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The future is geek

Why pay out good money to Microsoft and the big corporations when you can get the computer software you need for free? Derek Wall hails the open source revolutionaries

November 1, 2005
6 min read

If I am anything to go by, the last people to hear about the open source/free software revolution are activists and writers. Yet there is no doubt that something very big and rather radical is occurring that challenges corporations just as much as the anti-capitalist protests that have erupted since Seattle.

Switch on your computer and click on the web and you will use a browser to enter the site you want. Ninety per cent of computers come pre-packaged with Microsoft Explorer. So when you bought your PC a proportion of the cost went to Bill Gates. Yet open source internet browsers like Firefox can be downloaded for free and are generally agreed to do a better job than purchased products. OpenOffice, a free office software suite with almost 50 million downloads, does more than its commercial rivals. The open source movement produces programmes, designs and an ever expanding range of other forms of information that are developed, passed around and continuously adapted and improved.

This stuff isn”t just for geeks. Rasmus Nielsen, a Danish IT expert, has produced Vores Oel, or Our Beer, a recipe that can be used and adapted by anyone. Resisting Carlsberg, who copyright their lager to prevent “stealing”, the open source principle has allowed Danes to reclaim their drinking heritage. Vores Oel is, in the words of legendary beer drinker and free source pioneer Richard Stallman, “free as in freedom, not free as in free beer”. This means that if a small brewery goes online and makes Vores Oel it can sell the beer but it cannot sell the recipe.

I learned about open source within days of finishing my book on anti-capitalism, Babylon and Beyond, took a look on the computers at work and found all of them connected to the internet with Firefox. Students and teaching colleagues whose computer skills don”t necessarily extend beyond email and web browsing are all keen advocates of open source software.

While the terminology is disputed, open/free source is based on two key principles. First, packages of information are free for use, although sometimes cash is generated by selling allied products or services. Firefox is provided by Mozilla, which generates income via donations to the Mozilla Foundation and work with corporate users.

Participatory production is the second key theme. Individuals are encouraged to adapt and change products – an approach that underlies the development of the world wide web itself. Tim Berners-Lee, who is widely credited as being one of the two main inventors of the web, combined pre-existing software to create it and insisted that it be based on royalty-free use so that it could grow quickly. While Bill Gates is probably the richest man in the world, the web upon which his wealth is based was made for free. This apparent paradox provides a puzzle for conventional economists and indicates that a very different notion of economics is possible.

Economists tie themselves in knots trying to explain open source. To cut a long and complicated story short, traditional capitalist economics assumes that greed is good. If Tim Berners-Lee had charged for every click on the world wide web, he would long ago have bought out Bill Gates and built the first dacha on the moon. Explaining why things are done for free is challenging for a discipline that insists that human beings are always motivated by material self-interest.

With open source, however, people produce things simply for the satisfaction of doing so. Computer geeks don”t think “career first” but get on the net for the sheer hell of creating something new and ironing out some bugs in their mate’s software. Wikipedia, the online encyclopaedia, is written, edited and available for free. Articles have no named authors, so note even prestige can be seen as the motivation – people just go online and contribute for the satisfaction of doing so.

Some more conventional economic benefits arise from this. Free software development pushes down labour costs and is helping to attack monopolies like Microsoft, earning open source a following among right wing liberatarians. And it has also gained their support as part of what the legal theorist Yochai Benkler terms social sharing. The Economist magazine, in a move that is almost as startling as George Bush converting to Sufism, admits that social sharing is an entirely new form of economics that does without the market and the state.

But this has obviously progressive implications too. The “free” market is actually built on the principle of enclosure – converting previously unowned, shared resources into paid-for commodities. This is a process that can be seen in one of its most blatant forms today when corporations try to patent naturally occurring seeds so that peasants who have previously used them for free have to pay for them – a process that leads to economic expansion on the one hand and increased poverty and restrictions on freedom on the other. A similar situation applies with computer software, where the capacity for creative sharing is reined in by the enclosure of computer code as corporate intellectual property.

Open source challenges this approach and returns software to common ownership. This is far from a new idea. Commons regimes, where local communities share the use of common land through rationing, are found throughout history. The term “usufruct” is used to denote this process, whereby a resource can be borrowed and used as long as it is put back in its original state. Open source means it is put back in a better state than it started out.

Attempts to produce for free, to share and to make resources serve the community will always be resisted by corporations, which are invariably keen to promote renewed enclosure. The non-corporate vision, however, is that the free use of productive resources will facilitate the creation of a society that is both ecologically sustainable and equal, based on participation rather than command. The future of radical politics, then, is inextricably linked with the fight for an open source or free society. One day our descendents may even say with amazement that their grandparents used to work for money rather than for pleasure and necessity.Derek Wall is currently running for the post of Green Party principal speaker. He has just published Babylon and Beyond: The Economics of Anti-Capitalist, Anti-Globalist and Radical Green Movements, which can be bought from the Red Pepper website for the special price of £12.99.

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