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Date Published: 2/29/2012
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THEORY BEYOND THE CODES



All Bugs Are Shallow: Digital Biopower, Hacker Resistance, and Technological Error in Open Source Software



Matthew Kelly


What is iPad?. . . . It's already a revolution and it's only just begun.
-- Apple iPad advertisement

The irony of this deployment is in having us believe that our "liberation" is in the balance.
-- Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: Volume One


I. Introduction

In 2001, International Business Machines (IBM) pledged a one billion dollar contribution to free and open-source software -- hereinafter, FOSS -- research and development with the intention of donating their findings back to the FOSS community so that programmers and enthusiasts could continue to refine new source code [1] [2]. In that same year, coincidentally, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer labeled Linux, the most popular FOSS operating system to date, as "a cancer that attaches itself in an intellectual property sense to everything it touches" [3] [4]. A decade after Ballmer's colorful diagnosis presents a radically different picture regarding the relationship between Microsoft and the open-source community, as the software giant has since founded an entire division dedicated to facilitating open-source development within and beyond the company [5]. Such a radical shift in affiliation towards FOSS by one of the world's most influential companies reflects the increasing interest in this particular form of software distribution as well as the benefits and consequences thereof. At this contemporary conjecture we can pose the question: what is so fundamentally different about the open-source movement and how can it elicit such an abrasive initial rejection or dedication by companies of such global scale as Microsoft and IBM?

To begin answering this question, we must return to Ballmer's depiction of FOSS's purportedly viral nature and note that a biological characterization of FOSS is not entirely unwarranted. Quite the opposite, as Ballmer's implied coupling of biological life with digital information resonates with the underlying synthesis of lived experiences on the part of individual programmers and larger economic networks of production and exchange. That is to say, FOSS reflects the evolution of the symbiotic relationship between life, technology, and ideologically-driven discursive practices within larger information networks, a relationship that has the capacity to begin shaping business relations and software development on an international level. This paper, then, will attempt to dispel several common misconceptions, which are purported by both FOSS skeptics and zealots alike, regarding the open-source movement and the people who support it in order to demonstrate how the genealogy of FOSS is symptomatic of late-capitalism's embedding of life within economic networks. The first of these misconceptions is that FOSS operates on anti-capitalist principles that rebel against the oppressive restrictions of conglomerate corporations, in that the lack of private ownership over software code and the modification thereof supposedly liberates individuals from business-driven capitalist practices surrounding information dissemination. By examining the social, political, and economic circumstances surrounding the birth of the FOSS movement through the critical lens of Michel Foucault's theory of biopolitics, I will demonstrate how open access to computer code helped strengthen the connection between individual conceptions of identity and economic practices in order to reveal how FOSS does not reject the late-capitalist system from which it emerged. Rather, FOSS accelerates the decentralizing tendencies of such a system by saturating society with possible outlets for production -- that is, each individual computer user as someone who can modify and circulate the productive capacities of source code -- while removing restrictions prohibiting information exchange. Foucault's theories can help frame the development of FOSS and its ideology as a necessary evolution of, not revolution against, the capitalist infrastructure surrounding software development and allow us to to examine the unique subject position of the hacker -- a persona that mainstream media has been quick to portray as an anti-authoritative anarchist -- without resorting to the popular discourses that shroud this figure in a rhetoric of political resistance. However, this is not to say that a certain functioning of resistance is completely absent from either hackers or the FOSS communities they support. Instead, resistance must be re-interpreted as a rejection of over-determined, teleologically-orientated technological development that occurs within an insular programming environment. This re-thinking of resistance resonates with a larger issue surrounding the intersection between life, technology, and market forces depicted in FOSS; namely, the reliance on error as a crucial aspect for evolution, be it biological or technological. Error's pivotal role in open-source software development demonstrates how the combination of economics and biological life is not necessarily as dismal as technology critics may believe because life, and all of its spontaneity, continues to persist and influence the market systems it now inhabits. Such a two-way relation between bios and economics challenges the claim that life is defenseless in the face of economic appropriation and, as such, requires a liberating force that can allow it to escape from the restraints of the current economic system at hand. Finally, this examination will conclude with a brief look at how FOSS begets new means of self-representation and self-organization for programmers and open-source community members, which provide the potential to counteract the consequences of labor's continual fragmentation and specialization in global markets.

Ultimately, the emergence of FOSS, its underlying ideology, the hackers who were integral to its nascent development, and the architecture of decentralized programming communities are indicative of a global bio-economical paradigm but to label such a system as ethically right or wrong would betray the nature of this examination -- that is, attempting to bypass moral evaluations of FOSS that often resort to the rhetoric of oppression or subversion -- as well as the non-teleological operation of open systems. Instead, I hope to use this examination as a means of providing the necessary terminology and framework for understanding what is at stake as digital technology, as well as the entities that facilitate its growth, become more indispensable to daily life and, most importantly, contingent upon the seemingly pedestrian choices of individuals. In doing so, I hope refute both the simplified depiction of FOSS as an idealized escape from a capitalist agenda and the pessimistic reaction that views open-source software as yet another manifestation of corporate exploitation.


