of the
willing messenger, explaining the 'community' that the Open Source
revolution will be over soon. Not because it failed. Quite the opposite. 
Simply because there are even bigger events on the horizon: 
commercialisation and total corporate take-over. O'Reilly wouldn't call it
that way, of course. He speaks of 'infoware' taking over from software. 
That's gonna be the real commodity, turning both hard- and software into
second grade instances. Turning them into 'free'. ISPs, operating systems,
browsers, webspace, e-mail, they are all not going to be the big money
makers. " as an application." That mystery is on Tim's mind. 
"Who is going to be the Microsoft of Open Source?" Some say the Redhats
and SuSEs, the Linux distributors. Others say the OS service and support
firms. Tim would say the applications which run on top of free software. 

Virtual money is about to make the free software question irrelevant.  The
volume of capital which is circulating at the higher level of applications
and e-services which build on top of the Net will gently push aside old
software configurations.  Roots are fading away, getting irrelevant
(sorry, Kittler). Capital, with all its weight is about to smash the Open
Source movement. Not with repression. Not in an ignorant way. There is a
growing respect, with bits of appropriation here and there. But life goes
on. Soon OS will no longer be an issue. Mozilla should be a good test
case. The open source code of this once so powerful browser hasn't
revolutionised the landscape. The opposite happened:  Netscape was bought,
and neutralised by AOL, a topic which strangely wasn't discussed in
Berlin. Tim O'Reilly was the only speaker at WOS who raised some broader
economic issues, though speaking in secret codes, which probably few
analyst's being able to decrypt his messages. Next week he speaks at

Linux people won't starve, that much was clear at WOS. Economics is not
even an issue for them. They already got jobs. Some are even being paid to
write free software. For the coding class, hobbyists, midnight hackers,
economics is not a real topic. The same can be said of Rishab Aiyer
Ghosh's Cooking Pot Market concept, which he presented at WOS in a
professional, routine manner. It is all true, but of diminishing value,
supposing one want to come up a somehow relevant power analysis of today's
ICT-industry. Such concepts as the gift economy not just lack subversion. 
This complaint can be overcome, pointing at the potential power free
software has to cripple such giants as Microsoft. So they say. Empires may
rise and fall. But such mega-corporations also look ahead. Microsoft might
already have abandoned the Windows market in 2010 and make money with
other features, such a on-line service, and content. 

For Ghosh the Internet itself is the market. OS is about reputation, fame,
some e-cash or other micro-payments is sufficient, for those who make a
good buck anyway. People with such secure lives have a radically different
attitude towards time, money and community, compared to the gambling logic
of the Silicon Valley (and alley) class, obsessed with their first 20
million $. For the time being start-ups simply have no time, and interest
to contribute to free software. The core work is still being done from
within bigger institutions, such as universities, state and corporate
research labs, and by a growing number of leisure time programmers. This
production framework is not likely going to change any time soon. 

Back to the Kongresshalle. The crypto discussion on Saturday morning was
an interesting one. Not just because of GNU/PG, a German open source
alternative to PGP. The German state seems in a phase of transition. 
Crypto and privacy is not longer approached with the 1977 'anti-terrorism'
police state attitude. Instead, the current government introduced a law,
supporting strong crypto in order to give both companies and citizens the
necessary protection against US-interests, and other evil forces who are
after our private data. And the German State, one could add ('Protect us
against our own State'). Keywords here: sensibility dialogue, confidence. 
No more Bonn-style fighting. Away with the polarising debate culture. A
remarkable 'dutchification' of the Berlin Republic. Let hackers, industry,
privacy experts, and the Justice department just talk it over and come up
with flexible, pragmatic rules. Open Source, of course. Na, bitte. And who
will monitor the Chaos Computer Club? 

Some GNU/Linux-related topics are obvious. It is known that in Mexico
Linux will be used in all schools. France too. In Germany, Linux has been
installed on tens of thousands of computers at schools. Africa could also
benefit. So will Kosov@.  It is also clear that lawyers will not like free
software. But it remains less obvious who is going to write down the 'Lex
Informatica', Lutterbeck and Ishii referred at in their weak presentation. 
Not a word who is going to define the parameters of 'Internet Governance'. 
The New Economy panel was a disaster, to put it mildly. Kevin Kelly as has
some spirit, and performance style, when selling his New Economy belief
system. Perhaps something to look into next year. 

The next part, Open Content, had much more on offer. The most advanced
lecture came from one of the two women speaking, Jeanette Hoffmann, who
has been studying the history of Internet standards. Her case study on the
Internet Engineering Task Force brought up a whole range of new, worrisome
issues. The IETF is about to break apart because of its own bureaucracy. 
Structures have become too big, and conflicts of interests have become
apparent, with an increase of members working within corporations, also
doing research, having to regulate themselves. This could as well happen
to Open Source projects as they are based on the same principles of
decentralised self governance. Can the IEFT be reformed from within? The
ICANN story, so Hoffmann, only shows were things end up when old
structures are being overturned by the new type of closed, corporate
driven, working groups. 

Between Kittler's plea for Open Hardware, and the small private initiative
of public content,, the presentation of by Alexei
Shulgin, looked disappointing. For an audience not familiar with this
genre, Shulgin presented some old projects of jodi, his own form art, and
the WebStalker ("the final art piece"), stating that was dead. It
all looked tragic, nostalgic, referring to some good old days when there
was still a community, exploiting the self-referentiality of the
new medium. For Shulgin was different. Having a questionable use,
unlike free software, has been about ideas, not about source
(code), and has been appropriated by art institutions. That's all about
Open Content? No. Berlin could have offered more here. 

The closing evening session offered two speakers. Benny Haerlin, from
Greenpeace, given a impressive talk about the Source Code of Life, and the
strategy of companies such as Monsanto, to patent all possible, profitable
genes of plants, animals and humans. And a fairly standard one man show of
Richard Stallman, founder of the Free Software Foundation. More about him
in a separate interview., one and a half years after it's
founding can be proud this first big conference, after last years early
event days, and their monthly lounges. Berlin is not an easy
place to work, not having an office, lacking all sorts of funding. No fear
too for becoming a dull institution. Micro has successfully left the
yuppie culture of Mitte, with its dying contemporary arts hype which
thrived for a while on sub-cultural energies of the 'young, new capital'. 
Micro made contact with existing realities, in this case the growing Linux
movement. Now it can easily make the next step into the familiar territory
of reflection and critique on the 'New Economics'. 

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