Florian Cramer on Wed, 12 Dec 2001 15:44:01 +0100 (CET)

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[Nettime-bold] Re: <nettime> The Fading Altruism of Open Source Development

Am Wed, 12.Dec.2001 um 00:56:27 +0100 schrieb oliver frommel:
> The Fading Altruism of Open Source Development by David Lancashire
> First Monday, volume 6, number 12 (December 2001),
> URL: http://firstmonday.org/issues/issue6_12/lancashire/index.html

Thanks for providing the link!

To quote from the article and attempt some answers:

>> The most fundamental question of all: why does open source
>> development occur in the first place?

This question applies as well to, say, Nettime (where people freely give
away their some of their intellectual work) and all other non-profit
volunteer projects. The work of Free Software may just be more pervasive
and hence visible to scholars than other volunteer projects because (a)
it translates very immediately into everyday use value, (b) its products
are infinitely reproducible (also true for Nettime, but not true for all
non-Internet volunteer work). - And: Free Software may be the most
sophisticated non-profit volunteer project in the way it ensures the
free circulation of its products, through the copyleft.

David Lancashire's article is an interesting read about the regional
distribution of Free Software development, yet as I think problematic or
even wrong in many of its core assumptions. But, after of all, I do not
see the claim the title makes, "The Fading Altruism of Open Source
Development" backed up or elaborated anywhere in the text.

While the First Monday article recognizes the entanglement of Free
Software development with academia to some degree, it fails, in my view,
to interpret this entanglement in cultural and economical terms.  Free
Software development grew and continues to grow out of student projects
at university computer science departments (MIT: GNU project and X11, UC
Berkeley: BSD Unix, University of Helsinki: Linux, Universität Tübingen:
KDE), and the Free Software copyleft was invented to preserve the
traditional academic freedom of information for computer code.

Other points:

>> The combination of highly-complex and anti-proprietary projects offers
>> the only quadrant in which the tension - between economic and cultural
>> assumptions about underlying human behavior can meaningfully be
>> compared. It is an unfortunate fact then, if a somewhat revealing one on
>> its own, that there are so few successful projects which fall into this
>> category. 

To me it rather seems an unfortunate, if a somewhat revealing fact what 
the author David Lancashire thinks are facts of Free Software:

>> Linux, an operating system begun in 1991 in order to provide a
>> free alternative to commercial UNIX systems, is the most prominent
>> example.   The second-most so is undoubtedly GNOME, a free graphical-user
>> interface (GUI) for UNIX-compatible systems begun in 1996 to compete
>> with the partly privately-owned K-Desktop Environment (KDE) suite for
>> UNIX and the completely proprietary Microsoft Windows. 

- Linux is an operating system kernel started in 1991 which, by itself
  (i.e.  without a compiler, linker, bootloader and core system
  libraries, init and login daemons and userspace operating system
  tools), is a non-functional piece of software. As a matter of fact, it
  was started not to provide a free alternative to proprietary Unices,
  but a POSIX-compliant (i.e. more functionally more complete)
  alternative to Andrew Tanenbaum's free Minix operating system.

- Not Linux, but GNU was started (in 1984) in order to provide the free
  alternative to commercial (proprietary) Unix systems. It ended up
  creating fully functional free equivalents of all core Unix
  components(compiler, linker, system libraries, userspace operating
  system tools - the contents of /bin, /sbin and /lib on any "Linux
  distribution" is almost 100% GNU) except the kernel. 

It's easy to claim, as in the above quote, there is a lack of
"highly-complex and anti-proprietary" Free Software if one doesn't seem
to know GNU, the free BSD operating systems (FreeBSD, NetBSD, OpenBSD),
the X Window System, Mozilla, the Debian GNU/Linux distribution - and
wilfully excludes gcc, Perl, Python, PHP, PostgreSQL, Emacs, Apache,
sendmail and other highly complex Free Software projects from one's

What's more, Lancashire makes questionable assumptions about Gnome, KDE
and Windows;

- KDE is not "privately owned" in any way, but one of the most
  decentralized and non-corporate Free Software projects. Its code is
  released under the GNU General Public License (GPL); it relies on a
  library ("Qt") which is developed by a company, but equally available
  under two Free Software licenses including the GPL since a couple of
  time. (The fact that Qt was proprietary is history; and Qt never was a
  part of KDE itself.)