II. The Biopolitics of FOSS

FOSS operates upon the idea that every computer user should have open access to source code, which is the basic code that powers any computer program, and be able to modify it without having to negotiate software developers' security restrictions [6]. Users can redistribute their personalized modifications within on-line domains so others can further edit modified code as they please. In order to understand how these principles relate to the traditional proprietary system of software development, it is integral that FOSS is viewed with regards to the social, political, and economic circumstances surrounding its inception. Providing such a genealogical account will demonstrate how free- and open-source practices did not miraculously appear as a self-contained ideology from beyond the capitalist paradigm but, rather, materialized through the internal fissures, struggles, and unforeseen reactions within software programming communities as well as the governmental legislation thereof. Furthermore, a genealogical reading will prevent a preemptive teleology of FOSS's inception, meaning that these phenomena can be analyzed without an over-determined conclusion, such as the complete subversion of the late-capitalist system, in mind.

FOSS emerged from advancements within corporate software development during the 1980s and the ensuing legislation surrounding the privatization of computer code. By 1982, the telecommunications company AT&T Bell Labs had the most popular operating system amongst large-scale research institutions and government agencies in the form of UNIX, or the Uniplexed Information and Computing Service program [7]. Up until this point, AT&T had only distributed their operating system through corporate licenses with the caveat that all licensees had access to open-source code for the operating system, thereby granting programmers the ability to refine it for whichever specific project they were working on [8]. With AT&T's decision to release UNIX to the general public in 1983, however, came the closing of its source code. Furthermore, AT&T attempted to retroactively patent all user-generated modifications that had been steadily increasing since they began licensing their software in 1975 [9]. Anti-corporate sentiments began emerging within software communities, with one of the most prominent advocates against the privatization of software being Richard Stallman. Stallman eventually left his post as a software programmer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1984 to create the GNU Project [10], which sought to provide programmers with an operating system that encouraged user-generated modifications through free access to open-source code [11]. The GNU Project slowly gained support among small groups of developers, but as finished programs were released to the general public, Stallman found himself needing a distribution license that would prevent situations similar to the privatization of UNIX from occurring. He created the GNU General Public License, or GPL, in 1984, a document that set the parameters for all free and open-source software programmed by and released through the GNU Project [12]. The GPL requires all programmers to provide end-users access to open-source code for any publicly distributed program created using the GNU operating system tools and, furthermore, allow users to distribute their modified code without having to abide by copyright restrictions [13].

The anti-privatization sentiments of the FOSS programming community did not just pertain to the protection of their specific contributions to UNIX, but to their existence as programmers; the programmers who felt betrayed by AT&T's push towards privatization saw this move as an assault on their very identities, and the GPL was a means of protecting a community that was founded upon "strong elements of shared identity and belief systems," not a company that was fighting for the legal protection of software ownership [14]. The beliefs of open-source enthusiasts were still embedded into networks of production, though, as the FOSS community's principles of unhindered code exchange were aimed at making programmers more efficient and fostering innovation. This synthesis of production, identity, and belief systems in the FOSS movement exhibits what Michel Foucault describes as biopolitics. Foucault argues that a biopolitical paradigm transforms the body of a human laborer from something that merely operates machines of production to a means of production itself. That is to say, a worker no longer exists "in the economic analysis as an object -- the object of supply and demand in the form of labor power -- but as an active economic subject" [14]. Hence, a worker's body is not simply a variable that is circulated by companies through supply but, rather, is an active participant in production trends within a larger economy. This transformation, in turn, dissolves the barriers that had once distinguished individual subjectivity from economic practice because the "[a]bility to work . . . cannot be separated from the worker himself. . . . We should think of the skill that is united with the worker as . . . a machine understood in the positive sense" [15]. Once a worker's subjectivity is coupled with her or his productive capacities, individuals take on an economic existence as something more than just mere labor and authoritative forces now have a point of entry into regulating a specific population in such a way that the formulation of personal identities reinforces the dominant discursive system.

In returning to the programmers who opposed AT&T's privatization of UNIX, source code can be seen as an apparatus that facilitates the regulation of individual productive capacities insofar as code is, according to Chris Kelty, "both an expressive medium, like writing or speech, and a tool that performs concrete actions" [16]. Hence, code can be seen both as a discursive practice -- in that is an expressive medium that can shape personal conceptions of the world, as evident in the formulation of personal identity on the part of programmers rallying against AT&T -- and a productive apparatus that contributes to the regulation of a biopolitical paradigm (that is, code directly affects the productive capacities of an individual via software programs) [17]. However, the mass circulation of open source code exemplifies what Jeffrey Nealon defines as an intensification of Foucaultian power, which is power's "increasing efficiency within a system, coupled with increasing saturation" [18]. According to Nealon, the nature of power relations in a given society adapts to the increasing number of outlets power can potentially work through, and the effects of open-source coding practices provides a concrete example of this process; through the distribution and unregulated circulation of open-source code, biopower became increasingly saturated within programming communities (in the sense that any programmer was now a potential site for code production, modification, or distribution regardless of his or her corporate affiliation) and more efficient (because obstacles that would prohibit code exchange were removed, thereby fostering innovation that was not hindered by issues of legal ownership). At first, this digital intensification of biopower seems to have strengthened the biopolitical paradigm that creates an inseparable link between economic production and individual subjectivity, but the negative reaction against the FOSS movement -- both in the 1980's and today -- illustrates how such intensification can actively modify, not simply reaffirm, the discursive system which originally established the circumstances that eventually caused FOSS programmers to align their identities with an ideological belief system grounded in networks of production and exchange.

