By Matthew Fuller, 10 December 2001

The Wizards of OS conference in Berlin gathered together an encyclopaedic range of experts to debate how to build open systems for sharing information and knowledge. Despite the chaos of trying to interface such varied disciplines, Matthew Fuller was able to salvage some clarity – as well as the feeling that there’s a lot of work left to be done

Every so often a way of doing things comes along which, like a magnetic field hitting a tray of iron crumbs, compels some kind of orientation towards it. It may be the imperative to show gut this last summer or a new way to perform a massacre. It might also be an innovative way of making software.

The General Public License (GPL) is the idea at the heart of the movement of programmers which has moved from an informal, ‘goes without saying’ agreement to share, co-develop and freely distribute software code amongst their networks, into a global movement. Various forms of license have been developed to formalise and protect these arrangements. What they have in common is that the code produced under these licenses is the product of collective work and that any development of it should remain part of that public domain. According to Volker Grassmuck, an organiser of the Wizards of OS (WOS) event, as ways of organising work, mobilising development across networks, and coming up with the goods, they have provided ‘a new image of efficiency.’

In July 1999 the first WOS focused almost exclusively on the Open Source or Free Software movement. This year, the conference tracked this image of efficiency as it moves, and as it mobilises parallel developments in other areas ranging from money to music.


INTERFACING JARGON COMMUNITIESOne of the problems Free Software has always faced is that its interfaces are crap. Crap, unless you take the time to learn to work into the software more thoroughly. It demands that you learn what a computer is in order to use it. Whilst you can install this or that distribution of Linux on your machine relatively easily, you’re going to need to do the work of patiently introducing all its bits of hardware to each other. Something similar is occurring between all the movements, technologies, theories, disciplines, and institutions busy working out the implications of ‘open cultures and free knowledge’ for their areas. WOS involved representatives from an enormous range of activity. Seemingly every form of work involving a brain or two and any use of information is in some way or other opened up by openness. But in this context, how does one jargon-community communicate with another?

At one level, this is a replication of the usual crisis of inter-disciplinarity. Once absorbed into a jargon-community you easily click what ‘openness’ might mean in that context. At the same time, specialisation tends to preclude easy communication between areas. Complicate this by including the necessity to find ways in which many different forms of both economic and cultural activity might collaborate. If free software works because there is a tight feedback loop between its primary users and its developers – because they are one and the same – how can an understanding of openness, conventions of openness strong enough to build on, be worked out using this as a model? How can sound recordings, bioinformatic databases, educational curricula, legal codes or software objects begin to be described in terms abstract enough to allow them to be adequately connected, yet concrete enough to be accurate and useful?

How then can these, by comparison relatively tightly defined problems, be brought into communication with the various forms of political and economic theory and activity which are currently calling upon ‘openness’? These range from stock-slurpin’ moneymen to proponents of ‘community currencies’ such as LETS, and from theorists of ‘immaterial labour’ to companies such as IBM, or do-what angels from a future sunshine world where everything runs under Hegel OS. Conceptual paradigms collide: in what ways, for instance, can people insist on the importance of the public domain at the same time as ensuring the right to privacy through such mechanisms as encrypted email?

AUTOMATE YOUR RELATIONSA hefty amount of the debate at WOS seemed premised on the idea that social relations could be effectively automated. Not only that, that such automation – when carried out as free software - would be more equitable and efficient. There is no doubt that any form of technology is a materialisation of a social relation, of a set of blockages or potentials for connection and use. But, as Seda Gurses from the Virtual International Women’s University suggests, questioning the relationship between say, content and information systems is only a beginning. Knowledge systems themselves need to be questioned. What is the imaginary of scientific solutions?

The way in which public domain material, software in particular, has so far operated is by a strategy of infiltration. The software is used because, at least for the work done by its core constituency, it’s often the best. This is not a head-on fight with established modes of production, distribution and use. Instead, there is a concentration of networks for generating viable alternatives. There is a pragmatic baseline of getting work done, one that chimes with the general realisation that capitalism is going increasingly cannibal, but that demands something more than its previous romantic oppositions. This strategy has worked so well that the NSA, the US secret service, recently put a substantial amount of work into improving some of the open source encryption software. The advantage of this was that some of the best cryptographers got to work on it, and at the same time, the code of the software could be publicly scrutinised for backdoors. However, particularly when code meets ‘content’, this kind of molecular politics, of turning enormous hierarchical organisations into generators of communal property alongside networks of programmers strung out along the net, hits the dumb might of the intellectual property industry. The contractual judo begun by the GPL needs to be rethought here.

The US Digital Millennium Copyright Act and the forthcoming European Copyright Directive that mirrors it are attempts to place technological innovation under the cosh of outdated modes of ownership. What you will be ‘allowed’ to do with data, the ways in which it will be permitted to circulate, be worked upon and changed, are allocated according to models in which everything comes down to cash and control. Needless to say, copy protection systems, such as those for e-books, audio and video files etc, cannot protect the data they contain from being hacked. Someone will eventually find a work-round to make the digital padlock irrelevant. But why should we rely on hackers to perform the inevitable? And why should these people be criminalised? Such legislation is fundamentally cynical. It is imposed in the knowledge that it won’t work. It will simply provide the opportunity to lock-up some sharp technical minds. And it is lazy, because there is no attempt to deal with the models of production and distribution that are being put into place to take advantage of rather than attempt to repress the realities of digital networks.

WOS provided some signs of connections being put together between all these and other currents. The place was a building site, not a cleanly ordered architecture. That clarity may arise from the attacks on the public domain soon to come. It may also come, more forcefully, from the mutual revaluation of all these various currents as they begin to interface each other. How successfully they do so will depend largely upon their capacity for experiment.

Matthew Fuller <matt AT> is part of the development group for TextFM, an sm-to-radio server

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>> Photo - Simon Worthington