geert lovink on Wed, 25 Jul 2001 03:03:09 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Kim Veltman: On the Links Between Open Source and Culture

[Original to the German Oekonix list, reposted on nettime with permission of
both Kim Veltman and Stefan Merten, the Oekonux list owner. More talks of
the Oekonux conference are meanwhile documented at /geert]

From: K.Veltman@MMI.UNIMAAS.NL

On the Links Between Open Source and Culture
Kim Veltman

The Internet has at least five consequences:

technological (invisibility);
material (virtuality);
organizational (systemicity);
intellectual (contextuality) and
philosophical (spirituality).

Most discussions of the Internet focus on the first three consequences. This
lecture focusses on the last two.

Major advances in civilization typically entail a change in medium, which
increases greatly the scope of what can be shared. Havelock 1 noted that the
shift from oral to written culture entailed a dramatic increase in the
amount of knowledge shared and led to a re-organization of knowledge.
McLuhan 2 and Giesecke 3 explored what happened when Gutenberg introduced
print culture in Europe. The development of printing went hand in hand with
the rise of early modern science. In the sixteenth century, the rise of
vernacular printing helped spread new knowledge. From the mid-seventeenth
century onwards this again increased as learned correspondance became the
basis for a new category of learned journals (Journal des savants, Journal
of the Royal Society, Göttinger Gelehrten Anzeiger etc.), whence expressions
such as the "world of letters."

The advent of Internet marks a radical increase in this trend towards
sharing. Conservative estimates claim that there are over 7 million new
pages per day with over 2.1 billion pages in all. Some claim that there are
over 550 billion pages on the Internet. The Internet began as a new method
for sharing in the sciences, particularly physics and astronomy and is now
becoming essential for advances in the life sciences and especially in
emerging fields such as the human genome project and biotechnology.

While many focus on the financial side of Internet some of its most amazing
consequences have been in fields where no financial gain is entailed.
Particularly interesting is a project called the Search for Extraterrestrial
Intelligence (SETI). In this project volunteers make available the time that
their computer usually has a screen saver and this time is used to process
data and possible information concerning outer space. On July 30, 2000, for
instance there were 2096 new volunteers and a total of 2,192,077 persons
made their computer available for the SETI project. It is striking that this
produced a combined power of 11.17 trillion operations/second (or
teraflops/second). The largest supercomputer in the world at the time, ASCI
White produced 12.3 teraflops per second. Hence, the amount of computational
power produced by volunteers without extra cost is close to that produced by
a machine, which costs over $100 million.

This leads to some interesting insights. If 1 million volunteers produce 5.5
teraflops, then if all 407 million computers which existed at the end of
2000 were used on a voluntary basis then there would be 2,238.5 teraflops
available, which is 34.7 times more than the combined computational power of
the top 500 supercomputers in July of 2000. This relates only to computers
being used when their screen savers are functioning during their time-off.
The ASCI White computer has a power of 30,000 PCs. This means that the
world's 407 million PCs at the end of 2,000 were theoretically 13,566 more
powerful than ASCI white capable of a total of 167,861.8 trillion or 167.8
quadrillion operations/second. If current predictions hold and there are 2.4
billion PCs by 2006, this potential computational power would increase to
847.8 quadrillion operations and if one follows other predictions, which
claim that the power of computers will increase by a million times within 20
years, then one would have a figure of 847,882,000,000. This makes the 64.3
teraflops of the top 500 computers in mid-2000 look rather weak or rather,
it confirms that the real revolution is still to come.

Linux has had an enormous impact on the world of software. There are now an
estimated 250,000 persons active in the open source movement, with 37% in
Europe. When printing began in Germany, it was largely out of a conviction
that this was for the public good. Interestingly enough Germany is also the
most active contributor to Open Source.

At one level, the term spiritual has to do with the non-material. The
spiritual also entails doing something beyond oneself. In this sense, the
spiritual entails everything that fosters sharing. Hence, the Internet as a
new source of sharing, is fundamentally about spirituality. To be sure there
are movements in America which would have us believe that the Internet has
enormous implications for the time we are at work from 9-5 and that the
Internet is inherently and mainly about money making materialism. This view
overlooks that there are 24 hours in our day and that it can hardly be true
that life is about work only. Money-making may be important but if there is
no time to spend it then 'tis a rather boring exercise.

In this context, thinkers such as Eric Raymond distinguish between the
Cathedral and the Bazaar 4. He rightly argues that there is a distinction to
be made between exchange culture and gift culture. In his view cathedrals
were top down, elitist, organizations. In fact, they were typically
constructed through a co-operation of a majority of persons in towns and
cities. Hence, while Raymond's distinctions are right, the terms of
opposition need to be reversed: ultimately the gift culture of cathedrals
needs to be opposed to the exchange culture of bazaars and not conversely.

On the surface, culture may seem far removed from all this, although most
would agree that cathedrals such as Chartres or Cologne, produced by sharing
are also part of our shared culture. On reflection, however, culture too is
essentially about sharing: the paintings, sculptures, theatre, dance, music
are effectively multi-media commentaries on the great religious (Bible,
Shanahmah, Mahabharata, Ramayana etc.) and literary (Iliad, Odyssey, Tale of
Gengi, Three Kingdoms) texts and as such are related to that which we share

Advances in culture occur when the expressions of things shared increase
using visual, auditory or other senses as shown in the schematic list.

Ten elements leading to an increased repertoire of shared cultural

(Totem) Objects connecting with Actions of Gods
Patterns (Ornament) connecting with Actions of Gods
Idealized Actions of Gods
Idealized Actions of Saints
Idealized Actions of Heroes
Universal Actions (Four Seasons, Seven Ages of Man)
Everyday Actions (Work, Play, Dance, Eat, Drink, Read, Paint)
Exotic Actions
Idealized Dreams
Dreams and Nightmares

Implicit in all this is that there are profound links between developments
in culture and the rise of open source, that both are stimulating a new kind
of sharing. Some would go further and claim that hackers in the virtuous
sense are a new kind of lay monk. The lecture will explore these parallels
between the sharing of culture and the sharing of open source and claim that
there needs to be an open source approach to culture; that there are
philosophical reasons why culture has traditionally been in the public
sphere, and that the developments of open source can lead to new sources of
spirituality in a larger sense.


1 Eric Havelock, Preface to Plato, Cambridge Mass: Belknap Press, Harvard
University Press, 1963.

2 Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy. The Making of Typographic Man,
Toronto: Univeristy of toronto Press, 1962.

3 Michael Giesecke, Der Buchdruck in der frühen Neuzeit. Eine historsiche
Fallstudie über die Durchsetzung neuer Informations- und
Kommunikationstechnologien, Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1991.

4 Eric S. Raymond, The Cathedral & the Bazaar. Musings on Linux and Open
Source by an Accidental Revolutionary, Cambridge Mass.: O'Reilly, 1999.

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