How the free software movement got tamed, and can we do something about it?

* Essay: From Free Software to Artisan Science. By Dan McQuillan.· In the special issue: The Critical Power of Free Software. Journal of Peer Production, Issue #3.

Excerpted from Dan McQuillan’s excellent essay:


“My personal journey with Free Software began in the 1990?s when I was working on technology projects in the UK non-profit sector. I had become aware of a collaborative mode of software production that sounded like it shared a lot of the values of organisations I worked with. I was used to non-profit and participatory projects being small and mostly low impact: imagine my surprise when I read that most of the servers in the City of London ran Apache (a free software web server), and mostly without the knowledge of the senior managers.

Moving to an international human rights NGO, I was keen to enrol Free Software in defence of the freedoms inscribed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But I had reckoned without the neo-corporate dynamics of institutional NGOs and their chilling effect on innovation. This was followed by stints working in, or in partnership with, larger organisations of all stripes (governmental, NGO, academic, private sector). Based on this experience I would suggest that what unites them is more telling that what divides them. Using the language of philosopher-activists Deleuze & Guattari (1987) they are striated spaces, marked by linear boundaries, restricted to particular planes of activity in the space of all possible potentials. In this context, striation is the overlap in particular experience of all the dynamics that limit change: lack of autonomy in a hierarchical structure, the closed expectations of colleagues, the time it takes to deliver daily targets, the lack of incentive, the lack of peer support, lack of sense of entitlement to change the way things are done – all of which can combine to deliver an experiential straitjacket which is an impersonal affect, a pattern across the system and one that stifles innovation.

For Deleuze & Guattari, like Foucault before them, power does not simply operate as a pyramid but in myriad multifaceted directions and relationships. Foucault said: “One doesn’t have a power which is only in the hands of one person who exercises it alone…it is a machine in which everyone is caught, those who exercise power as much as those over whom it is exercised.. it becomes a machinery that no-one owns” (Foucault 1995). The overall effect is an institutional environment that acts to tame energies – a social machine that produces conformity.

The consequent decline in the critical power of Free Software can be traced to a related process that Deleuze & Guattari call reterritorialisation. Reterritorialision is the process that re-stabilises identity, through physical boundaries like police and border controls or through codes of appropriate conduct like policies and laws. From this point of view, the focus of Free Software projects on the law is a much a weakness as a strength, if what is sought is a system marked by flows, connections and zones of intensity. I believe that the power of Free Software as critique now lies in the practices it enables outside of striated structures (organisational or legal). In the abstract terminology of Deleuze & Guattari, an system capable of disruptive innovation must include smooth as well as striated spaces, where a smooth space is occupied by intensities and events, by the continuous variation of free action. The characteristic experience of smooth space is short term, up close, with no fixed points of reference. Frustrated by institutions, this was the space I was seeking to create when, in 2007, I helped to start Social Innovation Camp.

What would help to create this space was an injection of the hacker ethic. From my digital work in human rights I was aware of early hacktivist projects like the Electronic Disturbance Theatre, and had explored the possibility of partnering with ‘white hat’ hacker projects like Psiphon. In the UK, MySociety had established the idea of civic hacking. But what is a hacker?

The nine definitions of hacker in the original jargon file (Raymond & Steele 1975), the glossary of geek slang from the era of the mainframe computer, includes two apparently contrasting entries:

“(1) A person who enjoys exploring the details of programmable systems and how to stretch their capabilities, as opposed to most users who prefer to learn only the minimum necessary.

(7) One who enjoys the intellectual challenge of creatively overcoming or circumventing limitations.”

Hacking, it seems, has always been a hybrid techno-social activity. By exploring technical details the hacker can surface new possibilities from the matrix of technology, and creatively apply them to circumventing blockages. While the mainstream narrative has relegated this to mischief-making, and activists have seen hacktivism only as a form of online direct action, the paper on ‘Abstract Hacktivism’ by Von Busch and Palmas (Busch & Palmas 2006) interprets hacking as a new conceptual model through which we can understand and approach the world. I will adopt the idea of hacktivism in this broad sense but without divorcing it from the material technology.

