February 27, 2006

A third way: freedom, open source, and populism

Category: Anthropology,Ethics,F/OSS,Hackers,Liberalism — @ 2:09 pm

I just finished reading an article written and recommended by David Berry that he mentioned on my blog: The Contestation of Code: A preliminary investigation into the discourse of the free/libre and open source movements. The piece does a marvelous job at running a fine comb over the terms that dominate the discourses of open source vs. free software and in so doing, brings into stark relief the differences between the two philosophies. For example, while free software promulgates a host of terms like code, freedom, power, progress, community, and rights—knotting them together into an ethical package that includes community, public good, ethics, and Enlightenment ideals of progress—open source uses a different set of meanings to animate some of these same categories and places them into a different package, one that includes the language of choice, markets, rational choice, individualism, and efficiency. And as Berry argues persuasively, Eric Raymond hitches these within an evolutionary framework that “seeks to give deterministic causes” (p. 79).

I tend, however, not to treat these as two movements, “that differ radically in their underlying philosophies” (p. 67), but more as movement that exhibits two positions that maps to a continuum rather than a stark dichotomy; and these reflect the differences and points of tension that are always part and parecel of any shared movement or tradition.

Elsewhere I have written about hackers, in general, and free and open source software, in specific, as a means to examine the heterogeneity of the liberal tradition, all too often treated in unitary terms. While free software draws on the communitarian end of the liberal spectrum, OSS sits at the other pole. According to Raymond, OSS’s virtues follwo from the fact that the enjoyment of programming and the reputation programmers derive from doing it well–these are simply better incentives to produce good software than a salary. While Stallman envisions a community maintained through shared norms and values (and sits more closely with folks like Jefferson and Mill and also perhaps has anarchistic influences), OSS hearkens back to thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment such as Mandeville.

That said, the reason I don’t see these as radically distinct, however, has less to do with these two positions, which really do, as Berry shows so well, diverge into different ethical territory, but because at the level of ordinary social life, most developers I met and interviewed, even those from the Debian project (the most ethically committed to free software), expressed and dabbled in hybrid discourses that included language from both camps. For many of these developers, free software development was the more efficient thing for their technical art, and also held moral overtones. For many, free software/open source could guarantee a more open market. For many developers who chose open source, they chose copyleft licenses because they were personally motivated and compelled by deep seated ethical beliefs, but were eminently uncomfortable with passing on such moral to others. Others really disliked any whiff of moralism. Many developers were very uncomfortable mapping this realm to any politics outside that of software freedom and when they did, they inhabited a “recursive” political reflexicity as described by Chris Kelty. But many free and open source advocates did move comfortably between these two poles, sometimes choosing one label over an other one to make a point or to emphasize one facet of what one label could only thinly capture.

Berry also claims that “Linus Torvalds, the creator of Linux, is the exemplar of the vision of Raymond and the OSM,” (p. 81) which I think can be thought of in a slightly different way, perhaps as a third way. First, his rise to prominence as the leader of the first large scale free software project came well before the birth of open source discourse. Certainly, while Stallman was a political crusader salvaging culture, Torvalds was a technical pragmatist who worked from home and was receptive to feedback from peers through newsgroups. But by following his hobby and using a free software legal scheme, Torvalds accidentally inaugurated a unique global volunteer project of “collective invention” whereby programmers could contribute bug fixes and improvements that, if deemed worthwhile by Torvalds would be incorporated into new versions of the Linux kernel. In the process of rewriting the kernel, Linus became a leader, coordinating the contributions of all those who were willing to volunteer their time. His innovation was as much social as it was technological. And to be more specific, he inaugurated a strain of populism, that was later carried into and accentuated into other projects such as the Debian project. Over time, Linux as a project did move more toward the open source camp, but still retains a healthy doses of its early populism that defined a new era in UNIX hacking from its predecessors (such as with the Berkeley Software Distribution camp) whom operated along a more elitist logic. Below is one older Debian developer who is describing contributing to BSD before the Linux era:

There was a process by which you wrote some code and submitted in the ‘I am not worthy, but ‘I-hope-that-this-will-be-of-use-to-you supplication-mode’ to Berkeley and if they kinda looked at it and thought, oh this is cool, then it would make it in and if they said, interesting idea, but there is a better way to do that they might write a different implementation of it.

While the Berkeley Unix gurus accepted contributions from those who were not already participating on the project, it was difficult to pierce the inner circle of authority and become an actual member of the team. When Linus Torvalds and Ian Murdock developed their own projects (the Linux kernel and Debian respectively), they did things differently than the earlier cadre of Unix hackers by fostering a more egalitarian environment of openness and transparency.