- Quite on the contrary to the assumptions of the article, Gnome
  development is much more in corporate hands: The core developers are
  employed by Ximian and RedHat (with Ximian, the company of Gnome's
  founder and project leader Miguel de Icaza, being the major driving
  In addition, Gnome development is supervised by the "Gnome Foundation"
  whose function is to, official quote, "coordinate releases of GNOME
  and determine which projects are part of GNOME" and "act as an
  official voice for the GNOME project" <http://foundation.gnome.org>.
  Members of the Gnome Foundation include, next to free developers,
  Ximian, RedHat, Hewlett-Packard and Sun. (Sun also made Gnome the new
  desktop interface of its proprietary Unix "Solaris".)

- The comparison of KDE and Gnome to Windows is mismatched. Both KDE and
  Gnome are only sets of (a) high-level libraries and component models
  and (b) basic graphical desktop user components (menus, window
  manager, file managers, configuration panels, utilities); they are not
  desktop operating systems on their own, but operate on top of "third
  party" graphical user interface libraries (Qt and GTK respectively)
  which in turn operate on top of a "third party" graphical display
  engine (= the X Window System) which in turn operates on top of "third
  party" core operating systems (GNU/Linux, *BSD, proprietary Unices

  Windows, on the other hand, has always been a unit of a graphical
  display engine (GDI), graphical user interfaces libraries (MFC),
  high-level desktop components (OLE/Com) and basic graphical desktop
  user components (Explorer, Start menu etc.) on top of a core operating
  system (DOS) and has become a fully self-contained operating system
  including kernel, OS userspace, graphical display engine at least
  since Windows NT 3.51.

>> With a combined total of over 430 developers, no other two projects
>> approach the "authority" of these cases as benchmark examples of
>> their kind, 

This is wrong, and so I doubt the study has a good empirical base. The
(truly non-corporate) Debian project <http://www.debian.org> alone has
908 regular developers. In the case of Gnome, the results concerning
US-American and non-US-American involvement are likely to be distorted
by the fact that it is largely an American project with US-American
companies involved - while the (more or less competing) KDE project is
largely a project of European developers. (This interesting cultural
split has been noted several times on Slashdot.org, an American forum
which, sincle a couple of months, shifted its own bias from Gnome to

After all, the study's _economical_ analysis seems questionable to me
becaiuse it does not - but should - differentiate between "private"/
"privately owned"/"commercial" on the one hand and "proprietary" one the
other (as in the second-last quote). As many Free Software projects -
like the RedHat GPL Edition, RedHat's/Cygnus' GNU C compiler, GNU
ghostscript, Ximian Gnome, Ximian Evolution, Trolltech's Qt -
demonstrate, "commercial" doesn't have to mean "proprietary". In fact,
the GNU project involved commercial operations from the beginning on.
Richard Stallman financed the Free Software Foundation (and kept himself
alive) by expensively selling GNU software on streamer tapes.
Interviewed in 1984, the BSD project leader and inventor of the "vi"
editor Bill Joy said about GNU Emacs that it was "a nice editor too, but
because it costs hundreds of dollars, there will always be people who
won't buy it." <http://www.cs.pdx.edu/~kirkenda/joy84.html>

Some other quotes:

>> Mexico contributes three times as many developers to Gnome as Linux,
>> and Finland (perhaps understandably considering its status as the
>> homeland of Linus Torvalds) appears unwaveringly in the Linux camp. 

The high involvement of Mexicans in Gnome would probably have surprised
the author as little as the high involvement of Finns in Linux if he
knew that the Gnome project was founded in Mexico by a Mexican, Miguel
de Icaza, who continues to be its chief developer.

