Open Process as the Organizational Spirit of the Internet Model

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* Article: Toni Prug. Series on Commu(o)nism: Open Process, the organizational spirit of the Internet Model, pt 1

(+ part 2: Series on Commu(o)nism: Open Process, the organizational spirit of the Internet Model, pt 2. Engineering the privatization of the common)

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"The desires and the sources of emancipatory potential of the commons for the cooperative and egalitarian global togetherness, for a new communism born through the new generation of tools and organizational practices, have temporarily been appropriated and hi-jacked by capitalism under the Open Source and to an extent Creative Commons movements. Through and with the Open Process methods of the founding Internet communities, we can make a significant step towards claiming it back. Commu(o)nism, we could call it, is a new emerging form of communism hacked with open process and new commons. The small (o) in the middle stands for open."


From Part One


"It is a striking parallel that close to the birth of hacking, probably the most innovative and the most important programming language was born too. Lisp was first implemented between 1958 and 1962. Some of its key unique properties were recursion, function type (you can store function in variables, passed as arguments), and “the whole language there all the time” (Graham 2004, 188). This last feature is of the special importance: a running program can be interrupted, examined, state changed, and execution resumed. It embodied that “there was no hidden status anywhere” (Williams 2002, 49), a characteristic praised by Richard Stallman when talking about Incompatible Timesharing System (ITS), an early operating system he used in the famous MIT lab. A user, hacker, could intervene at any point in the process of program execution. This way, not only that “the entire act of hacking relied on intellectual openness and trust”, the structure of ITS was “built to foster this spirit of openness” (Williams 2002, 53). The process is open for being changed, hacking at any stage. These two features, i claim, are at the heart of the hacking spirit, and since they offer a new organizational paradigm, a new model, political consequences of their re-application in new organizational contexts could be immense. Open process and trust: trust in the ability and desire of people to participate in political, economic and juridical tasks, and openness of the processes for participation to be possible.

If we transfer this feature of an operating system (ITS), or a computer language (Lisp) into the political sphere, it would mean complete openness of the source materials and all processes through which materials go, to all interested parties. In practice, in UK, on the level of local councils, it would mean that a resident could have insight in all the work of political bodies. Committees, key places for decision making, are open to citizens. However, whatever a council committee deems secretive gets closed down, and citizens have to leave the meetings when such matters are discussed and documents presented. This limited, selective openness shows both distrust in citizens and reveals what is the overriding founding principle of the liberal democratic order. When processes are closed for local citizens whenever they need to be open for maximizing private profit through commercial interests, we can say that the founding principle of the system is the idea of private property, right to acquire it and gain power over other members of the community based on it.

The source of distrust and founding principle are the same like in the case of Open Source, commercial interests and private profit. In the local council case, in the name of commercial interests, documents containing anything to do with an external private contractor can be, and mostly are, kept secret. Citizens are cut out, the logic of secrecy so central to private accumulation of wealth is imposed. In the case of Open Source, mandate to return any improvements to the distributed code is removed. Again, the logic of secrecy, or market advantage and potential private profit gained by it, is made supreme. Secrecy is essential to the logic of private profit and it goes against open participation, and hence against the possibility of directly participatory democratic systems."


"Contrary to the widely held idea, it can be argued that it was software and networking communities in academic research centres, those founding communities, which seized USA Department of Defence projects and funds and developed the Web and the Internet without direct military direction (Castells 2001, 1975). Our challenge today is that technological revolutions do not come without large cultural transformation, they have to be thought of. This does not happen incrementally. It requires “a vision, and act of belief, a gesture of rebellion” – attributes not directly ascribed, but well applicable to Richard Stallman’s work. At the core of the wave of new tools and practices are distribution of processing capacity and increase of innovation potential by cooperation and sharing. Hacker culture was central to it. Hence, to reap the benefits of the revolutionary leap in technology, new organizations have to be built on hacker culture (Castells 2001, 177).

Open Source movement is an attempt to use the innovation potential for the benefit of private profit, for capitalist goals, which, as i’m attempting to demonstrate here, clashes with the most important features of hacker culture. Yet, long before the Open Source movement was formed, many hackers went on to form companies that became large corporations, adopting their hacker traits to fit the purpose (Thomas 2003, XXII).

The goal of this text is to twofold: one, to show how Open Source limits reuse, adoption of hacker culture, of new forms of cooperation, in spheres other than the capitalist economy. Two, how a new concept could remove those limits and open up the possibilities for reuse. For that to happen, for new organizations to have a chance of being built on an adopted form of hacker culture, or for the existing ones to be rebuilt, to be hacked by it, we need a more precise definition of what is the hacker culture, or cultures.