I think the most interesting claim brought on by Berry is that open source discourse is a neoliberal one. On the one hand neoliberal language and open source language do share many similarities, that of choice and free markets most notably, but I think open source, especially as it is carried out in the vicissitudes of social practice, falls short of neoliberal ideology (but, to be sure, can be easily changed into those terms and thus I think of them more as holding affinities).

Because while a neoliberal worldview unabashedly promotes the privatization of every last thing, even open source states there must be limits. And just this claim, alongside a healthy and somewhat contagious (in that good sort of way) social practice of collaborative development, undermine neoliberal ideology and especially neoliberal trends in IP law. As Siva Vaidhyanathan has written elsewhere “the brilliant success of overtly labeled Open Source experiments, coupled with the horror stories of attempts to protects the proprietary model have added common sense” toadvocates fighting for reform and change. The way open source has functioned, at least it seems to be, is more than less, as a break, a limit point to neoliberal trends. I am still open to thinking more about open source as part and parcel a neoliberal creed, but I would like to see more of those discursive and sociological links and if we are to call that neoliberal, what do we call the massive transformation of IP law that have been intimately linked these modes of regulation to trade treaties and the like? I guess I am not ready to tag open source as neoliberal as that term helps to explain other trends in IP law.

If you can’t notice from the post, I am in the thick of major dissertation revisions for a book manuscript so am gladly reading more about free and open source to get me through some of my hitches.

February 25, 2006

Say What? Free Software, You Can’t Just Give it Away

Category: F/OSS,Hackers,IP Law,Politics — @ 3:08 pm

For a long time now, I have been interested in conceptualizing the rise of free and open source software within the context of the massive changes in intellectual property that have transpired in the last 25 years. In specific, I am trying to write a history that demonstrates how these two trends went from being distant “second cousins,” to more intimate (though acrimonious) siblings.

That is, while we can never consider the history of free/open source software irrespective of the historical changes in IP law, it is also my sense that there came a time (around 1998-2000) when it became harder to separate the two, in the following sense: in the last 5-7 years, free software users/developers have become aware of these global forces (and how they impinge on their ability to write software), while social actors who pushe to strengthen IP provisions, also are aware of the dynamics of F/OSS and the way it threatens their tactics. There is a now a mutal conscioussness of each other.

There are various events–notably those surrounding the DeCSS Protests, the
Dmitry Skylarov affair, and the anti-patent initiative in the EU–that act a concrete sites by which to claim and analyze this close relation.

But sometimes, it is nice to get a sense of the more subtle ways in which this relation is playing out and below, is a snippet from the follwing article, Free Software, You Can’t Just Give it Away (via Decoding Liberation) that reveals just this. Written by a Mozilla Foundation employee, Gervase Markham, it tells the following amusing tale:

A little while ago, I received an e-mail from a lady in the Trading Standards department of a large northern town. They had encountered businesses which were selling copies of Firefox, and wanted to confirm that this was in violation of our licence agreements before taking action against them.

I wrote back, politely explaining the principles of copyleft – that the software was free, both as in speech and as in price, and that people copying and redistributing it was a feature, not a bug. I said that selling verbatim copies of Firefox on physical media was absolutely fine with us, and we would like her to return any confiscated CDs and allow us to continue with our plan for world domination (or words to that effect).

Unfortunately, this was not well received. Her reply was incredulous:

“I can’t believe that your company would allow people to make money from something that you allow people to have free access to. Is this really the case?” she asked.

“If Mozilla permit the sale of copied versions of its software, it makes it virtually impossible for us, from a practical point of view, to enforce UK anti-piracy legislation, as it is difficult for us to give general advice to businesses over what is/is not permitted.”

This is precisely what I am trying to get at in my historical account. I have written a first stab of this history for a conference I am attending next week,
Informatics goes global. Here is the introduction to my paper, which suffers from some problems but hopefully it will be whipped into better shape soon.

Letters to the Editor, WSJ.

Category: Ethics,Politics,Psychiatry — @ 2:22 pm

About a month ago, I posted an interesting article from the Wall Street Journal on The rising tide of forced treatment.

Below are a range of letters published in the Wallstreet Journal in response to the article. I have not seen the originals but got them via a MindFreedom mailing list.

