Is “open source” theft of intellectual production and virtual slavery?
“Open source” is the making-available of software source code and other media freely with permission to modify source code and original media. Examples include the Linux and Ubuntu operating systems and the content of wikipedia. A related term from Richard Stallman of the Free Software Foundation is “freeware” which is software provided free of charge in source form. In effect and according to Stallman, most Open Source is freeware and most freeware is O.S.
Open Source is “intellectual production” and not “intellectual product”. However, it appears to me that the concept, together with the architecture of the Web, obscures who writes it and in significant cases enables a virtualized, but not victimless, theft.
It did allow developers to escape the harsh corporate discipline of software shops, one manifestation of which was the constant necessity for overfocus on overdefined goals. That is: designing an effective software system for either a large or basically hard problem is designing a language and Wittgensteinian “form of life” for solving problems in an environment subject to rapid change, but it’s been a common experience that managers would prefer programmers not to do so, but instead deliver, at a quick pace, specific hard-coded modules that would appear to work, and “satisfy” an “end user”.
Whereas because much of Open Source and “open content” is written, modified and debugged by unpaid volunteers/interns, it can be more generally and reliably developed as seen in the case of Linux, which is of higher quality than the closed source monster, Windows.
Open Source was prefigured, in my experience, in the closed shops of the mainframe. Basically, early programmers (of which I was, in a sense, one) lavished time on what seemed at first to be silly goals, often their own personal time, only for the software they created to be key/strategic. For example, noticing that I was maintaining fifty small assembler programs to handle requests for selecting alumni of Roosevelt University, I, working on my own time, designed a language for specifying these requests and laying out the output report, from envelopes to (ta da) mailing labels.
Working happily, and oblivious to the hours or the complaints of my girlfriend, I produced a replacement for the previous programs which appears to have saved a lot of time, even after I left the university’s employ. I encountered the same type of program buried in libraries on Princeton’s mainframe years later, written in assembler as well.
The fraction of time I spent after hours was “open source” in a sense.
This continued, and I was never loth to work extra time to be able to solve a genuine, and genuinely interesting, problem, and I found that many such problems, falsely renarrated as specific “business” problems, lurked behind many vanilla applications. Reinsurance turned out to be a recursive application which needed a stack. Billing for pbx calls of any complexity turned out to be the need to simulate the operations of the pbx based on the only records available, which were of atomic telephony events.
A rational internal compiler for use of field engineers to control PBXs turned out to need a rational installation process itself controlled by software. And in many cases, the users either needed or wanted to enter logic (criteria) as data, and I either needed to write small compilers or, when I was more fortunate in the chosen language, to present the user’s logic to the language for runtime compile and execution…this was duck soup in Rexx and Quick Basic, not so easy in compiled languages.
Software turned out to be, as the creation not of code but of Wittgenstein’s forms of life, an activity that in capitalist relations always had a large “margin”, a “margin” that could not be spoken of for fear of the suits.
Consider a “real” square, drawn “perfectly” either with Microsoft Paint or a compass and straightedge. In all cases it isn’t a square, just a picture of a square whose “edge” is never Euclidean because its edge always has some thickness > 0. In computer graphics and presentation, the programmer has to learn the difference between what is called the “size”, say of a Windows “form” (box on the screen) and its “client size” for this reason. Only in special cases (a borderless box colored differently from its background) is client size == size.
[Would the only “real” square, isomorphic to the Platonic-Euclidean be either a square in a Mondrian painting or a Microsoft Paint square with no border but a different color from the background? The Mondrian-painted square always has bumps and painterly gestures that disqualifies it. This leaves the Microsoft Paint square which has no painterly “edge” as the closest to the Platonic square. But it’s not perfect if space is curved, is it? There could also be micro-differences in height and width if pixels, whose size determine both, are not perfectly square.]
In general the problem is of the margin, and the fact that great programmers have always, in closed source and open, stayed up past their bedtimes. I know of no exception. This may be the result of the fact I identified in “Computer Software as a Philosophical Pathology“: computer memory is always finite and there’s always one more “bug” as a result.
Open source does not of course eliminate the theoretic problem, but it does free corporations from overseeing the creations of forms of life. Instead, they can legally dicker with the open source .org people to obtain commercially viable copies, and in so doing, I do not believe that the interests of the original creators are protected at all.
