The Journal of Peer Production - New perspectives on the implications of peer production for social change New perspectives on the implications of peer production for social change
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An Introduction to “The Critical Power of Free Software: from Intellectual Property to Epistemologies?”

by Maurizio Teli & Vincenzo D’Andrea

More than one year ago, when we decided to edit this special issue, we were both considering, as academics and activists, whether Free Software, the complex techno-political phenomena we have studied for years, was still contributing to social change in contemporary societies. The starting point for such a general question was the fact that now Free Software is widespread, its main tenets part of wide cultural imaginaries, such as openness (e.g. Open Access, Open Data, etc…), whilst academic and corporate software development are, in different ways, dealing with “open source” as a reasonable way of organizing software development. Therefore, it looks like the success of open source (Weber, 2004) has been materialized in both projects and narratives. The case of Wikipedia is often taken as the material example of such a success outside the software domain, while commercial products like Android, or open source projects like Firefox and Ubuntu, are testament to achievement in the field of software. Such success is usually described as connected both to the transformation of Free Software into Open Source, with the enrolment of powerful actors like corporations, and to the widespread growth of discourses on freedom typical of the knowledge workers who, as pointed out by Benkler (2006), recognize the role of open resources for their own professional routines. Contemporaneously, the success of the Web 2.0 rhetoric and the widespread adoption of the concept of participation in the cultural industry (Schaefer, 2011), resembles the transformation brought by Free Software as an exemplary form of collective production or what Benkler defines “commons-based peer production” (2006). This success posed us a fundamental question: had social reality exceeded our own preoccupations and constructed a Free Software inspired society? Or is Free Software still challenging dominant conceptions of the world and of productive practices?

Such questions came out of our own different intellectual trajectories, as a sociologist and a computer scientist, and were stimulated by critical contributions on computing per se that we were reading at the time. We have encountered Free Software at different stages of our careers, as a PhD student in sociology and as a professor in information systems, and we have been in a constant dialogue with it, drawing upon our discipline-specific starting point: sociologically, we asked ourselves if Free Software was the example of a new set of emancipatory social practices, constituting the basis for new forms of social development; from the point of view of computer science, we wondered if Free Software was updating software development practices in order to avoid software failure, to rethink organizational hierarchy, and to afford an emancipatory potential. At the same time, we encountered arguments such as David Golumbia’s notion of a supposed intrinsic authoritarian cultural logic within computing as a whole set of social practices (2009). Our scepticism for celebratory as well as disparaging arguments brought us to the call for paper for this special issue, trying to move to the roots of any social practice, the connection between knowing (epistemology) and doing (ontology). We decided to deal with such topics starting from the epistemological question, the one we thought more fitting to the task of stimulating an interdisciplinary debate on Free Software, because of its strict connection with the domain of knowledge, being at the centre of many contribution on Free Software, such as Christopher Kelty’s Two Bits (2008). We framed our CfP in terms of critique, asking authors to envision different potential futures that liberate people from the current power structures. Our premise was that no actual critique can take place if the way we know the world is not updated, and we were pointing at Free Software as a fruitful domain for the inquiry of the connection between epistemological critique and material and ontological critique. The answers we obtained reflected current academic debates, dealing with the complexity of Free Software in many aspects, from organizational forms to legal systems, from hacktivism to search engines.

The first of the research papers presented here, by Tyler Handley, shows how a Free Software approach for search engines is required by the characteristics of the search engine market, dominated by Google’s near monopoly, and by the relevance search engines have in framing the way users of the search engine itself know the world, acting on available information.

The second paper, by Angela Daly, considers user welfare from another perspective, that of the legal system. She particularly addresses the way competition law has approached Free Software, stressing how Free Software is aligned with competition law if competition law takes the stance of maximizing consumer welfare. Therefore, in Daly’s piece, it is the epistemology of judges and lawyers that is at stake, and the way it is framed when competing interests emerge.

Douglas Haywood is the first paper focusing not on the consumption side of software but on the production side, showing not only how hackers’ communitarian ethic shapes technological artefacts, but also how the construction of technological artefacts plays a foundational role in the construction of the same ethic.

Dan McQuillan extends the argument, showing how the spread of Free Software concepts to other domains, like hacker spaces, points to the emergence of an artisan science able to move itself outside of striated structures. That is particularly true, according to the author, when the technological imaginary combines with forms of critical pedagogy, influencing directly the way people frame the world, not only in the technological domain.

The last research paper we present here, by Morgan Currie, Christopher Kelty, and Luis Felipe Rosado Murillo, takes a step further in exploring the shape that participation assumes in Free Software projects, interrogating the trajectories of projects between what they define as Organized Publics and Formal Social Enterprises. This contribution points out how Free Software as a productive enterprise should be read as a collective effort, and that is the collective dimension that matters. Moreover, knowledge in Free Software is knowledge of organizational models, not only of software development.

The debate section, stimulated by our call for papers, picks up on the collective dimension of Free Software, beginning with Kelty reading Free Software as a practical solution to the problem of the disruption of the previous relation between power and knowledge, and suggesting that this solution has now evolved into copyfight, the critique of intellectual property. Mayer & Simon reply to Kelty’s argument by emphasising how feminist epistemologies can help question Free Software in novel ways, assessing whether Free Software can be an example of how knowledge practices should be constructed. Finally, Hakken argues that a key aspect of the critical potential of Free Software could be the renewed relationship between productive practices, computing, and wage labor. Changes in such a nexus can provide computer professionals with an enlarged new epistemology, one able to frame differently not only computing but society as a whole.

We began with a simply stated but complex question: is Free Software still liberating the world? We ended up with a multiplicity of answers, that can be summarized with a similarly simple but complex statement: “It depends”. It depends on the general social problems Free Software is able to intercept, as both Kelty and Hakken point out; it depends on the knowledge we have of Free Software, as Mayer and Simon discuss; it depends on the inclusion of software users and not only software developers, as suggested by Handley’s argument on the effect of software on people’s access to information; it depends on institutional settings and non-computing professionals, as argued in Angela Daly’s paper; it depends on the organisational aspects of Free Software projects, as Currie, Kelty, and Murillo show; it depends on the extension of Free Software practices and epistemologies outside of software, as Haywood and McQuillan agree on. At the end  of the day, the answer to the liberation question depends on knowing Free Software and knowing society, and we are sure that the authors of the papers included in this special issue have contributed to such knowledge.

Works cited

Benkler, Y., 2006. The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Golumbia, D., 2009. The cultural logic of computation. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Kelty, C., 2008. Two bits: The cultural significance of free software. Durham, NC and London, UK: Duke University Press Books.

Schäfer, M. T., 2011. Bastard Culture!: How User Participation Transforms Cultural Production. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

Weber, S. 2004. The success of open source. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.