As i have developed elsewhere, key attributes of the founding communities have been formalized best in the IETF and Free Software (Prug 2009). We could summarize them: one, a goal to create something that is shareable – making profit can only be a secondary goal. Two, open participation – anyone can join, based on enjoyment of work – and open processes and results of work. Three, core activity is base on volunteering, working groups and competence. Four, rough consensus and running code decision making principle is the norm, voting is used only in rare and extreme circumstances. Five, responsibilities are defined, to note some examples: for IETF it is protocol ownership, for FS software maintainer, for Debian GNU/Linux operating system package maintainer. Six, rights are based on contributions – in Open Organizations project, we called this implementation work (Geer, Malter, and Prug 2005). Roots of this principle are visible in the MIT Tech Model Railroad Club, the earliest hacker community we know of, where keys to the main room were given to new members, new hackers, only after they completed forty hours of work (Levy 1984, 21). Many authors also hold that having a trusted benevolent dictator is a key aspect(Coffin 2006), i do not share this view."


"I proposed that we could describe the model in short with the following formula: the Internet Model = FS + IETF, software + networking, or ethics + organization.

My claim is that organizations implementing these processes would benefit in several ways. Structure and visibility of tasks, processes and work done to complete them will be clearer, which contributes to easier recognition of the workers who contribute most work that matters to the organization. As a result of this visibility, focus on implementation work and continuously carried out processes will increase, which keeps organization alive and developing. Project management will become easier, while decision making will be placed into the hands of those who matter most, who contribute most to the implementation work, work whose progress defines the organization and ensures its continual existence. All of this will attract new volunteers and reduce impact of the existing counter-productive internal participants. First attempt at a more detailed development of this model – set in a concrete, mostly cooperative production context – is in my paper Open Process Academic Publishing.

Today, given the structure of organizations across society, given our time based obligations to work place, and our waged labour, it is no surprise that it is difficult to see how could these new processes of work, this hacker culture, especially its volunteer aspect, be applicable. MySQL is one of the two most important Free Software databases, and one of the most used databases in the world. Sun, a large corporation founded in 1980-s also by an earlier generation of hackers, bought MySQL company in 2008. Two key MySQL hackers were unhappy with how the work was going under Sun, and they decided to leave and form their own company (Moody 2009). What differentiates them is a hacking business model (Greant and Widenius 2009) under which their new company operates: workers have wide array of rights derived from hacker culture, with a mixture of rules that seem to share some spirit of the self-management in Socialist Yugoslavia, combined with a typical capitalist company. This could be a one-off experiment. It could also be the start of a new generation of hackers financially empowered by their hacking, not ready any more to operate under the terms imposed on them by the form of capitalist firms that clash with hacker ethics and culture.

The Internet Model and the Open Process are attempts to conceptualize and appropriately name the ways of working which brought us the Internet and the Web. Ways in which hackers, academics and software and networking engineers, or the founding communities as i call them, played, and still play, a central, constitutive, role. Due to its focus on attracting capitalist investors under terms which included leaving many hacker culture features out, Open Source failed to be a concept through which a comprehensive reapplication of those ways of working across the rest of society would be possible. To make the reapplication possible, we need new concepts. Hence the Open Process and the Internet Model." (

From Part Two

Toni Prug:

"Open Process can open up the political field, allowing for new forms of directly democratic rethinking of HOW do we, as workers, as institutions, as boroughs, as cities, as states, as networks, or just as groups of associated geographically unrelated humans, cooperate – both as volunteers and as democratically organized wage labourers.

Open Process is, in others words, a democratic potential of our egalitarian commu(o)nist future. Open Source denied us from having it. By its clever twists of history, and corporate collaborations, it temporarily denied us of the possibility of seeing the potential that tools and practices of the Internet and Web founding communities hold. This is an attempt to claim it back.

In order for such future to open up, the questions of economic, political and juridical association for cooperative production for the commons remain the biggest theoretical and practical tasks to be developed. Neither of the forms of capitalist firm, political party, or NGO seem capable of utilizing the Open Process and the Internet Model ways of cooperation.

Most important problem is that both Free Software and IETF cooperations rely on the work being paid in advance, on the time to engage being readily available; as reflected in the roots of hacking being in academia and research centres, within mostly self-managed groups, largely funded by the state. This does not remove the most fundamental relationship, one of capitalist wage labour, from the overall analytical framework that aims to enable reuse of hacking and open processes across society. However, it does suggest that these new forms of cooperation can and do coexist with capitalist wage labour. An easy, but incorrect and partial, way to explain this is to emphasise the importance of Free Software production to capitalism.