Although FOSS principles still resided within an economic system, the underlying motives of this emergent ideology rested upon social and cultural values, not financial gain. This almost paradoxical pro-economic, anti-financial mentality gained the support of a new type of persona within computer programming communities, one that most explicitly demonstrates the biopolitical implications of the FOSS movement and the impact it had on the infrastructure of software development: the hacker. The label "hacker" is typically applied to programmers who hold no official affiliation with a software development company and often creates clever fixes or modifications to pre-existing programs. Most importantly, though, is that a hacker possesses "an enthusiasm for programming or computers as an end in itself" [19]. However, pop culture's depiction of hackers as anti-authoritarian vagabonds has problematized the legitimacy of the relationship between hackers and the dominant systems of production. In attempting to dispel the often romanticized hacker-as-criminal mystique, technology theorist Johan Söderberg admits, "[h]acking is regularly reduced to an apolitical stunt of male, juvenile mischievousness, and, ultimately, is framed as a control issue" [20]. Söderberg challenges the typical images of hackers as existing on the fringes of legal authority precisely by working through a discourse of liberation and rebellion, as opposed to rejecting this rhetoric altogether, in order to get at the larger impact that hackers have on the infrastructure surrounding information exchange:

What concerns us is not "hackers as a noun" but "hacking as a verb". Hacking is emancipatory to the extent that it opens up the practice of intervening in computer technology to a non-denumerable mass of people. In other words, its politics consist in that decisions about technological development escape from being confined to either professions or/and subcultures [21].

Söderberg correctly identifies the hacker identity as a subjectivity premised upon the production and circulation of modified code -- that is, the hacker identity is founded upon the verb as opposed to the noun -- as well as the consequences that such information emancipation holds for a hierarchical programming environment; the emancipation of the individual's ability to modify code as she or he pleases is also an emancipation of code's relegation to the a select number of privileged programming circles, something that will be discussed in more detail in the next section of this essay. Emancipatory, as Söderberg uses it here, does not necessarily entail the ultimate goal of subversion that is often attributed to hackers, but his ensuing comments on the reasons for such emancipation of code modification comes dangerously close to re-affirming the hacker-as-rebel image that Söderberg himself is attempting to refute. He writes that "the hacker movement is part of a much broader undercurrent revolting against the boredom of commodified labour" [22]. Söderberg sees hackers as both a symptom of late-capitalism -- which, as I have just demonstrated, is not entirely false -- but invoking the image of revolt implies that the emergence of hackers somehow ruptures the socio-economic genealogy of the capitalist system that incubated them (even if such a revolt is directed at the relatively innocuous threat of boredom rather than a full-on oppressive corporate regime).

FOSS critics who depict the subversion of the current economic system of production as the main goal of hackers fail to take into account the specific nature of open-source networks and the lineage from which they emerged. Initial reactions against hacker culture and the formation of the FOSS movement came, as Sam Williams argues, "[a]t a time when the Reagan Administration was rushing to dismantle many of the federal regulations and spending programs . . . more than a few [proprietary] software programmers saw the hacker ethic [of FOSS] as anticompetitive" and, therefore, anti-American [23]. The tendency to associate the lack of copyright restrictions as "anticompetitive" simplifies the larger market consequences of a FOSS-style economic system and neglects the fact that hacker culture is essentially an ideal form of a free market because the FOSS system of distribution is premised upon deregulated, decentralized exchange between independent users. This non-regulated market demonstrates a neo-liberalism mentality which causes, to use Foucault's phrase, "the worker himself [to appear] as a sort of enterprise for himself. . . . An economy made up of enterprise-units . . . is at once the principle of decipherment linked to liberalism" and the biopolitical functioning of society [24]. Given that hackers do not program for the sake of financial benefit, it seems contradictory to label the independent programmer as an "enterprise" within a system of production, distribution, and exchange. However, a hacker's biopolitical existence as a productive apparatus causes her or him to exist as a personal enterprise for informational and cultural production, meaning that hackers create not only code but also the ideological significance attached to it [25].

