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This is a personal project by @dellsystem. I built this to help me retain information from the books I'm reading. Currently can only be used by a single user (myself), but I plan to extend it to support multiple users eventually.

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57

Freedom Isn't Free

An inquiry into the failure of the free software movement, and a proposal for recovering its radical soul.

by Wendy Liu

bookmarker.dellsystem.me/s/freedom-isnt-free
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am i allowed to rate & quote my own writing lmao

Liu, W. (2018). Freedom Isn't Free. Logic Magazine, 5, pp. 57-68

58

So hasn’t the movement succeeded, then? If startups that have built their businesses on open-source software can raise hundreds of millions of dollars in venture capital? If a company like Microsoft, which once positioned itself as the enemy of open source, is now funding key projects?

That depends on what you think open source is fundamentally for. For some, open source is about making software less buggy and more robust by widening the pool of possible contributors. For others, it’s about giving users—at least the more technically skilled ones—more control over the software they use. For the most cynical, it’s a way to dupe people into working for free.

But I always thought there was something more to open source—something more radical, something worth fighting for.

am i allowed to quote myself like this

—p.58 by Wendy Liu 3 weeks, 6 days ago

So hasn’t the movement succeeded, then? If startups that have built their businesses on open-source software can raise hundreds of millions of dollars in venture capital? If a company like Microsoft, which once positioned itself as the enemy of open source, is now funding key projects?

That depends on what you think open source is fundamentally for. For some, open source is about making software less buggy and more robust by widening the pool of possible contributors. For others, it’s about giving users—at least the more technically skilled ones—more control over the software they use. For the most cynical, it’s a way to dupe people into working for free.

But I always thought there was something more to open source—something more radical, something worth fighting for.

am i allowed to quote myself like this

—p.58 by Wendy Liu 3 weeks, 6 days ago
59

But it wasn’t until the free software movement shed its rebellious roots and rebranded as the more business-friendly “open-source movement” that it really took off. One of the most crucial figures in this effort was Tim O’Reilly, founder and CEO of O’Reilly Media, who built his business empire by identifying the pieces of the free software movement that could be commodified. Suddenly, corporations that had previously considered open source to be dangerously redolent of “communism” were starting to see its value, both as a way of building software and as a recruitment tactic. From there, an entire ecosystem of virtue-signaling opportunities sprang up around the marriage of convenience between the corporate world and open source: conference and hackathon sponsorships, “summers of code,” libraries released under open licenses but funded by for-profit corporations.

If that counts as a victory, however, it was a pyrrhic one. In the process of gaining mainstream popularity, the social movement of “free software”—which rejected the very idea of treating software as intellectual property—morphed into the more palatable notion of “open source” as a development methodology, in which free and proprietary software could happily co-exist. The corporations that latched onto the movement discovered a useful technique for developing software, but jettisoned the critique of property rights that formed its ideological foundation.

—p.59 by Wendy Liu 3 weeks, 6 days ago

But it wasn’t until the free software movement shed its rebellious roots and rebranded as the more business-friendly “open-source movement” that it really took off. One of the most crucial figures in this effort was Tim O’Reilly, founder and CEO of O’Reilly Media, who built his business empire by identifying the pieces of the free software movement that could be commodified. Suddenly, corporations that had previously considered open source to be dangerously redolent of “communism” were starting to see its value, both as a way of building software and as a recruitment tactic. From there, an entire ecosystem of virtue-signaling opportunities sprang up around the marriage of convenience between the corporate world and open source: conference and hackathon sponsorships, “summers of code,” libraries released under open licenses but funded by for-profit corporations.

If that counts as a victory, however, it was a pyrrhic one. In the process of gaining mainstream popularity, the social movement of “free software”—which rejected the very idea of treating software as intellectual property—morphed into the more palatable notion of “open source” as a development methodology, in which free and proprietary software could happily co-exist. The corporations that latched onto the movement discovered a useful technique for developing software, but jettisoned the critique of property rights that formed its ideological foundation.