The collection of letters are the mosy crystalline window into the devastatingly complex issues concerning psychiatric care, human autonomy, law, and suffering that I have seen in a long, long time. Do check it out.

Wed. February22,2006


MindFreedom International sends out alerts as part of our “MindFreedom
Shield” to encourage and support people who are seeking an underground
railroad to shelter them from coerced psychiatric drugging. Such
underground railroads provide support and assistance in a manner that
is completely legal and essential for these individuals. But an
underground railroad itself isn’t a program of MindFreedom, as you

You described MindFreedom as an organization of “mentally ill people
that opposes coerced drug treatment.” While many members are people who
have experienced abuse in the mental health system, or “psychiatric
survivors” as we call ourselves, we don’t refer to our membership as
“mentally ill.” In fact, many have spent much of their lives
passionately defending themselves against such damaging, false and
unscientific labels.

While you quoted several proponents of forced drugging, you ought to
have quoted even one of the many organized groups of psychiatric
survivors. After all, we are the ones who end up on the sharp end of
the needle.

David Oaks
MindFreedom International
Eugene, Ore.

[other letters:]

For the Mentally Ill: Caring or Incarceration?

One of the great tragedies of modern psychiatry is the large number of
incarcerated individuals who are mentally ill or drug addicted (“A
Doctor’s Fight: More Forced Care for the Mentally Ill,” page one, Feb.
1). This is the inevitable consequence of our reluctance to use caring,
coercive approaches, such as assisted outpatient treatment. A person
suffering from paranoid schizophrenia with a history of multiple
hospitalizations for being dangerous and a reluctance to abide by
outpatient treatment is a perfect example of someone who would benefit
from these approaches. We must balance individual rights and freedom
with policies aimed at caring coercion. Our responsibility to each
other and our respect for personal rights lie at the center of our
social and moral choices as Americans.

The Treatment Advocacy Center is to be commended for its sustained
advocacy on behalf of the most vulnerable mentally ill patients who
lack the insight to seek and continue effective care and benefit from
assisted outpatient treatment.

Steven S. Sharfstein, M.D.
American Psychiatric Association
Arlington, Va.

While forced care is sometimes necessary when a person is a danger to
himself or others, the call to expand its usage underestimates the
risks of imposing a different standard of civil liberty onto people
with mental illness than is guaranteed to the rest of us.

E. Fuller Torrey’s movement is part of an attitude of paternalism from
which people with mental illness are working hard to break free.
Moreover, his database of anecdotes on violence is misleading since
most people with mental illness aren’t violent and are more often the
victims of crime, not the assailants. There is a long history of our
country taking away the rights of people with mental illness who are
penalized merely for being “scary” and “burdensome.” It is time to go
forward, not backward.

Anthony M. Zipple, Sc.D., M.B.A.
Chief Executive Officer
Thresholds Psychiatric
Rehabilitation Centers

My 41-year-old brother has suffered from serious mental illness since
he was 15. At times, his behavior has become sufficiently threatening
or dangerous to require involuntary hospitalization. Like many others
with this disease, he doesn’t believe that he is ill (a neurological
deficit known as anosognosia) and therefore refuses to voluntarily
comply with treatment or to take medication, even though it has proven
remarkably effective. As a result, my smart, funny and talented brother
has spent much of the past 25 years homeless, jobless and delusional. I
can safely say to the civil libertarians that this isn’t the life he
would have chosen for himself; it was chosen for him by his untreated

Before Kendra’s Law, there was nothing my family could do to force him
to obtain treatment. Although the law isn’t a panacea and the mental
health system is a disgrace, being forced to stay in treatment is the
only chance he has of resurrecting his life.

Shari L. Steinberg
New York

Dr. Torrey complains about “taking heat” for being “politically
incorrect,” but he’s not really paying any penalty for his position. A
real penalty, however, is being paid by those who are targeted by the
laws he pushes through. To force outpatient “treatment” on anyone who
has ever been on the wrong end of the mental health system because of
the actions of the criminals in Dr. Torrey’s database is as unfair as
it would be to force such treatment on all physicians because of the
actions of Dr. Mengele.

Kent Reedy
San Diego

Using the term “force” to describe state laws authorizing court-ordered
treatment overlooks the point about what these laws are intended to
accomplish. Most people with serious mental illnesses are able to make
informed decisions about treatment. In a minority of cases, mental
illness negatively affects insight and ability to recognize the need
for treatment. The greatest risk is to the individuals themselves.