If hackers were seen as a threat to the current politico-economic system, it was because their motives for deregulating code exchange were not premised upon greater financial independence from governing authorities. The capitalist system that created the hacker identity through the coupling of subjectivity with economic productivity was now dealing with its ramifications in the form of individuals who wanted to program for the sake of programming. However, the biopolitical implications of this anomalous persona can easily be obscured through the discourse of rebellion, in the sense that critics often interpret the hacker negation of financial gain as being an explicit form of resistance against the principles of a hegemonic capitalist system. As has just been illustrated, though, hackers seek to accelerate the current capitalist system by taking the principles of an unregulated market to their extremes through the removal of copyright restrictions, but this does not mean the concept of resistance is entirely absent from the hacking of computer code. Resistance does play a key role for hackers and the open-source community, but this concept must be re-approached without using a discourse of opposition and rebellion in order to examine the nuanced power relations at work within software development and distribution.


III. Rethinking Resistance, Relocating the Margin

Mackenzie Wark's A Hacker Manifesto provides the foundation for rethinking resistance by framing this concept in terms of information exchange and property ownership. Wark writes:

Information is immaterial, but never exists without a material support. Information may be transferred from one material support, but cannot be dematerialized. . . . Information emerges as a concept when it achieves an abstract relation to materiality. This abstracting of information from any particular material support creates the very possibility of a vectoral society [26] [27].

Once information, which Wark describes as the potential of potential, is uprooted from its material conditions via abstraction, a ubiquitous notion of property and ownership can be tethered to what is an otherwise free flow information. In other words, abstracting information from its material foundation allows for "an abstract plan upon which all things with one quality in common, the quality of property" [28]. Such a property-based paradigm operates on an archaic notion of scarcity in that property is a way of claiming territory within a limited set of resources, which is incompatible with the surplus economy of digital information networks; that is to say, there is an excess of information in open-source environments because the production of information vis-a-vis computer code is entirely decentralized throughout the entire population. In opposition to this misguided superimposition of property onto digital networks, a Warkean society of free information exchange bypasses the effects of information's abstraction by accounting for its material qualities (that is, how information manifests itself and is utilized within the specific practices of individuals in a decentralized network that exists amid the real world) in addition to its immaterial characteristics (information's existence as the potential-of-potential that increasingly saturates an economy of surplus), but such a system does not necessarily destroy the entire notion of property [29]. Instead, it suspends the question of property, keeping it within the realm of possible possibilities -- indeed, if anyone were to discount possibilities, even for the sake of free information, this negation of one potential over another would succumb to the same over-determination that Wark criticizes vectoralists for. Therefore, sustaining all possibilities of the possible or, as he puts it, "a plurality of forms" must necessarily keep "open the property question -- [this] is what makes free information possible" [30].

Wark's argument regarding the necessary condition for free information's existence provides an ethical evaluation of an anti-teleological approach to information exchange that can be applied to open-source software development. That is to say, information is itself ethical and not just something to which an ideology of ethics are applied, a characterization that points towards a Kierkegaardian belief in the absurd that keeps open all possible possibilities -- even those that could undermine the very nature of free information exchange [31]. The underlying assumption of this argument entails that code development does not happen with a pre-determined trajectory in mind but, rather, through the unforeseen circumstances and events (i.e. the actual engagement users have with technology on a daily basis). The emphasis on non-preemptive user interaction as an underlying factor in code development can be seen in the typical interactions between hackers and FOSS programmers as new software is developed and refined, something that will eventually help us understand the necessary partner of resistance: power.

It is important to understand the difference between open-source and proprietary software development models in order to understand how this anti-teleological based form of resistance functions. A common metaphor to compare these two models was pioneered by Eric Raymond, a leading FOSS advocate and programmer, in his essay "The Cathedral and the Bazaar." Raymond equates the structure of corporate programming to the methodical building of "cathedrals," which requires a hierarchy of authority to coordinate large-scale projects that are released at specific intervals [32]. In such projects, labor revolves around whichever individuals own the necessary information or means of production. Finished software is released to the public only after extensive testing and refinement has been done within a select circle of cathedral architects, meaning there is usually a large lapse in time between new versions [33]. In contrast to the cathedral building of corporate software developers is what Raymond describes as the "bazaar," or marketplace of independent shopkeepers, of open-source programming. The bazaar system allows developers to distribute code to the public as it is still being programmed, allowing users to modify, exchange, and redistribute experimental code back into the marketplace where the original programmers can build upon the community's modifications [34]. The continual exchange of still-developing code lends itself to a fair degree of chaos "out of which a coherent and stable system could seemingly emerge only by a succession of miracles" [35]. Although it may seem inefficient to rely on a "succession of miracles" for any progress to be made within FOSS, the immediacy of code turnover between users increases the likelihood of problems being resolved and advancements made, or, as Raymond argues, "[g]iven a large enough . . . co-developer base, almost every problem will be characterized quickly and the fix obvious to someone" [36]. FOSS, unlike proprietary development, has the luxury of immediate code exchange due to the lack of copyright restrictions, and the architecture of the bazaar fundamentally relies on this free flow of information among users [37] [38].

