Keith Hart on Thu, 13 Dec 2001 19:53:01 +0100 (CET)

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

This message is triggered by Felix Stalder's of the above header. Felix and
I appeared together on a panel he organised from the wos2 conference in
Berlin during October. It was entitled open_money, a subject I will return
to below, as a way of introducing my own writing. But first I want to
comment on his remarks about altruism and the law in relation to open
source. I should say that I find us in broad agreement on the general issue
of open source, the internet and democracy.

The opposition selfish/altruistic is depressing because it speaks of a huge
gap between the individual and society. This corresponds to our experience,
where we are told on the one hand that each of us is a unique subjective
personality, while society is a mass of remote objects governed by forces
we neither understand nor can influence. The task of personal development
and social organisation is rather to find way ways of integrating the two,
the individual and the collective, self-in-the-world. And the most
longlasting human arrangements do precisely that. We have to be
self-reliant to a high degree and we have to learn to belong to others, to
be connected at the same time. This is the human predicament and few
entirely succeed. The issue therefore is not to be either selfish or
altruistic -- each position is childish -- but to aim for what I think of
as the human idea, to combine self-interest with recogniton that the
interest of everyone else in society affects us too, thereby dissolving the
contradiction between the individual and the collective. I would claim that
this principle was independently invented twice, by Gautama and John Locke.
But that would take us a bit far from what I want to say. 

I wish to take issue with Felix's argument that the law in contemporary
western societies offers an unambiguous point of reference for assessing
the value of open source software development. It is true that English
common law is unusual in making public law the normative outcome of
individual citizens exercising their rights, with a heavy reliance on
judicial precedent over statutary law. It is also true that the body of
case law is available to lawyers as a basis for their arguments. But I
think it would be wrong to say that the law is therefore open in the sense
that all citizens have free access to it. First, as Felix implies, the law
in many cultures is dualistic in a way that English common law was intended
not to be. In most European languages there are two words for law, not one
(eg loi/droit), reflecting a sharp division between public and private law,
between the state and the people. Second, for centuries the judges and the
legal profession have operated with a jargon that is closed to the general
public. Third, access to the law, never mind justice, has been highly
stratified. I could go on. Michael Lewis's recent book on the astonishing
achievements of kids using the internet (The Future Just Happened, 2001)
includes the case of a 15 year old who became the most highly ranked legal
adviser on an internet site heavily populated by professional lawyers.The
medical profession likewise once offered little hope that people might win
some measure of control over their own minds and bodies, a situation that
th einternet may be changing. And surely one test of a civilisation is
whether or not it helps its individual members to be self-reliant or
autonomous. Ours does not. The law then is a bad example for arguing that
open source software development can safely cross the border separating
sharing without payment from commerce.

The open source movement is split on the issue of exchange and money
payment. Those who follow the Free Software Foundation appear consider that
any hint of money and exchange, even of reciprocity, leads directly to
unacceptable compromise with capitalism. Linux, on the other hand, is
rapidly being integrated with big business. Feelings run high on both
sides, but especially on the first, which I would call purist, if not
puritan. At the same time, the controversy over Microsoft's monopoly and
the attempts to break it have pushed the open source movement into the
mainstream of political debate. It raises interesting questions about
whether some software developers are at the cutting edge of a new
democratic politics or perhaps are little different from lawyers and
doctors, in that their arcane practices are beyond the grasp of the vast
body of citizens. Does it matter if some of them do it without money

Perhaps a much bigger and related issue is whether the internet is fast
losing the freedom of its early years. Here the case of writers like
Lawrence Lessig (The Future of Ideas) is that private copyright, pushed by
corproate capital and the legal profession, is breaking up the internet
commons. The example of software development remains central to this case.
It all seems to me an entirely healthy recasting of the political debate in
terms that invite each of us to interrogate what we may have taken for
granted. What is the commons and does it matter whether we lose free access
to it? It means that the long argument about the social effects of markets
and capitalism can be extended not just to software engineering, but to the
street and parks, to language and literary traditions, indeed to the whole
social infrastructure we live by. My interest is in exploring the
possibility that money itself might become a commons to which all of us
would have open access, open source money, if you like, a money that,
instead of being supplied remotely by central agencies as a scarce
commdity, might be something we could all make for ourselves.