Perhaps another proof for the problematic empirics of the study:

>> If this simplified model can explain the relative erosion of open
>> source production in the United States, can it explain the rise of it
>> Europe? Primarily, it should be clear that if the opportunity cost of
>> working on open source projects is lower for European developers than
>> their American counterparts, the potential benefits Europeans gain
>> from working on them are much greater as well. In a global economy
>> lacking perfect labor mobility and characterized by wage-inequality
>> across countries, we expect individuals to produce free software if
>> doing so can help them shift to a higher wage-level. This
>> "fixed-cost" analysis implies (as Lerner and Tirole suggest in their
>> paper) that developers may embrace open source work as a way to
>> tap-into lucrative corporate networks abroad. This may explain why
>> open source development is more popular in Canada than the United
>> States, although the data from Europe is inconclusive on this
>> question. This also helps to explain why the majority of open source
>> developers are relatively young. Older, settled programmers have less
>> need to establish a monetizable reputation than their younger, more
>> mobile counterparts, given less time in which to amortize its
>> immediate costs.

My own casual insight into free software hacking rather suggests that

(a) free software developers are younger because they are typically
students or freshly graduated - and probably more idealistic than older

(b) free software developers are disproportionally located in Europe
because the public acceptance and deployment of free software is higher
(in relative terms) in Europe than in the US, resulting in a condition

- many computer science departments make Free Software development part
  of their curriculum and encourage to write Free Software as C.S.
  diploma projects. (Linux, for example, was Linus Torvald's diploma
  project at the C.S. department of the University of Helsinki.) After
  all, C.S. departments and university computing centers had a pressing
  need for a free Unix-compatible operating system. (AT&T Unix used to
  be almost free for universities in the 1970s but was relicensed after
  the AT&T breakup.)

  When I first visited meeting of my local Linux User Group in 1996,
  they took place in the C.S. department of a local university whose
  department white board proposed several Linux kernel hacks as diploma

- Because of the higher deployment of Free Software in Europe, European
  C.S. graduates may have a higher chance to work in Free Software
  environments on in-house projects (databases and network
  infrastructures, embedded controllers etc.).  Even if these projects
  are not for public release, they typically generate free code (or free
  documentation) on the side, because other free software had to be
  bugfixed/extended for the project purpose or simply because a certain
  tool had to be written to accomplish a certain task within a project.

While Linus Torvalds and Miguel de Icaza used their reputation to go
abroad and work in the U.S., proving that this indeed may be a
motivation to write Free Software, this certainly fails as a general
model and explanation.  - Why, then, is it that Indian and Russian
programmers hardly contribute to Free Software development at all?

Many Free Software developers I know have left-wing political views
though and see work on Free Software as unalienated labour for which
they are willing to make economical sacrifices.  

- A motivation and lifestyle that I guess everyone who works in the
arts, academia or media (and probably everyone on Nettime) knows quite 


P.S.: While I have great sympathy for the conclusion that...

>> the insights political economists can shed on these movements allow
>> for a much more nuanced view of development than is made by advocates
>> of post-scarcity gift cultures. 

...and think it is necessary 

(a) to revise Raymond's enthusiastic distortion of the (quite nonideal)
gift cultures described by Marcel Mauss

(b) not to speak of "post-scarcity economics" by falsly drawing from
non-scarce immaterial goods (=software and information which is scarce
only in its dependence on material carriers/hardware) to scarce material
goods (energy, food, clothing, housing, etc.), 

it still remains true that, since the 1980s, the software industry has
made software artificially scarce by declaring it a material commodity.
A questionable and, via the enforcement of "intellectual property" laws,
increasingly totalitarian commodification to which Free Software
provides an alternative. (- An alternative with the well-known downsides
of economic self-exploitation of its producers, although they [still]
are in an economically more comfortable position than those working in
other fields of culture.)

P.P.S.: The fact that the Debian GNU/Linux distribution, probably the
largest high-quality collection of Free Software, has grown to six full
CD-ROMs/4 GB of compiled binaries (from two CD-ROMs back in 1997) is my
empirical evidence against any claim about "the fading altruism in Free
Software development".  

GnuPG/PGP public key ID 3200C7BA 

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