Hackers help maintain the continual flow of code within the bazaar marketplace through the redistribution of their personal modifications, which is especially important in the development of new programs. Not surprisingly, hackers are normally the users who are willing to use experimental code, or beta versions, released by developers. More often than not, nascent code is relatively stable in its core operations but contains many "bugs," or unforeseen problems, in its more intricate processes. It is important to note, however, that bugs should not be seen as a sign of developers' incompetence, since the volatile nature of programming new software is naturally vulnerable to problems.

Bugs are not so much technical failures as they are signs of progress; these problems are usually unforeseeable, meaning they are an indication that developers are attempting to create more complex programs. This underlying connection between error and progress is discussed by Foucault in his essay "Life: Experience and Science," in which he argues, "at the most basic level of life, the processes of coding and decoding give way to a chance occurrence that . . . [is] something like a "mistake." In this sense, life . . . is that which is capable of error" [39]. Life is characterized by its ability to make mistakes, and this pertains just as much to evolutionary biology as to the creation of innovative new software programs. Through refining bug-ridden code, hackers stabilize the technological life of a program which can then be redistributed into the FOSS community or, more specifically, back to the original developers. These developers can then integrate hacker modifications and redistribute their refined code back to the FOSS community where, theoretically, more bugs can emerge due to the growing complexity of a program, allowing hackers to continue their refinement of new code by resisting a newly-stabilized yet still experimental program [40]. In making programs more stable for less tech-savvy users, hackers produce information (in the form of code), cultural standards (in the sense that stable programs are more likely to be adopted as the standard for normal users), and strengthen the open-source ideology by creating more accessible programs for those who may not be aware of FOSS alternatives to proprietary software.

In this constant feedback loop between hackers and developers, error becomes the central, not peripheral, element in the programming process. Resistance, then, is not the resistance against error but the resistance to treating error as something that de-limits the potential of a pre-determined, consistent genealogy of a program [41]. Therefore, error itself is wrapped up in a continual, indeterminate suspension wherein users acknowledge that something has not gone according to plan but, at the same time, prevents labeling this occurrence as the hindering a progression to a final destination. Within the frame of code modification, then, power can be seen as the power to err, the power to differentiate; in short, the affirmative power of life described by Foucault. Conversely, resistance is not the resistance against error, but the resistance against teleological over-determination that depicts error as dissident.

Power and resistance cooperate within a productive process of hacking modified source code, and these two concepts can never be fully separated from one another nor placed into a mutually-exclusive relationship because, as Foucault argues, "[w]here there is power, there is resistance, and yet, or rather consequently, this resistance is never in a position of exteriority in relation to power" [42]. Resistance is not an attempt to escape from the influence of power, nor does it emerge from beyond power; resistance is internal to power because power is productive only insofar as there is resistance to accompany it, which we have just seen in the necessary occurrence of error in code modification with FOSS circles. In short, without the resistance against teleological over-determination, the error would never obtain its productive qualities.

Hackers and their adaptation to beta programs can be viewed as symptoms of this new centralization of error, meaning that the non-teleological encounter with bugs that functions as the primary force underlying code development necessitates a bazaar-style system of unregulated information exchange in order to properly function. Although an open source bazaar model is not the only method of dealing with error in such a way, it has proven to be most efficient when spurred by the common FOSS war cry: "[g]iven enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow" [43].

The continual perpetuation of outlets for resistance -- and, hence, power -- via error reveals the ways in which certain elements of life continue to function even after being embedded into economic systems. That is to say, if all of life in contemporary society is the market, then integral qualities of life -- namely, the importance of error and its non-teleological interpretation -- can emerge anywhere within this economic system. In this case, life happens to bypass its apparent enslavement to market forces and reappear within a particular form of computer programming [44]. Hence, the connection between subjectivity and economics is far more of a two-way street than the one-sided relationship depicted by critics at the onset of this examination; once the market co-opts life, life can then begin to influence the market by slowly ushering error into the center of capitalist production and circulation [45]. The important consequence of capitalism biting off more than it can chew -- in terms of the error's necessity in life -- is that error can never be entirely presupposed. Major attempts at preemptively quelling error in the software development field can occasionally lead to disastrous results or a plain lack of foresight.

Conversely, open-source networks embrace the unforeseeable nature of new code by releasing betas early and often (much to the delight of power users and technophiles), allowing unforeseen bugs to emerge from, and even begin to dictate, the development of wide-spread programs. These bug-driven developments help foster the emergence of "an ecology . . . [which] produces a self-correcting spontaneous order more elaborate and efficient than any amount of central planning could have achieved" [46]. Whatever emerges from this unplanned, self-organizing ecology can then influence the overall development of the communities that support it. In catering to, and even being sustained by, unforeseeable emergent properties, FOSS networks break away from enclosed development models that support traditional notions of property and proprietary development. Given the inherent connection between the FOSS movement and surrounding politico-economic systems, the importance of error's role within open-source programming communities (and the hackers who resolve it) can affect the business practices that revolve around commercial FOSS development.