The hack, as a smooth space, would have no ‘line of flight’ without free software. Without the freedom to run a program for any purpose, to study how the program works, to change it to make it do what you wish, and to redistribute it (Free Software Foundation 2012), civic hacking would be deprived of it’s raw material. However, now that hacking is becoming valorised as a general mode of innovation, there is a trend for striated institutions to adopt hackdays and app challenges (NYC BigApps 2011, World Bank 2012) as way to deliver new projects and the associated credibility of moving with the times. Other elements are necessary if we are to stay critical. I will develop the idea that hacking can only become critical hacktivism when it combines a technological imaginary with critical pedagogy. The basis of this technological imaginary is the notion of affordances.”


“At the beginning of this article I asked, what critical power remains for Free Software? Tracing a path through the ideas of technology affordances and critical pedagogy, and through my own experiences with striated institutions and hack-based social innovation, I asserted that the critical potential is to be found in the practice of critical hacktivism. Following Free Software to its origin in the will to hack, and finding the new momentum in physical hacking, I looked at hackerspaces in the light of a critique of immaterial peer production. I suggested that hackerspaces are starting to engage in critical hacktivism through the beginnings of artisan science, which is productive both of prototypes and social solidarity. Finally I made the connection between prototyping and prefigurative politics to show that the practice of free coding has become part of an assemblage with the politics of the street.

I will end with speculations on where this is going. Summing over the paths traced in this paper, critical hacktivism becomes what Deleuze described as “a new relationship between theory and practice”; as a prefigurative form it expresses, criticises and deconstructs in the process of action: “Practice is a set of relays from one theoretical point to another, and theory is a relay from one practice to another. No theory can develop without eventually encountering a wall, and practice is necessary for piercing this wall.” (Deleuze & Foucault 1972)

Perhaps critical hacktivism will produce it’s own mode of subjectivity; the figure that described by Deleuze & Guattari as ‘the smith’:

“Often ignored in favor of the nomad, the smith solves one of the key issues dealing with flows, deterritorialization, and mobility, namely, how do we land. The smith is neither a sedentary citizen nor a nomad, but can communicate with both. It seeks to innovate (at times involuntarily) ‘by tracking and exploiting opportunities in and around existing structures’ and counters the individualistic subject with a collectivity that ‘does not love the state-form, but can co-exist with it if they must, as they seek to render it increasingly redundant’” (Bratich 2007)

The hacktivist ‘smith’ is a necessary figure for our times; a world where the “Postscript on the Societies of Control” (Deleuze 1990) has become operationalised by a coalition of the State and Silicon Valley corporations. The hacker ethic is not an orthodoxy but a heterogeneous set of approaches that strives to continuously and creatively disrupt totalising narratives, whether they are expressed as politics or protocols. In turn, the critical hacktivist is truly critical in Foucault’s sense of an anti-foundationalist critique. Foucault said that any discourse of Truth has a normalising effect on subjects and is therefore a form of domination. So we can’t apply an alternative universal truth (even of universal rights) as basis for critique because that will only induce a new form of normalisation. The challenge that’s always thrown at this is how to act without a firm foundation. I will speculate that one answer is artizan science; an experimental activity that is critical in both senses (Freire and Foucault). It’s a flickering compass in the hands of its practitioners, an empirical method without pretensions to universality, without the need to deny the validity of all claims and practices other than its own.

But so what? Why should this matter to anyone other than philosophers of science & technology?Because the networked world has a pivot point, we’re near it. On one branch lie progressive possibilities like networked democracy; as Eleanor Saitta says “the institutionally well-connected have figured out how to make institutional democracy serve their purposes – networked democracy offers us a new chance to shift that playing field around again” (Saitta 2013). On the other is the crescendo of cyberwarfare: “As cyberspace develops in unprecedented ways, powerful agents are scrambling for control. The discovery of Stuxnet, a computer worm reportedly developed by Israel and the United States and aimed at Iran’s nuclear facilities, showed that state cyberwar is now a very real possibility. Governments and corporations are in collusion and are setting the rules of the road behind closed doors…This is not the way it was supposed to be. The Internet’s original promise of a global commons of shared knowledge and communications is now under threat.” (Diebert 2013)

While the latter should come as no surprise (“War is the health of the state”) it throws in to shadow the potential that a networked world heralds for peer-to-peer empowerment; for an “art of voluntary insubordination” (Foucault) and an emergent cyber-syndicalism. To paraphrase the preamble of historical syndicalists, the Wobblies (Industrial Workers of the World 1905), we may speculate that critical hacktivism and artizans science will become practices for “prototyping the new world in the shell of the old”.”

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