A New York State Office of Mental Health report shows that the impact
of Kendra’s Law has been positive in reducing hospitalizations,
arrests, homelessness and other consequences from lack of treatment.
And most people treated under Kendra’s Law say it has helped them. When
narrowly crafted and sufficiently protective of civil liberties, laws
authorizing court-ordered outpatient treatment can be both humane and

Michael Fitzpatrick
Executive Director
National Alliance on Mental Illness
Arlington, Va.

February 20, 2006

Conferences on IP/Knowledge/Authorship

Category: Politics,Research — @ 6:24 pm

A string of conferences on the politics of IP law, knowledge access and authorhip/invention are right around the corner:

March 11-12 at Stanford U is the Cultural Environmentalism at 10 conference. It is nice to see so many female participants as males tend to dominate the public speaking circuit. As excellent as this conference looks, my only beef is that is seems a little lawyer heavy with Siva the only non-lawyer participant.

In late April, the Yale Information Society Project is hosting an ambitious and broad conference, A2K . Similar in theme to Stanford’s focus on environmentalism, it is going to tackle a wider range of questions and issues that include everything from medicine to agriculture. If you are within 2-4 hours of New Haven, this is not to be missed.

Well, unless you are already committed to another conference, like I am. During the same weekend, there is a working conference Con/texts of invention where participants will pre-circulate papers and hash out questions and comments related to modes of authorship and invention across a range of scientific and literary fields.


February 19, 2006


Category: Research — @ 9:13 pm

There are times when I wished that I did not run Linux, so that I could use nifty applications, like this one, to manage, sort, and classify my data/articles/readings.

I am slowly migrating my article materials here but I would prefer something on my end of the computer world. Also, citeulike is nice but has limited functional capacity.

If anyone knows of anything like Scribe but for a Linux platform, do give a shout out.

February 18, 2006

Oped: How drug lobbyists influence doctors

Category: Pharma,Politics — @ 6:51 am

The Boston Globe published a scathing op-ed, How drug lobbyists influence doctors.

But I write not about politicians (plenty of people are doing that already), but about similar corruptive influences in medicine. While lobbying groups spend about $2 billion to convince politicians to do their bidding, pharmaceutical companies spend nearly 10 times that much to influence the nation’s 600,000 to 700,000 physicians to prescribe the newest and most expensive drugs. I imagine that many people who regularly watch television assume that the companies are spending most of their advertising budget to influence consumers, but no. Nearly 85-90 percent is spent on doctors, for free drug samples, speaker’s fees, consultation fees, and ”educational” grants.

February 17, 2006

Outsourcing legal services

Category: Uncategorized — @ 6:55 pm

Has outsourcing legal work been around for awhile, or did I just miss the spam in previous years?

.. Due to this technological explosion, persons residing in two parts of the globe can interact with each other easily. Before this technological explosion, only industrial establishments were able to take advantage of cheap and qualified labor force available in other parts of the globe. The widespread use of internet has made it possible for organizations engaged in service sector to hire and outsource the work to countries where qualified labor force is available at internationally competitive rate.

India is the leading destination for outsourcing. India has gained a competitive edge as an outsourcing hub for a number of reasons, including the widespread use of English and availability of large pool of professionals at internationally competitive rate. Outsourcing to India gives overseas attorneys the clear competitive advantage over other legal service firms in terms of cost, quality and turnaround time.

Most companies of Europe and America routinely outsource their back-end business process operations like data entry and handling, payroll management, accounting and book-keeping, processing of tax returns and insurance claims, ticketing, legal research coding and organizing of documents for major litigation cases, transcription (medical and legal).

The technological production of desire

Category: Tech — @ 3:54 pm

The stack is shorter. I started the week with a long series of articles on new media technologies and as I have turned each page, I have learned a great deal. I wish I could blog about them all but because there are still some left, not to mention other things to attend to, my time is limited. But I would do a great disservice if I did not mention one that blew me away, both for its content and its eloquence. Kris Cohen, a Ph.D student at U of C, published a short but rich piece entitled What does the photoblog want?

There is a lot more there than a mere 19 pages may first seem to suggest. I have the feeling I will go back to it again to mull over the different strains he ties together in a coherent and enticing knot. Today what spoke to me most strongly was his demonstration of how technologies can work in concert not only in ways unexpected, but in way that produce a dense (and surprising) matrix of personal desire and motivation. Among other things, he shows how a piece of technology, the camera, can acquire a whole new life and trajectory when it is animated within the context of another technology, the photoblog:

One function of the photoblog, its practitioners say, is to provide motivation for taking photos. The photoblog provides structure for photographs, gives them something to do, compels their production via the motivating external abstractions of a project. This makes the photoblogger answerable not to her own (some- times unreliable) self, but to her blog and its audiences, however hypothetical these are, however unknown.

