Rob Myers critique of Open Source

Very interesting take by Rob Myers on Open Source as a movement that intends to obscure the principles of Free Software. This piece has an interesting critique of Wikipedia, but is generally addressed to the relationship of FS/OS with the art world, and what artists should do.

A critique of Open Source

Yochai Benkler describes Open Source as a methodology of commons based peer production. This means work made collaboratively and shared publicly by a community of equals. For Eric Raymond the virtue of Open Source is its efficiency. Open Source can create better products faster than the old closed source model. Many of the most successful software programs in use today, particularly on the internet, are Open Source.

Applying the ideas of Open Source to other projects, be they political, philosophical or artistic, is more difficult than it might seem. The idea of Open Source as a more efficient means of production has nothing to say about what Open Source politics or art should be like.

To take the example of the Open Congress event at Tate Modern, artists struggled to find an Open Source ideology to apply to their art, activists struggled to find an Open Source ideology to apply to their organisations, and theorists grinned and invoked Deleuze and Spinoza to cover the gaps.

This confusion is not a problem with the idea of Open Source. Rather it is the intended result of it. The name Open Source was deliberately chosen for its meaninglessness and ideological vacuity. This was intended to make the results of a very strong ideology more palatable to large corporations by disguising its origins. That ideology is Free Software.

Free Software is a set of principles designed to protect the freedom of individuals to use computer software. It emerged in the 1980s against a backdrop of increasing restrictions on the use and production of software. Free Software can therefore be understood historically and ethically as the defence of freedom against a genuine threat.

Once software users freedoms are protected the methodology that we know as Open Source becomes possible and its advantages become apparent. But without the guiding principles of Free Software the neccessity and direction of Open Source cannot be accounted for. Open Source has no history or trajectory, it cannot account for itself or suggest which tasks are neccessary or important. Free Software requires freedom, which is a practical goal to pursue.

Free Software is a historical development, a set of principles, and a set of possibilities. Free Software projects have converged on the methodology that Raymond describes as Open Source because of this. To describe this methodology as commons based peer production causes further confusion. There are no peers in a Free Software project. If contributions are deemed to be of acceptable quality, they are added to the project by its appointed gatekeepers. If not, they are rejected and advice given. This methodology is a structured and exclusive one, but it is meritocratic. Any contribution of sufficient quality can be accepted, and if someone makes enough such contributions they themselves may gain the trust required to become a gatekeeper.

This confusion leads to projects such as Wikipedia trying to create an open space for anyone to use as they wish. This leads to social darwinism, not freedom, as the contents of that space is determined by a battle of wills. Wikipedia has had to evolve to reproduce many of the structures of a real Free Software project to tackle these problems. But people still regard its earlier phase as a model for emulation, whereas it should serve as more of a warning.

It is therefore the condition of Freedom rather than the condition of Open Source that art should aspire to. Prior to the extension of copyright to cover art as well as literature, art was implicitly free. The physical artefacts of art were expensive to own and difficult or impossible to transport. But the content of art was free to use. Michaelangelo could rip off christian and pagan imagery to paint a ceiling, generations of artists could riff on the theme of the cruxifiction, and anyone could carve a statue of Venus. The representational freedom of artists, part of which is the freedom to depict and build or comment on existing culture, to continue the conversation of culture, is the freedom of art.

With photography and now electronic media, copyright and trademarks have increasingly restricted the artists freedom to continue the conversation of culture. Where once artists could paint gods and kings, they must now be careful not to paint chocolate and the colour purple or they will infringe Cadburys trademark. And new computer technology makes it possible to physically lock artists out of mass media imagery, closing off part of the world from arts freedom of representation.

In this context artists are not volunteers when they take on issues of cultural freedom. They are exemplars. Free art, a free culture, is of vital importance for a free society. Part of this freedom may be ideas of commons based peer production. But it is important not to confuse the results of an ideology with its principles. It is these principles that artists should pursue.”

How then can art learn from Free Software?

* Artists should campaigning to oppose the extension of copyright and trademark law and the reduction of fair use.

* Artists should use copyleft licensing to ensure the free circulation of ideas.

* Artists who are interested to do so can investigate the use of collaborative project management.

* Artists who are interested to do so should produce work to show the value of fair use and the public domain.

* Artists who are interested to do so should challenge copyright maximalists and censors by using mass media imagery and transgressive

* Artists should use Free Software and free (or open) file formats for accessibility, and help drive improvement of them.

Via Still Open blog.

8 Comments Rob Myers critique of Open Source

  1. AvatarDmytri Kleiner

    While I agree with Rob Myers regarding the freedom being an essential component of art and his analysis of open source, this is hardly novel. He points out himself that “freedom of content” is a standard component of art practice dating back to antiquity and his critique of “open source” is the standard position of the Free Software Foundation. Rob is correct in denouncing the “Open Source” movement as a corporate co-option of Free software, in the same way that the Creative Commons is a corporate co-option of Free Culture. However, the real challenge is not to create a list of what artists “should do,” but to face up to the challenge of addressing the socio-economic factors that set the rules on what artists can do, and to identify differences between the production modes of software development and artistic practice that have allowed free software to explode while free culture, despite a much older history than software of any kind, exists only on the margins. I attempt to address some of this in “Copyfarleft, Copyjustright and the Iron Law of Copyright Earnings,” but this is just a beginning, a lot more work and research need to be done in creating the possibility for artists to do what they “should do” and still account for their own material subsistence.