—p.59 by Wendy Liu 3 weeks, 6 days ago
61

Still, it’s not entirely fair to blame the founders of free software for having their movement hijacked. They were facing difficult odds: the neoliberal consensus of the last few decades has meant that the benefits of technological development have largely flowed to corporations, under the aegis of a strong intellectual property regime. As the free software movement came up against these prevailing economic forces, its more contentious aspects were watered down or discarded. The result was “open source”: a more collaborative method of writing software that bore few traces of its subversive origins.

Which is a shame, because the movement had the potential to be so much more. Free software arose out of the desire to decommodify data, to contest the idea of treating information as property. Of course, the movement’s ability to fulfill this desire was hampered by a lack of political analysis and historical context. Crucially, free software advocates neglected to recognize information as simply the latest battlefield in a centuries-old story of capital accumulation, as capital discovers new engines of profit-making and new areas of our common life to enclose. [...]

—p.61 by Wendy Liu 3 weeks, 6 days ago

Still, it’s not entirely fair to blame the founders of free software for having their movement hijacked. They were facing difficult odds: the neoliberal consensus of the last few decades has meant that the benefits of technological development have largely flowed to corporations, under the aegis of a strong intellectual property regime. As the free software movement came up against these prevailing economic forces, its more contentious aspects were watered down or discarded. The result was “open source”: a more collaborative method of writing software that bore few traces of its subversive origins.

Which is a shame, because the movement had the potential to be so much more. Free software arose out of the desire to decommodify data, to contest the idea of treating information as property. Of course, the movement’s ability to fulfill this desire was hampered by a lack of political analysis and historical context. Crucially, free software advocates neglected to recognize information as simply the latest battlefield in a centuries-old story of capital accumulation, as capital discovers new engines of profit-making and new areas of our common life to enclose. [...]

—p.61 by Wendy Liu 3 weeks, 6 days ago
62

In his 2004 book The Hacker Manifesto, media theorist McKenzie Wark coins the term “vectoralist class” to refer to those who profit from commodifying information. This process is enforced by intellectual property restrictions to prevent sharing, resulting in an artificial scarcity of a non-scarce good. Given that property rights originally developed under conditions of scarcity, it feels somewhat odd, from a consumer perspective, to apply those same rights to non-scarce goods which can be replicated at zero marginal cost. As a result, initiatives for “digital rights management” are typically unpopular among the public, straining consumer expectations of ownership by imposing restrictions on what you can do with the songs, movies, or e-books you have paid for.

There is a tension, then, between what makes sense to consumers and what is required by capital, as strong intellectual property regimes are needed to secure profits for the vectoralist class despite their unpopularity among users. The standard justification for this state of affairs is that it’s the only way to ensure that content creators can make a living. But this merely deploys content creators as a human shield to distract from the sheer unnaturalness of this extremely lucrative system, one in which the bulk of the profits are accruing to corporations, not content creators.

—p.62 by Wendy Liu 3 weeks, 6 days ago

In his 2004 book The Hacker Manifesto, media theorist McKenzie Wark coins the term “vectoralist class” to refer to those who profit from commodifying information. This process is enforced by intellectual property restrictions to prevent sharing, resulting in an artificial scarcity of a non-scarce good. Given that property rights originally developed under conditions of scarcity, it feels somewhat odd, from a consumer perspective, to apply those same rights to non-scarce goods which can be replicated at zero marginal cost. As a result, initiatives for “digital rights management” are typically unpopular among the public, straining consumer expectations of ownership by imposing restrictions on what you can do with the songs, movies, or e-books you have paid for.

There is a tension, then, between what makes sense to consumers and what is required by capital, as strong intellectual property regimes are needed to secure profits for the vectoralist class despite their unpopularity among users. The standard justification for this state of affairs is that it’s the only way to ensure that content creators can make a living. But this merely deploys content creators as a human shield to distract from the sheer unnaturalness of this extremely lucrative system, one in which the bulk of the profits are accruing to corporations, not content creators.