What I mean is: the photoblog is both what photoblogger want (a record of their everyday lives and idiosyncratic vision) and the means for achieving it (that is, the desire to achieve it).

In union with photography, the photoblog functions as a verb: motivating, justifying. In union with photographs, the photoblog functions as a noun: collection, site.

Moroever, if the photoblog refigures the act of taking pictures, of the very stuff of desire and motivation, this piece also show us how this new practice of photoblogging alters the very nature of the Real, of what it may mean to record our daily lives, everyday:

Notice not just how Ed’s desires begin to articulate an interestingly recon?gured photography, but how his technological fantasy is also a fantasy about his life. He wants to proliferate photography so that it becomes less distinct from his life in general. An in?nite expansion of
photography in this way would effect an in?nite regression as well: being everywhere, photography would also be nowhere.

Anthropological Reason and other tasty delights

Category: Anthropology,Books/Articles — @ 10:48 am

The list of things I want/need/should (or should not) blog about are piling high and they range from the insignificant though unbelievable footage of an octopus gorging on a shark, to a long bit on the “Tale of A Tub” workshop that I attended last week at Rutgers (an amazing book).

But all of this will have to wait as my plate is overflowing. But, before I forget, I would like to point out for those who work on psychiatry, gloablization and medicine, or for those who just want to read what looks like a promising STS-Anthro ethnography, Andrew Lakoff’s book
Pharmaceutical Reason has finally been released! I have been wanting to sink my teeth in for a while now and I am sure it will be a tasty read.

Andrew Lakoff argues that a new ‘pharmaceutical’ way of thinking about and acting upon mental disorder will reshape the field of psychiatry. Drawing from a comprehensive ethnography of psychiatric practice in Argentina (a country which boasts the most psychoanalysts per capita in the world), Lakoff looks at new ways of understanding and intervening in human behavior. He charts the globalization of pharmacology, particularily the global impact of US psychiatry and US models of illness, and further illustrates the clashes, conflicts, alliances and reformulations that take place when psychoanalytic and psychopharmacological models of illness and cure meet.

February 14, 2006

Times past, fallen away, and brought back

Category: Travel — @ 3:30 pm

It is strange to think that one decision can so dramatically change the course of one’s history, one’s life.

For me, when I was 17, I decided to live on this ship , the R/V Heraclitus, and I think the more important of decision, in terms of impact on my life, was not that I went but that I left after a year.

At the time, it was extraordinarily hard to leave. Life was good and rich, 80 feet and all. Within the constraint of having to show up every morning for work at 8 am, of rarely being able to “leave” the boat, of having only 10 people to interact with consistently, of being pretty darn poor, of living in tiny quarters, there was an expansive cloak of freedom. Part of it was, as my friend put it, “freedom from choice.” Part of it was that life on the sea, with a small group of people, is really so interesting enough that it grabs not only one’s attention, but one’s soul and for a very long time. Part of it was the vastness of the ocean, for it is a liquid land ripe for constant exploration.

I left because if I did not, then years later, I would have to foot the entire bill for college and that was just too large of a bill and school was too important to me. So one sunny day, I walked off the red deck in Belize and since have not really sailed much (if at all??) in my life. I made a promise that one day I would live on a boat again, perhaps even do an ethnography of sea people by living and traveling on a sailing boat, as that I think, has yet to be done. Who knows if that will ever be but today, when I was visiting the R/V Heraclitus site, which I do from time to time, to see where the lovely barge is at, and to catch a glimpse of my former life, I was surprised to see they have a short video of the ship and wow, watching it was, of course, a serious trip down memory lane.

It has been almost 14 years since I left and I have not seen such images since. Many of the objects are the same (the chairs on the deck, the huge silver bin containers in the meeting room, the imposing helm) and there were even some folks I still knew… It was truly wonderful to see the rough black cement, the deep wood of the library, the built environment that somehow, floats a top a vast territory, carrying a motely crew to physical places at the same time that such travels are always an internal movement, the self, transforming, minutely but surely.

Where you or it goes is never down a straight path, but more circular, more mysterious. Heraclitus, of course, says it best:

The world, an entity out of everything, was created by neither Gods or men, but was, is and will be eternally living fire, regularly becoming ignited and regularly becoming extinguished.