On the Differences between Open Source and Open Culture

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  • Book Chapter: On the Differences between Open Source and Open Culture. Felix Stalder.

URL = http://remix.openflows.com/node/49


The openness in open source is often misunderstood as egalitarian collaboration. However, FOSS is primarily open in the sense that anyone can appropriate the results, and do with them whatever he or she wants (within the legal/normative framework set out by the license). This is what the commons, a shared resource, is about. Free appropriation. Not everyone can contribute. Everyone is free, indeed, to propose a contribution, but the people who run the project are equally free to reject the contribution outright. Open source projects, in their actual organization, are not egalitarian and not everyone is welcome. The core task of managing a commons is to ensure not just the production of resources, but also to prevent its degradation from the addition of low quality material.

Organizationally the key aspects of FOSS projects are that participation is voluntary and – what is often forgotten – that they are tightly structured. Intuitively, this might seem like a contradiction, but in practice it is not. Participation is voluntary in a double sense. On the one hand, people decide for themselves if they want to contribute. Tasks are never assigned, but people volunteer to take responsibility. On the other hand, if contributors are not happy with the project’s development, they can take all the project’s resources (mainly, the source code) and reorganize it differently. Nevertheless, all projects have a leader, or a small group of leaders, who determine the overall direction of the projects and which contributions from the community are included in the next version, and which are rejected. However, because of the doubly voluntary nature, the project leaders need to be very responsive to the community, otherwise the community can easily get rid of them (which is called ‘forking the project’). The leader has no other claim for his (and it seems to be always a man) position than to be of service to the community. Open Source theorist Eric S. Raymond has called this a benevolent dictatorship.[11] More accurately, it is called the result of a voluntary hierarchy in which authority flows from responsibility (rather than from the power to coerce).[12]

Thus, the FOSS world is not a democracy, where everyone has a vote, but a meritocracy, where the proven experts – those who know better than others what they are doing and do it reliably and responsibly – run the show. The hierarchical nature of the organization directly mirrors this meritocracy. The very good programmers end up on top, the untalented ones either drop out voluntarily, or, if they get too distracting, are kicked out. Most often, this is not an acrimonious process, because in coding, it’s relatively easy to recognize expertise, for the reasons mentioned earlier. No fancy degrees are necessary. You can literally be a teenager in a small town in Norway and be recognized as a very talented programmer.[13] Often it’s a good strategy to let other people solve problems more quickly than one could oneself, since usually their definition of the problem and the solution is very similar to one’s own. Thus, accepting the hierarchical nature of such projects is easy. It is usually very transparent and explicit. The project leader is not just a recognized crack, but also has to lead the project in a way that keeps everyone reasonably happy. The hierarchy, voluntary as it may be, creates numerous mechanisms of organizational closure, which allows a project to remain focused and limits the noise/signal ratio of communication to a productive level.

Without an easy way to recognize expertise, it is very hard to build such voluntary hierarchies based on a transparent meritocracy, or other filters that increase focus and manage the balance between welcoming people who can really contribute and keeping out those who do not. Wikipedia illustrates the difficulties of reaching a certain level of quality on the basis of undifferentiated openness.

‘Expressive’ cultural projects face even greater hurdles, because the assessment of quality is so personal that, on the level of production, collaboration rarely goes beyond a very small group, say a band, or a small collective of writers, such as Wu-Ming.

* Open Culture Beyond Open Source

This does not mean that FOSS cannot be taken as a model for open cultural production in other fields. However, what seems to be the really relevant part is not so much the collaborative production aspects, but the freedom of appropriation aspect and the new model of authorship, centering around community involvement rather than individual autonomy. The GPL, and other such licenses, like Creative Commons, are very good instruments to enshrine these basic freedoms. These will create the pool of material in which a new, digital, transformative culture can grow. And indeed we are seeing the emergence of such resource pools. One example is Flickr.com, a rapidly growing repository of images, tagged and searchable, contributed entirely by users. While this is not a commons in a legal sense (the images in Flickr.com remain in the ownership of the author), nor, really, in intention, the fact that the resource as a whole is searchable (through user-defined image tags) does create a de-facto commons. The collaboration here is very limited, restricted to contributing individual works to a shared framework that makes it easily accessible to others. There is no common project, and collaboration between users is minimal, but it still can be understood as ‘open culture’ because it makes the resources of production, the images, widely available. The production of new cultural artefacts remains, as always, in the hands of individuals or small groups, but the material they work with is not only their own inner vision, honed as autonomous creators, but also other people’s work, made available in resource pools.

At this point, this is entirely unspectacular. But by restricting openness to the creation of a pool of relatively basic resource material, rather than complex artistic productions, issues of quality control and the organization of collaboration, with all the necessary difficulties of coordination in the absence of clear markers of quality, are sidestepped. Nevertheless, over time, I think that such de-facto commons can contribute to a slow transformation of culture from a collection of discrete, stable and ownable objects, created by autonomous, possessive individuals, to ongoing adaptations, translations and retellings within relevant contexts. Perhaps out of this, a new sense of authorship will emerge, and new communities in which certain criteria of quality are widely accepted (akin to ‘community standards’). Only once this happens, can, I think, really collaborative modes of artistic production be developed, similar to what we have seen in FOSS." (http://remix.openflows.com/node/49)


  • Media Mutandis: a NODE.London Reader, (March 2006) [1]