Digital Commons as an Escape from Capital
- PhD Thesis ?: The Digital Commons: Escape from Capital? Robin Paulson. University of Auckland, Department of Sociology, 2013
"This thesis analyses a selection of digital commons projects using a range of theoretical tools, to assess their relationship to the capitalist mode of production. The projects studied are Linux, a piece of computer software; the Wikipedia encyclopedia; and Open Street Map, a database of geographic information. Where necessary, I will also include examples from other digital commons projects."
From the Conclusion
"In the preceding chapters, I have explored the relationship between the digital commons and aspects of the capitalist mode of production, taking three iconic projects: the Linux operating system kernel, the Wikipedia encyclopedia and the Open Street Map geographical database as case studies. As a result of these analyses, it appears digital commons represent a partial escape from the domination of capital.
As the artefacts assembled by our three case studies can be accessed by almost anybody who desires, there appear to be few class barriers in place. At the centre of this is the maxim “information wants to be free” 424 underpinning the digital commons, which results in assistance and education being widely disseminated rather than hoarded. However, there are important resources whose access is determined by a small group in each project, rather than by a wider set of commoners. This prevents all commoners who take part in the projects from attaining their full potential, favouring one group and thus one set of values over others. Despite the highly ideological suggestion that anyone can fork a project at any time and do with it as they wish, which would suggest a lack of class barriers, there is significant inertia which makes this difficult to achieve. It should be stressed however, that the exploitation and domination existing within the three case studies is relatively minor when compared to typical capitalist class relations. Those who contribute are a highly educated elite segment of society, with high levels of self-motivation and confidence, which serves to temper what the project leaders and administrators can do.
The artefacts assembled cannot be exchanged as commodities, due to the license under which they are released, which demands that the underlying information, be it the source code, knowledge or geographical data always be available to anyone who comes into contact with the artefact, that it remain in the commons in perpetuity. This lack of commoditisation of the artefacts similarly resists the alienation of those who assemble them. The thing made by workers can be freely used by them, they make significant decisions around how it is assembled, and due to the collaborative nature essential to the process of assembly, constructive, positive, valuable relationships are built with collaborators, both within the company and without. This reinforces Stallman's suggestion that free software, and thus the digital commons is a more social way of being.
Further, the method through which the artefacts are assembled reduces the likelihood of fetishisation. The work is necessarily communal, and involves communication and association between those commoners who make and those who use. This assists the collaboration essential for such high quality artefacts, and simultaneously invites a richer relationship between those commoners who take part. However, as has been shown, recent changes have shown there are situations where the social nature of the artefacts is being partially obscured, in favour of speed, convenience and quality, thus demonstrating a possible fetishisation.
The extraction of surplus-value is, however, present. The surplus extracted is not money, but in the form of symbolic capital. This recognition from others can be exchanged for other forms of capital, enabling the leaders of the three projects investigated here to gain high paying, intellectually fulfilling jobs, and to spread their political beliefs. While it appears there is thus exploitation of the commoners who contribute to these projects, it is firstly mild, and secondly does not result in a huge imbalance of wealth and opportunity, although this should not be seen as an apology for the behaviour which goes on. Whether in future this will change, and the wealth extracted will enable the emergence of a super-rich as seen in the likes of Bill Gates, the Koch brothers and Larry Ellison remains to be seen, but it appears unlikely.
There are however ways in which these problems could be overcome. At present, the projects are centred upon one website, and an infrastructure and values, all generally controlled by a small group who are often self-selected, or selected by some external group with their own agenda. This reflects a hierarchical set of relationships, which could possibly be addressed through further decentralisation of key resources. For examples of this, we can look at YaCy 426, a search engine released under a free software license. The software can be used in one of a number of ways, the most interesting of these is network mode, in which several computers federate their results together. Each node searches a different set of web sites, which can be customised, the results from each node are then pooled, thus when a commoner carries out a search, the terms are searched for in the databases of several computers, and the results aggregated. This model of decentralisation prevents one entity taking control over what are a large and significant set of resources, and thus decreases the possibility of exploitation, domination and the other attendant problems of minority control or ownership over the means of production.
Addressing the problem of capitalists continuing to extract surplus, requires a technically simple, but ideologically difficult, solution. There is a general belief within the projects discussed that any use of the artefacts is fine, so long as the license is complied with. Eric Raymond, author of the influential book on digital commons governance and other matters, The Cathedral and The Bazaar, and populariser of the term open source, is perhaps most vocal about this, stating that the copyleft tradition of Stallman's GNU is overly restrictive of what people, by which he means businesses, can do, and that BSD-style, no copyleft licenses are the way forward 427. The majority of commoners taking part do not follow his explicit preference for no copyleft licenses, but nonetheless have no problem with business use of the artefacts, suggesting that wide spread use makes the tools better, and that sharing is inherently good. It appears they either do not have a problem with this, or perhaps more likely do not understand that this permissiveness allows for uses that they might not approve of. Should this change, a license switch to something preventing commercial use is one possibility."