Capitalism needed Open Source because Free Software was an uneasy fit (Prug 2007, 79-83). For Stallman, contributions to society deserve reward ‘only in so far as society is free to use the results’. Applying this rule to the economy puts us straight into the logic of left egalitarian though and its political movements, where sharing across the society was one of the most fundamental principles and practices. Left critics often point out that scarcity is actively produced in capitalism. Yet, for Stallman, ‘In the long run, making programs free is a step toward the post-scarcity world, where nobody will have to work very hard just to make a living’. This is what workers movements fought for since the industrial revolution.

Most importantly, the question of surplus value is also expressed clearly in the GNU Manifesto: ‘We have already greatly reduced the amount of work that the whole society must do for its actual productivity, but only a little of this has translated itself into leisure for workers because much non-productive activity is required to accompany productive activity.’ However, Stallman fails to identify capitalism as a reason for the surplus value not being shared across society: ’The main causes of this are bureaucracy and isometric struggles against competition.’ It is striking that regardless of it, the main reason for doing Free Software for Stallman could be lifted out of many left political texts: along with insisting on the right to inspect, modify, share and form communities, he asserts, ‘We must do this, in order for technical gains in productivity to translate into less work for us.’(Stallman 2009)

This central point of GNU Manifesto cannot be situated by a reading of Free Software and Open Source only along the liberal ideas like free speech(Vasile 2009), although free speech undeniably plays a crucial role (Coleman 2009). More important, reduction of the time Stallman mentions, technical gains in productivity to translate into less forced wage labour, cannot be squared with the central liberal tenet of private property, nor its extension into the right to private accumulation and private use of wealth. For Stallman’s claim to become feasible, a necessary rapid increase in social, shared wealth – becoming possible through advances in technology and knowledge – would have to be developed and managed under a new political, economic and legal system of and for the common.

For Antonio Negri, in the search for a good society, emphasis should be on the need to construct together instruments to form the common, without looking for guarantees, but knowing ‘how to construct’. These instruments should be ‘rules of law, economic rules, rules of technology, rules of organization’ (2004, 89). Hackers becoming trained in law and using it to their benefit (Coleman 2009, 448-9) to increase the common, while developing new technologies and organizational forms, fits exactly what Negri is describing. Furthermore, the meaning of work and cooperation, its truth, resides in the common:

- there is no truth outside the common — outside what can belong to everyone and what can be verified in language, in cooperation, and in work. A truth is a collective action on the part of persons who campaign together and who transform themselves. I see action as something that constitutes the community, that produces the substance of our dignity and our life. The meaning of action is posited at this level.(Negri 2004, 26)

Is this not a plausible reading of the work of Internet founding communities, especially that of Free Software? In an even more precise formulation, the link between the production and transfer of those practices to the political realm is made: ‘The self-transformation of the multitude in production, grounded in the expansion of the common, gives an initial indication of the direction of the self-rule of the multitude in the political realm.’ (Hardt and Negri 2009, 177)

In other words, IETF and Free Software practices are that models that we ought to try to reuse, adopt in the political sphere. Increased autonomy of labour and its increased technical composition, reduction of the role of bosses who are often just an obstacle to get work done, all point out to the democratic capacities people exercise daily. And although these capacities do not immediately translate into new political democratic organizations, they are a solid basis on which to imagine and construct them (2009, 353). The basis for this move from the production to the political organization is continuous process of making, ‘an uninterrupted process of collective self-transformation’ (2009, 173). Opening and expanding access to the common ‘means seizing control of the means of production and reproduction’. In practice, it means also ‘reappropriating the common’ (2009, 164).

At the centre of this lies biopolitical production, production of scientific knowledge being a good example of it. Broad scientific community has access to shared ideas, methods, results of work. Only through open circulation of these, through journals, conferences, books, website, blogs, is production of science possible. Results must be made common, for a ‘virtuous cycle that leads from the existing common to a new common’ to occur (2009, 145). Today science is moving even further than this. The pace of publication is becoming faster, with some journals publishing immediately upon acceptance [ref], and some even publishing prior to peer reviews [ref]. Some scientist and communities strive to have their data open, while some even keep the entire process open, using the concept of Open Notebook Science. All these are moves towards an open-process production of common. Scientific communities are starting to adopt the hacker culture." (