V. Towards an Open Business Model

This essay has explored the evolution of open-source communities due in part to power's digital intensification. However, there remains a final question, one that resonates with the ethical underpinnings of hackers and the FOSS businesses that benefit from the voluntarism of dedicated programmers: Is open-source programming distinctly different from previous capitalist models that have exploited the good intentions of individuals for the sake of maximizing profit? Or, are FOSS development companies merely benefiting from a more systematic form of capitalist exploitation that parades itself under another name? One cannot deny the fact that hackers and FOSS have been examined within the specific economic circumstances of an industry that houses some of the world's most powerful corporations. How, then, are we to negotiate the fact that FOSS, despite the ideal rhetoric surrounding it, appears to be a business model that utilizes free labor while making a profit within a capitalist society?

Structurally, the programming model of FOSS seems to reinforce the decentralization of the labor force, which, in turn, prevents the mobilization of workers against monolithic enterprises. Stuart Hall argues that technology itself can exacerbate the fragmentation of the workforce because "these elements [of the division of labor] like those of new technologies, are being imposed piecemeal, and in ways deliberately designed to weaken collective rights and labour organization, fragment the workforce, deskill jobs" [48]. FOSS's bottom-up, non-hierarchical development model appears to exemplify the same type of labor division that Hall critiques; the specialization of the workforce manifests itself in the form of hackers refining hyper-specific coding issues while its decentralization is revealed in the benefits derived from the non-unionized, unpaid labor of hackers. Alan Ross echoes these sentiments when discussing the impact that user-generated contributions could have on the make-up of the programming workforce. He argues that FOSS "has done little to address the suspicion that a predominantly volunteer labor model poses a threat to the livelihoods of future engineers. . . . [and] interest of lower cohort employee in the knowledge industries" [49]. In proprietary development models, outsourcing cheap labor on the lower-end of the corporate hierarchy creates an increasing divide between high-ranking employees and professionals who are trying to begin their climb of the corporate ladder. This same phenomenon exists in FOSS but instead of outsourcing labor to a particular country, low-level jobs, such as troubleshooting or minor bug fixes, are outsourced to the entire open source community, resulting in a similar situation where important-yet-marginalized entry-level employees find themselves unable to compete with a labor force willing to work for less or, in this case, free. The only way to bypass the same type of perils that exist in both proprietary and open source models would be to create "cross-class coalitions" that account for the resources that "below-the-line workers . . . have developed to win rights, respect, and solidarity" [50]. Both Hall (implicitly) and Ross (explicitly) describe the dangers inherent to an open source business model, and the argument in favor of cross-class coalitions provides a relevant plan to addressing the issue of worker's rights for any economic system. However, while Hall can be forgiven for not addressing FOSS -- as it was still in its nascent stages during the time -- Ross neglects particular moves made by open source developers that might offer a preliminary example of the same coalitions he describes.

The relationship between open source developers and the communities who support them go beyond mere acknowledgment and acceptance of user-generated code modifications. In the case of Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL), a commercial version of the FOSS operating system Linux, the developers officially sponsor an entirely separate operating system created by volunteers that shares the same core architecture as RHEL [51]. Dubbed Fedora, this user-maintained project is not so much a home-user version of RHEL as it is a parallel operating system with its own goals and values that doubles as a testing ground for new RHEL code, thereby providing Fedora users with access to bleeding-edge technology whose bugs can be sorted out before eventually being streamlined and released in RHEL as a stable, commercial version sold primarily for business mainframes and servers. As a Red Hat-sponsored project, Fedora is governed by a board that consists of Red Hat employees and community members voted upon by volunteers. This board is responsible for balancing the goals of both Red Hat and Fedora, seeing as both parties have much invested in the other; Red Hat acquires community labor while Fedora users gain access to new technology at no cost. This systemic approach to community representation by both parties reflects new methods of negotiating the rights and recognition of open source contributors. In doing so, Red Hat and Fedora offer an interpretation of Ross's cross-class coalitions by creating a system of influence and leverage that basis the relationship between high- and low-level programmers, which in this case would be designated by their paid or unpaid status, on mutual gain and open communication about the values of each group. Failure to address the needs of a community or establishing legitimate forms of volunteer representation could have potentially disastrous results, as was insinuated in a major move by one of the more prominent Linux developers.