  2. AvatarEric S. Raymond

    Your analysis of the intentions of “open source” is not quite correct. It is true that the term “open source” was chosen to avoid threatening corporations and mainstream users with scary ideological baggage; however, it is not true that the term is ideologically vacuous, and I never expected that it would be.

    Dmytri Kleiner would have us believe that the ideological content is “corporate co-option”, but this is laughably backwards. The “open source” label is not a tool that allows corporations to co-opt us, it is a tool that allows us to co-opt them. Here’s where that rubber meets the road: thousands of developers are now paid to do open-source programming, and even Microsoft (Microsoft!) is now coming to the community asking to participate and requesting license certifications.

    The term “open source” has ideological content, all right — it’s all about rational-choice theory and consequentialism, and about what you learn a posteriori from doing the process of open source (as opposed to what you believe a priori theorizing or deontic moralizing about it). The lessons are: if you’re seeking efficiency and production, decentralism wins over centralism, liberty wins over coercion, and peer networks win over hierarchies.

    Certainly ideologies, like the “free software” one, can coexist with the implicit ideology of “open source”. But vacuous it isn’t.

  3. AvatarGareth Morgan

    I disagree on the gate keeper issue. The brilliant thing about FOSS is that the gatekeepers are only as relevant as the support they can command. Such people often make horrible mistakes or are simply intransigent on points of pride and dogma, on occasion it is entirely necessary to bypass them. In a less liberal system when they make a decision that is it, progress is nearly impossible. I cannot make changes if a particular person has that much direct control. In the FOSS system if work gets rejected I have the option of forking, if I’m wrong then my fork will probably only be relevant to me and will likely die quickly. If the gatekeeper is wrong then he very likely will find himself being in charge of the irrelevant branch. It is Darwinism, when mistakes are made or progress resisted somebody can come along and go over the heads of the intransigents and get things moving forward.

    Torvald’s understands this greatly. The Linux kernel has no official mainline, by convention Torvald’s own kernel is considered ‘the kernel’ but there are a whole range of relevant kernels out there and most distros maintain their own branch. Linux development breaks down to a graph where each developer (and hence kernel) is a vertex and each vertex naturally has a narrow range of edges to other trusted developers. When you have this graph, development can go ahead as freely as possible, society will eliminate bad branches and appoint the appropriate person as the de facto leader largely by a Darwinian process (as it stands Linus has done a good job in the past so remains ‘in charge’).

    There are countless examples where the current authorities on various projects have simply been wrong and others have taken their work in a different direction to eventually be considered correct. GCC is an obvious project where the original work was entirely displaced by a fork. The meritocracy part isn’t that important, let people get on with things and reality will decide who has merit and who doesn’t.

    The largest problem with Wikipedia is that it isn’t a branch scenario. There is one Wikipedia and any idiotic edit is visible to us all. In a branch system each person would have their own Wikipedia with their own articles and then by whatever method the most appropriate branch would be considered mainstream. The current system of experts is at best a fudge, they should have gone further into open sourced methodology. Perhaps a more appropriate system would be a Wiki based around a distributed version control system like Git.

    Of course all of this still requires freedom but there is real merit to the bazaar model.

  4. AvatarSeth Galbraith

    I agree that artists should accept all of those bullet points. Artists need consistent systems of principles for free art similar to the Free Software and Open Source systems. If some of these systems are empirical, like Open Source and others are ideological, like Free Software, the movement will only be strengthened. (Artists have always had diverse and even quirky ethics compared to other occupations.)

    The Creative Commons approach of giving artists choices ranging from mostly proprietary to copyleft lays a foundation for dialogue on the subject, but is inherently agnostic about the practical or theoretical advantages of choosing copyleft over the other options they provide.

    The creators of free art and other cultural works need systems of principles and tools similar to FOSS programmers, but they aren’t exactly the same.

    For example: a branch system for Wikipedia might be useful for those big projects which create their own forks of Wikipedia, but the current system is great for individual edits. In a version control or content management system authorities are tasked with choosing which patches to apply and which submissions to accept. In a wiki they only have to decide whether to revert or edit changes that they object to.

  5. AvatarDmytri Kleiner

    Eric S. Raymond claims I have it “laughably backwards” because making “Open Source” appealing to Corporations allows “us to co-opt them.” However in the context of sovereign private property rights and unequal distribution of productive assets, scare property (like land and capital) will always capture the wealth generated by labour, including intellectual property. In this sense, neither “Open Source” not “Free Software” has any possibility of “co-opting” the power of gigantic Corporation, to believe we can co-opt them is laughably naive. The reason Open Source is a co-option of Free Software is because by reducing the emphasis on freedom it discourages a broader challenge to property itself, and as I explain in the article cited in my earlier comment, a common-stock of software assets is good for Capital because software is a common input to production. Thus, the corporate world adopted the model, while changing the emphasis to one that suites them more, one without a political message.

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