Felix Stalder on Fri, 17 Mar 2006 17:17:50 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Open Source Projects as Voluntary Hierarchies

Open Source Projects as Voluntary Hierarchies

Weber, Steven (2004) The Success of Open Source. Cambridge, MA, Harvard UP
ISBN: 0-674-01292-5, pp. 311

Over the last half-decade, free and open source software (FOSS) has moved from 
the hacker margins to the mainstream. Corporations, large and small, have 
invested in it, some governments are actively supporting it and it is 
becoming an increasingly important tool for the building of an international 
civil society. In the social sciences, the field is receiving a growing share 
of attention, evidenced by a widening stream of research output. The central 
repository for relevant papers, opensource.mit.edu, lists some 250 
researchers with a self-declared interest in all things FOSS and almost as 
many scholarly papers, contributed in just five years. Additionally, there 
are several volumes written by activists, book-length treatments by 
journalists, plus biographies of the two most prominent figures, Richard 
Stallman and Linus Torvalds.

To this burgeoning literature, the most ambitious contribution is Steven 
Weber's The Success of Open Source. Weber, a political scientist from 
University of California, Berkeley, focuses on a political economy approach 
which he understands as 'a system of sustainable value creation and a set of 
governance mechanisms' (p.1). His main interest lies in the social formations 
built around FOSS's particular mode of production. What differentiates this 
mode from other systems of immaterial production is its approach to property. 
Whereas the conventional notions of property are based on unambiguous 
ownership and the associated right of excluding others, in the context of 
FOSS, property is organized around the right to distribute. Its key concerns 
are not how to ascribe ownership and manage exclusion, but to develop the 
best strategies to maximize access and collaboration. This is a profound 
change, and Weber puts it rightly at the beginning of his analysis. In this 
perspective FOSS is a public good, a resource that, once produced, everyone 
can use, akin to a street light. Standard political theory assumes there are 
no incentives for private entities to produce public goods, because the 
non-excludability invites free-riding, impeding markets built on scarcity. 
Thus, the provision of such goods is usually in the hands of governments who 
invest in them for the benefit of society as a whole.

FOSS is a counter-intuitive example where a large number of entities, 
individuals as well as organizations, produce highly complex products as 
public goods with no, or very little, involvement of the state. Early 
analysts recognized that, given mainstream theoretical assumptions, FOSS is 
an 'impossible public good' (p.1). Clearly, however, it is not a fluke. Many 
of the core projects  - such as the Linux kernel, the Apache webserver, the 
GNU software  - are by now more than a decade old and are still growing, so 
it is no longer in doubt as to whether FOSS represents a 'system of 
sustainable value creation'. But what kind of system? The two core chapters 
of the book (which also contains a thorough history of FOSS and somewhat less 
thorough sections on business and law) focus on the 'microfoundations', the 
individual motivations to contribute to FOSS projects, and on the 
'macro-organizations' involved. Weber aims to show that contributors are not 
altruistic, but guided by range of incentives, from seeking aesthetic 
pleasures to reputation and identity building. The question of incentives is 
probably the best researched of all aspects of the conundrum that FOSS poses 
to conventional political and economic theory and Weber does a very good job 
of systematizing and summarizing the state of the discussion, even if he adds 
little new.

More interesting and original is the chapter on the macro-organization of FOSS 
projects. Here, Weber shows that these projects are not chaotic at all, but 
tend to have explicit formal structures (release schedules, project leaders, 
official repositories, etc) and that notions of self-organization do not 
really clarify much. To bring together the two basic observations that all 
contributions are voluntary, and that projects are hierarchically structured, 
Weber develops the notion of a voluntary hierarchy (though, he never quite 
calls it that). In such a governance system, individuals voluntarily accept 
their position in a hierarchy, because they realize that doing so is 
beneficial to them. Their own contributions get recognized and the overall 
project develops into a direction that they like. In such as system, contrary 
to what we usually think of hierarchies, power flows from the bottom to the 
top 'because the leader depends on the followers more than the other way 
around[']Asymmetrical interdependencies favor the potential followers, who 
will make a free and voluntary choice where to invest their work' (p.160).

The freedom of choice if and where to contribute is not just based on the fact 
that all contributions are voluntary, but also, perhaps even more 
importantly, on the ability to fork the project, to reorganize the project 
under a different leadership. This happens if contributors believe that the 
current leader no longer supports their own individual goals. If a 
significant number of contributors share this sense of disaffection, the 
project splits, or routs around the unpopular leader. Given the free access 
to the source code, all the resources to form a new project are there. The 
only thing that is needed is the credible claim of another leader to be more 
responsive to the community. The hurdle for forking is, as Weber argues, 
simultaneously very low and very high. It is so low that it forces the leader 
to stay attentive and responsive to the community. The Utopian vision that 
'authority follows and derives from responsibility' (p.163) comes to be 
realized to a reasonable degree. The fact that forks happen quite rarely 
shows that the hurdle, in practice, is nevertheless high enough to allow for 
a high degree of project continuity. As projects mature and grow in 
complexity, governance structures are becoming more explicit (foundations, 
board of directors, etc) without replacing the essentially voluntary nature 
of the hierarchy.

For Weber, the reason why the political economy of FOSS works is because the 
main task of such production processes is no longer to organize the division 
of labor (as it was with industrialism) but distributed innovation. The 
latter cannot be divided into a linear sequence of steps, but is better 
modularized and flexibly networked. For such a task, the open source way of 
flexible, voluntary self-assignment is (more) efficient and attracts rational 
individuals who want to optimize the returns they receive on their time 
invested. The difficulty with this analysis is that the efficiency criterion 
runs the danger of becoming tautological since it is not clear in relation to 
what efficiency is supposed to be assessed. Successful project are efficient, 
because efficiency leads to success. While Weber acknowledges that the FOSS 
mode of development can be 'expensive and messy' and lead to 'wasted 
resources' (p.158) he sees the efficiency of FOSS embodied in 'a powerful 
sense that it is not merely inefficient, but downright stupid, almost 
criminal, for people to have solve the same problem twice' (p.138). Yet, in 
fact, FOSS is so full of duplications that it is impossible to count the 
number of Linux distributions or text processing programs or music players. 
Here, clearly, something different than economic efficiency and resource 
maximization is driving development as well. Perhaps the beauty of FOSS is 
that it is not only about efficiency, but also about freedom and 
idiosyncrasies, which makes it hard to tell in advance what is a brilliant 
innovation or a tremendous waste of time.

Weber's book serves both as a solid introduction to the social and political 
issues raised by FOSS and as an advanced analysis of some of its aspects, 
particularly the novel governance mechanism and the productive concept of the 
voluntary hierarchy.


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