In 2006, Novell, owner of the Linux-based openSUSE operating system, made a joint patent agreement with Microsoft so that each company can better incorporate the others' products and services into their own, much to the chagrin of the FOSS community [52]. The main concern for many users was the copyrights that Microsoft would hold over the new code they create for open source programs, something that would undermine the very nature of FOSS [53]. As to be expected, debates emerged within the FOSS community and several efforts to either boycott Novell or legally appeal the partnership were started. Despite this, the partnership continued on as planned. One reaction among many was Mark Shuttleworth -- founder of Canonical, a company that develops the most popular Linux-based operating system at the moment, Ubuntu -- posting an open invitation for all openSUSE developers to attend public information sessions about Canonical and Ubuntu's adherence to FOSS standards with hopes of attracting those who were abandoning their contributions to Novell [54] [55]. Although Novell and openSUSE did not necessarily experience a mass exodus of users, the implications of abandoning a particular operating system based on ideology alone reveals new strategies that contributors to a company's success have once money is taken out of the relationship between high- and low-level programmers. In most cases, those who would code for free are individuals willing to align themselves with a FOSS ideology. Therefore, changing a company's goals or values can lead to abandonment by community volunteers, one that cannot be counterbalanced by offering traditional incentives (i.e. money) to others looking for work. In short, when no one gets paid, there are no consequences for them not working. Furthermore, without money being a motivation for code contributions within the user community, companies must negotiate with the only resources that really matter: code and the ideology surrounding it. Combining a lack of financial leverage with the mass quantities of community labor at stake forces the old guard of business practices to adapt to a new system of labor distribution as well as new forms of information exchange.

Granted, no system is perfect. The open source business model still contains the issue of establishing a professional career in a field whose entry-points are becoming increasingly diffuse across a global community and, as such, more difficult to utilize as a viable source of income. Community initiatives by FOSS developers, though, can provide one possible outlet for giving contributors the opportunity to have their contributions recognized and provide experience for new programmers that can be used later in their careers. Although this may not completely counter-balance the lack of job opportunities, this type of community involvement at least addresses the concern of contributor representation, demonstrating the new complications that arise when open source models begin to gain support across a global market. Additionally, it would be naïve to think that this trend of hyper-competitive job markets and the issue of outsourcing labor to lower-level employees willing to work for cheap is unique to software programming -- just look at the number of recent undergraduates and graduate students struggling to find stable employment across all fields.


VI. On the Bio-Technological Horizon

Life, in all of its error-filled spontaneity, has found a way to continually affirm its own vital qualities despite being co-opted by market forces, acting as the tissue that holds together the numerous aspects of FOSS that have been examined. Hackers are symptomatic of the need for a new bazaar-style programming model, one which accounts for the new focus on beta testing and user-based experience that treat bugs as the driving force behind software development. Consequently, a bazaar-style development model shapes the nature of company-user relationships, providing new complications to problems that have plagued capitalist systems of production and the subsequent division of labor. As is usually the case with technology, however, one can never be too certain of how FOSS will develop and influence business practices on a national or international scale, meaning the ever-volatile nature of technology's progression leaves us with the imperative of understanding the latent processes at work in FOSS and the communities that support it.

In a way, examining the intermediation between life and technology allows one to argue that open source software is a particular form of bio-technology, despite not adhering to popular notions of this term. That is to say, FOSS depicts a synthesis of life and technology that does not simply make the former subservient to the later. Instead, FOSS reveals how bios itself provides a heterogeneous field of relations--everything from the social identity of living, breathing human beings that declare themselves hackers, to the ecological parallels of the decentralized programming circles, or even the theoretical functioning of error in evolutionary systems--that influence the growth and application of technology. Hence, the influence of life on informational material counter-balances the techno-centric views, and techno-phobic anxieties, surrounding the influence information has on the generation of biological material [56], and it is precisely this chiasmus that can help bypass the discourse of struggle or rebellion--and, implicitly, salvation or liberation--that often accompanies discussions surrounding the introduction of digital technology to an all-too-efficient synthesis of subjectivity, life, and economics.


Notes

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[1] Johan Söderberg, Hacking Capitalism: The Free and Open Source Software Movement (New York: Routledge, 2008), 5.

[2] As it will be further explained in this essay, FOSS is a type of software distribution wherein users can access, modify, and redistribute the code that powers a computer program without being prohibited by security restrictions from the original developers. The label of FOSS is applicable to any program or operating system that abides by the parameters of open source circulation, meaning it is less of a specific group of software companies and more of a programming ideology.

[3] Dave Newbart, "Microsoft CEO Takes Lunch Break with the Sun-Times." Chicago Sun-Times 1 Jun. 2001: 57. Print.

[4] An operating system manages key hardware functions, such as the central processor, networking devices, and video cards, allowing applications to run in a virtual environment with very little end-user maintenance. Currently, the most popular personal operating systems are Microsoft's Windows and Macintosh's OS X.

[5] Jon Brodkin, "Microsoft: 'We love open source'." Network World 23 Aug. 2010. Web. 30 Dec. 2011.

[6] Source code is deemed "open" when users can personally modify this code, whereas "closed" or "proprietary" code denies users this ability.

[7] Johan Söderberg, Hacking Capitalism: The Free and Open Source Software Movement (New York: Routledge, 2008), 14.

[8] Ibid, 15.

[9] Steven Weber, The Success of Open Source (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004), 38.

[10] GNU is a recursive acronym, which stands for "GNU's Not Unix."

[11] Sam Williams, Free as in Freedom: Richard Stallman's Crusade for Free Software (Sebastopol, CA: O'Reilly, 2002), 89.