—p.62 by Wendy Liu 3 weeks, 6 days ago
64

Seen in that vein, the radical undertones of open source didn’t just come out of nowhere, and they’re not unique to software. Instead, open source is simply a response to the very real contradictions that abound when property rights are applied to information. Where it fails is by offering an easy way out—by creating a microcosm, itself commodified, that suspends intellectual property conventions on a small scale, without ever presenting a viable alternative to the wider intellectual property regime required under capitalism.

Perhaps it’s time to move beyond the corporate-friendly veneer of the open-source movement and resurrect its free software roots, paired with an understanding of the broader economic context. The gift economy, of which the open source movement is a crucial part, shows us that property rights are not necessary for driving innovation, and so there is no need for the vectoralist class—no need for the pantheon of technology corporations that attempt to commodify every aspect of our lives in order to enrich a select few. We should try to imagine a world without them, in which the technologies that shape our common life belong to us in common, and are harnessed for the purpose of benefiting society and not hoarding wealth.

—p.64 by Wendy Liu 3 weeks, 6 days ago

Seen in that vein, the radical undertones of open source didn’t just come out of nowhere, and they’re not unique to software. Instead, open source is simply a response to the very real contradictions that abound when property rights are applied to information. Where it fails is by offering an easy way out—by creating a microcosm, itself commodified, that suspends intellectual property conventions on a small scale, without ever presenting a viable alternative to the wider intellectual property regime required under capitalism.

Perhaps it’s time to move beyond the corporate-friendly veneer of the open-source movement and resurrect its free software roots, paired with an understanding of the broader economic context. The gift economy, of which the open source movement is a crucial part, shows us that property rights are not necessary for driving innovation, and so there is no need for the vectoralist class—no need for the pantheon of technology corporations that attempt to commodify every aspect of our lives in order to enrich a select few. We should try to imagine a world without them, in which the technologies that shape our common life belong to us in common, and are harnessed for the purpose of benefiting society and not hoarding wealth.

—p.64 by Wendy Liu 3 weeks, 6 days ago
66

[...] today’s open source communities have the potential to serve as gateways to a more radical politics, one that pushes for the decommodification of not just information but also the material resources needed to sustain the production of information.

What’s needed, then, is a leap of faith: from feeling gratitude towards corporations for funding open-source projects to questioning why we allow these corporations to amass the wealth that enables them to do so in the first place. What’s needed is a movement to resist the commodification of information in all its forms—whether that’s software, content, or using personal data to increase product sales through targeted advertising—and diminishing the power of these corporate giants in the process.

The open-source movement could—and should—be more than just another way to develop code. Fulfilling its radical potential will involve expanding the scope of the movement by linking it with a broader struggle for decommodification. This will require a massive political battle, challenging not just individual corporations and institutions but the neoliberal state itself.

—p.66 by Wendy Liu 3 weeks, 6 days ago

[...] today’s open source communities have the potential to serve as gateways to a more radical politics, one that pushes for the decommodification of not just information but also the material resources needed to sustain the production of information.

What’s needed, then, is a leap of faith: from feeling gratitude towards corporations for funding open-source projects to questioning why we allow these corporations to amass the wealth that enables them to do so in the first place. What’s needed is a movement to resist the commodification of information in all its forms—whether that’s software, content, or using personal data to increase product sales through targeted advertising—and diminishing the power of these corporate giants in the process.

The open-source movement could—and should—be more than just another way to develop code. Fulfilling its radical potential will involve expanding the scope of the movement by linking it with a broader struggle for decommodification. This will require a massive political battle, challenging not just individual corporations and institutions but the neoliberal state itself.

—p.66 by Wendy Liu 3 weeks, 6 days ago