In fact, Open Source makes the whole process so opaque and so renders actual creators of content so anonymous as to resemble the takeover of Russia’s aging but huge industrial plant in the 1990s by gangstas and “biznezmienie” who were, in many cases, favorably situated sons of the Communist *nomenklatura*, men and women of the Stalinist bureaucracy who’d used prestige educations and inside information to essentially steal the people’s shares in industrial plant.
Programmers regard themselves as creative, professional “engineers”, but were never accorded this dignity from outside the paraprofession. Managers, lawyers, and other truly independent professionals had nothing but contempt for programmers, and as a condition of employment, the programmers had to agree to this low status, and allow their intellectual product to be underpaid and alienated in Closed Source regimes.
Open Source merely mystified and compounded this problem.
The most egregious example is wikipedia. Here, a sharpie and arbitrageur of other people’s use values, Jimmy Wales, was unable to manage people circa 2000 because of his personality problems. He therefore created a tax-exempt .org circa 2002 where “anyone” could change his encyclopedia and add content. The idea wasn’t his, it was Dr. Larry Sanger’s, but what the hell.
In 2004, the spirit of “be bold” and a certain collegiality reigned: but circa 2006, strange editors started to appear. Ignorant of actual scholarship and very rude to others while oversensitive to slights in the lower middle class register, these characters proceeded to hound and persecute contributors who did not conduct themselves with the right sort of subervience…a subservience last seen in the ante-bellum South of the USA.
Reputations were permanently ruined, and good contributors were driven out by “editors” who in many cases turn out to be convenience store clerks and religious obsessives, pre-Enlightenment characters not qualified to create a dictionary let alone an encyclopedia.
Mere thinking became “original research”, and in the manner of vile little clerks throughout history, rules were interpreted with a soul-destroying literality by people who, owing to their very lack of internal self-discipline, need rules at all time.
I quickly became a monstrum horrendum of course, having very low tolerance for this sort of thing, and the nastiness of the process became unbounded. For example, posters seeking to curry favor transformed my patronym (Nilges) into a racist slur as had my racist fellow students (including the racist, right wing rock star Ted Nugent) in high school. It was lynchin’ time, and I believe it became so because Jimbo Wales needs money.
The work of the eradicated was retained and their eradication ensures now that Wales shall be able to turn wikipedia into a profitable paper edition, which appears to be his real goal after all.
This provides Massah Wales (an American southerner) with some of the advantages of slavery (free labor product) without the ugly image of slave-driving, and I think it may generalize to Open Source.
Open Source has a “liberal” reputation because of the unreflective binary opposition in the computer field between the corporate fuddy duddy and the bearded, and therefore presumably free, hippie coder…an unreflective binary opposition which neglects the way in which IBM salesmen received a modicum of dignity and respect in the depths of the Depression by putting on white shirts and ties, and singing the IBM song, and the way in which Thomas J Watson opened up employment to people of color before EEO legislation.
Basically, the innocent American assumption is that “out there” there is a land of unstructured freedom, owning a house for no down payment, free of negative bringdown signifiers such as Hegel’s state and the corporate state, and this American dream keeps people in line, and subject to a much harsher regime than they’d otherwise accept…including the theft of their intellectual production.
“Intellectual production” is my own term of art, and it is meant to contrast with “intellectual property”. Our society has an excessive respect for the latter and none at all for the former, the work product of the forgotten man.
In 1976, Bill Gates called a spade a spade. He told the hobbyist-hippies of the Altair generation that they weren’t “free”: they were, he said, pirates and slaves because he and Paul Allen earned two dollars an hour net for producing the first useful Basic compiler for microcomputers. It had been stolen and widely disseminated by early computer thugs, some of whom bothered to claim to be “anarchists”.
But it was Microsoft which made millionaires out of secretaries and programmers from inferior universities as had the old IBM, and it did so by protecting its source code…religiously. Whereas if access to the means of production is made obscure, insiders with networks obtained at expensive universities have, whether post-Communism in Russia or in software, a built-in advantage.
Return to barbarism starts with this sort of theft. Corporate America never really figured out how to treat programmers with basic decency and respect, which destroyed a port of entry to the middle class open to talents in the 1960s. Open source, far more than offshore development, replaced paid employees with time slices of hidden slaves; in my experience, offshore creates jobs!
The result is a world of pirates and slaves, and a lack of interest in software careers.