To this end, I have been working on community currencies for over a year
now with Michael Linton and Ernie Yacub in British Columbia. We are writing
a book called Common Wealth. The subtitle is less stable than the title. At
present it is 'building community and economic democracy with open money';
but it might be 'open money as a commons' or something like that. I hope to
share some of this writing in progress with the nettime list. But at this
stage, I would point readers towards a website:

This is the second book on money I written recently. The first is Money in
an Unequal World (Texere, 2001), first published as The Memory Bank
(Profile, 2000). There is more about the book, including various
downloadable items at My concern there is with the
conseqences of the communications revolution for the forms of money and
exchange. i suggest that money and language are the two great vehicles of
communication we have and that their development is converging. I also set
out to disentangle the market from capitalism, in the belief that more
humane and equal forms of exchange involving money are both possible and
necessary. This is the broad basis for my underlying agreement with the
position outlined by Felix in his message to the list. There is a lot more
to be said, but this is my way of introducing myself to the conversation
constituted by nettime.

Keith Hart

I never understood why people think of Open Source in terms of _altruism_.
Perhaps, it's due to some confusion related to the "saintly" image of
Richard Stallman, but it's the completely wrong approach and shows a very
limited understanding of economic relationships where things are more
varied than than selling things vs giving them away.

To make a long argument short, altruism is, if anything, the effect of Open
Source but not its cause. For Open Source to work, people do not need to be
altruistic, or at least not all of them. As far as I can see, many of the
developers who contribute to Open Source do so in the context of their
professional work, be it as members of academic institutions -- where
publishing and visibility has nothing to do with altruism but is a
necessity of survival -- or in the context of companies who use and extend
Open Source software in the work they do for clients.

But let's forget for a moment software and look at another great Open
Source project: the law. Nobody would claim lawyers as a profession to be
altruistic, even though there are certainly individuals with altruistic
motives. Many of them are highly paid and some are very much motivated by
money. Nevertheless, they all contribute to a great Open Source project.
The law and the court proceedings (ie. the code) are public and if you
want, you can use an argument made in one case by someone else in your own
case. In fact, this is standard practice and crucial to the efficient
working of the legal system. This is how the system learns and evolves and
how it avoids to be clogged with an endless numbers of identical cases. If
lawyers could copyright their arguments (i.e. restrict other lawyers from
using them), the system would break down, particularly the Anglo-American
system of common law.

In some ways, creating the law is similar to creating software. The first
copy (i.e. deciding the first case in a new area) tends to be very
expensive, but subsequent copies (i.e. deciding further similar cases) are
much cheaper.

The problem -- and the reason why lawyers make a good living -- is that
there are rarely identical cases, or, at the very least, it is very hard to
tell if a case is identical to one that has already passed through system.
What you pay a lawyer for is her knowlegde of the relevant cases and her
work to take whatever necessary from them and then customize it for your
own context and needs. Sometimes this "customization" is relatively
trivial, sometime this includes a significant contribution to the evolving
public knowledge base.

To some degree, the same model applies to Open Source Software development.
What you pay, say, IBM for when they install a new server with Linux on it,
is the service they provide to you for customizing what is out there (Linux
etc.) to your own ideosynractic needs. And rarely, your needs are exactly
the same than other people's needs.

Many people who contribute to Open Source Software work in contexts that
produce software but don't sell it. Be it that they are academics/students
or be it that they sell services. Taking from and contributing to free code
is in both cases a strategy that makes sense for very "selfish" reasons,
even though they also contribute to the free knowledge base.


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