The following are citations from a discussion on the Oekonux (Linux economy) mailing list, where Stefan Merten responds to some questions I had posed.
Question 1: In general, why would for-benefit peer production be better than for-profit market production?
Michael Bauwens wrote:
– what makes you sure that pure modes of doubly free software are of superior quality that hybrid models with support from an ecology of corporations, which may include paid developers, as for Linux.
Stefan Merten’s general response (if I’m not mistaken, the German concept of selbstentfaltung refers to non-alieneted self-development):
Well, I’d not say they are superior in a moral sense – to me moral has nothing to do with all this – and that’s one of the fundamental strengths. They are superior because they are not alienated. If you are working in a non-alienated way the only goal you have is your own Selbstentfaltung. And among other things this Selbstentfaltung is accomplished by
1. excelling in the application of your abilities
This point is important to explain why so many experts are involved in Free Software for instance: They like to hack because it’s an expression of their skills. This, however, is a very fundamental human incentive.
2. using useful products and creating them where necessary
Selbstentfaltung is accomplished best with products which are perfectly tailored to your individual needs. There is probably nothing in the world where you can do this better than in Free Software on all levels.
If you work in an alienated environment your incentives are fundamentally different. You go there to earn money. That is your and the whole companies top motive. Excelling in the application of your abilities for this is useful only insofar as you find somebody who is willing to pay for their application. This on the other hand is greatly determined by marketing divisions and bosses who have anything in mind but (absolute) product quality.
In fact for alienated modes of production the absolute quality of the product doesn’t matter. Relative product quality suffices: If it better than the competing products it’s fine. In the contrary: Even if you have improvements of your product at hand you’d be stupid to employ them before the market dictates it.
The book of Eric von Hippel gives another explanation which emphasizes the second point above. He calls this user innovation. One of his points is that users have a lot of tacit knowledge about their needs. This knowledge is sometimes even inseparable from them.
Question 2: Is the new business-supported Linux better than the older versions?
Stefan Merten responds:
That opens the question to define what better means here. Given the fast evolution of computers the Linux ten years ago can not be compared with the Linux of today. Insofar it is a difficult question in general and needs further qualification. This also is a hint to the nature of use value: It is not possible to measure use value of different things on a common scale. That is why use value can not be transformed into terms of money.
I’d agree with Stefan insofar as commercial entities following their own commercial interests ported Linux to their hardware increasing the number of platforms Linux can be run on. This is certainly an improvement.
If you refer especially to Linux – i.e. the operating system kernel
– my impression is that today the situation is rather similar to that of GCC: There are a couple of commercial entities involved and a big number of Doubly Free Developers. For Linux the governance structure is certainly in the Doubly Free Realm – AFAICS regardless by whom Linus Torvalds is paid actually.
If I want to characterize the commercial system around Linux then I’d say there is a Free core and the commercial entities such as the distributors “fork” from this Free core and create their own kernels including modifications. In a way that is the “value adding” activity done by them.
When I look at the governance model of Linux where product quality is concerned I’d say there is a clear improvement compared to capitalist mode of production. The direction Linux takes is extremely transparent to those who are interested enough and AFAICS Linus still makes decisions on a pure technical basis. That is: The quality of the product is still at the very focus.
If you look at Windows on the other hand you can see how long improvement of technical quality can take for a purely commercial product – it it happens at all. To me this is a clear and expectable result of the two modes of production employed here.
Anyway: Instead of comparing Linux with Linux it certainly makes more sense to compare Linux with its proprietary “competitors”. From a technical perspective Linux and the underlying concepts of Unix are clearly superior to those of Windows – may be Windows NT and its again and again postponed offspring being a partial exception. As far as the
commercial Unices are concerned they all vanish away step by step and are replaced by Linux. So those people replacing proprietary Unices with Linux must see an improvement in quality or they’d stay with their proprietary Unices.