July 29, 2002

A Commons?

Category: Politics — Biella @ 4:03 pm

So, lately, I have been pretty obsessed about the ideas of a commons partially because that is how I like to think of the free software movement as it has significantly contributed to the creation of a technological commons or public repository of knowledge and I think has also revived the idea of a commons for society at large. Here is a seemingly good article, Reclaiming the Comons, on the importance of having a vibrant commons.

But back to free software… What
I find unique about the free software and open source commons that is that it has not been created or guaranteed by governmental, corporate, or academic institutions but has emerged out of the technical and ethical imperatives of a technological professional group. Free software can be seen as a relatively independent cultural space where professional activities and ethics can be freely exercised in such a way that has benefits for others than the professional group. It is possible to add professional groups to the repertoire of philanthropic institutions and activities. Clearly objections can be made about the supposed independence of the domain of open source; academic institutions such as Berkeley and MIT have historically played crucial roles in the development of key free software applications, the Internet where most development occurs would not be possible without government funding and private R& D, many free software developers have high paying jobs that give them the financial luxury to volunteer time, and corporations like I.B.M and Hewlett Packard have contributed significant funds to projects. Despite these and many others connections (which I don’t want to mystify as non significant), it is arguable that free software projects and goods do have a degree of independence from the institutions and social structures that give it different forms of underlying support. If HP files for chapter 11, Debian will still likely exist as a project. It is largely hackers as a collective group who mandate the technical and legal unfolding of software and its distribution. What if other professional groups had an independent domain by which to exercise their professional and ethical work as an ideal for philanthropy??

Though the open source movement is certainly not the first to cultivate and spread the idea of free or cheap computing for social empowerment, it is perhaps the first computer socio-technical movement that has reached a large enough critical mass that its software is in fact being deployed as a commons all around the world by governmental, non-profit, academic, and corporate bodies. Schools around the nation and the world have either adopted Linux as an alternative platform or are seriously considering its use to replace proprietary software.

In some instances, such as in the Portland School district, the local Linux User Group (LUG), PLUG, has played a pivotal role in organizing and facilitating the move from proprietary to open source software in schools. Thus, though open source development and to some degree activism largely occurs online, there is a very important grassroots, local level that is employing open source as a commons. Along with schools, governments in Latin America, Asia, and Europe have either to some degree adopted the use of open source software for government agencies or are seriously considering its adoption. Governmental use of open source software is an interesting inversion of traditional societal roles in which the government is the consumer of public goods as opposed to the producer of them.

Is a commons a form of philanthropy? It is certainly the case that the type of giving that results from a commons has substantial differences from more traditional forms of philanthropic giving. A commons is for anyone to take and use, often in ways that are unknown to the creators of a commons. Use does not require grant applications, goal specifications, or monetary awards. Much in the same way that hackers often hail freedom
One of the most consequential effects of the free software movement is that it has reawakened the idea of and the importance of a commons for our society. What free software has provided is a real live working model based out of a social movement of another distinct legal means by which to induce creativity, reward it, and protect knowledge within our society. One of the hallmarks of anthropology is to make visible the diversity of human socio-cultural interaction, organization, and expression which are too easily are erased by universalistic explanations for human behavior. An anthropological outlook can be used to make us more sensitive and aware of alternatives as well as open up our own cultural categories for scrutiny. Free software development and legal codes has thus among many other things acted as a form of anthropological critique by providing another viable means to knowledge production. The effects I would argue have been profound and are evident in the technical and non-technical projects (an nonprofits) that have burgeoned as a result of direct inspiration by the world of free software. There are a ton of projects out there, like Creative Commons that explicitly takes inspiration from the FSF and the copyleft. Time will tell whether projects like these will take a life of their own but it is good to see their birth…

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