[12] Ibid, 123.

[13] The GPL does not set any parameters for the types of distribution programmers can take, meaning that FOSS software can be distributed commercially for a price or given away for free. Regardless of whether a user pays for FOSS software, she or he must have free access to the source code upon obtaining a program or application. When users distribute their own code, the GPL requires that all programmers who contributed any line of code to a program must be acknowledged in every subsequent distribution.

[14] Michel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics. Trans. Graham Burchell (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), 223.

[15] Ibid, 224.

[16] Christopher Kelty, Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008), 118.

[17] In keeping with Foucault's theories, the engagement between code and programmer can be seen as an example of his definition of power relations, which "is a mode of action that does not act directly and immediately on others. Instead, it acts upon their actions. . . . It is a set of actions on possible actions" (137-8). Code, then, manipulates and affects what a programmer is capable of accomplishing in a digital environment. However, power is also a two-way relationship for Foucault, meaning that programmers can influence what productive capacities are inscribed upon them through code by modifying it, a process that is accelerated through open access to source code. For more on the relationship between power and productive capacities, see Foucault, Michel "The Subject and Power" The Essential Foucault. Ed. Paul Rabinow and Nikolas Rose (New York: The New Press, 1994), 128-144.

[18] Jeffrey Nealon, Foucault Beyond Foucault: Power and Its Intensifications Since 1984 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008), 32.

[19] "Hacker," The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. OED Online. Oxford University Press. 20 Sep. 2010.

[20] Söderberg, 11.

[21] Ibid, 5-6.

[22] Ibid, 44.

[23] Williams, 101.

[24] Michel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics, 225.

[25] This combination of information and cultural production found in the work of hackers resonates with Maurizio Lazzarato's theory of "immaterial labor," which is a type of production that emerges as computing and information technologies become more ubiquitous in contemporary society. For Lazzarato, labor no longer simply applies to the physical assembly of commodities but, rather, the informational exchange that revolves around coordinated large-scale projects within corporations. Such information exchange has a direct impact on the production of the "cultural content" of commodities through "a series of activities that are not normally recognized as 'work' . . . [which contribute to] defining and fixing cultural and artistic standards . . . and, more strategically, public opinion." The notion that the production of cultural standards does not adhere to traditional notions of "work" further emphasizes the biopolitical implications of the hacker identity in that these programmers do not make a distinction between their productive capacities, in the form of programming code, and their cultural or personal existences. In the case of hackers, programming is the very activity that constitutes their professional and social identity. For more on this concept, see Lazzarato, Maurizio. "Immaterial Labor." Web. 4 Apr. 2010. http://www.generation-online.org/c/fcimmateriallabour3.htm

[26] McKenzie Wark, A Hacker Manifesto (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004), section 127.

[27] Wark uses the terms "vectoral" and "vectoralist" to denote an economic system founded upon information wherein a certain class of individuals (vectoralists) impose intellectual property regulations as a means of controlling a surplus/excess economy through the tactics that emerged from a scarcity economy. Wark argues that vectoralists will ultimately fail at regulating information because this particular class cannot completely control the specific material conditions in which such information is utilized and exchanged amongst hackers.

[28] Ibid, section 178.

[29] The depiction of information as the potential of potential resonates with Foucault's notion of power on the possibility of an individual's actions (see note 17), and the subsequent impact of open source access on information networks wherein every individual can act as a productive enterprise -- that is, the emergence of an economy of surplus -- parallels the intensification of power described by Nealon. Ultimately, the similarities between Wark and Foucault's theories only reinforces the functioning of biopolitical power relations inherent to the distribution of open source code and ensuing formation of the FOSS movement.

[30] Wark, Section 131.

[31] Soren Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling presents the idea of the teleological suspension of the ethical, which is the momentary suspension of one's own ethical system in favor of a transcendental truth found in God (a truth that may not abide by the normative ethics of the social world). Kierkegaard explicates this suspension through the parable of Abraham willing to sacrifice his son Isaac, illustrating how Abraham was willing to betray his ethical system yet still believe, by the power of the absurd, that he will be reunited with Isaac and not face condemnation for his murder. Hence, it is the absurdity of sacrificing the foundation of a particular ethical system -- be it towards a metaphysical idea of God (as in the case of Abraham) or as a means of residing within an open network that entertain all possibilities, even those that can potentially undermine the functioning of such a network (as is the case with information and the question of property) -- for the sake of reclaiming this same system that constitutes Kierkegaard's interpretation of faith, and this same process can be applicable to the issue of FOSS development.

[32] Eric Raymond, "The Cathedral and the Bazaar." The Cathedral and the Bazaar: Musings on Linux and Open Source by an Accidental Revolutionary (Sebastopol, CA: O'Reilly, 2002), 20.

[33] Ibid, 21.

[34] There is a high degree of interoperability between FOSS programs and the code that sustains them due to commonly shared programming languages among developers. Therefore, it is relatively easy to integrate different code into the same program, such as combining the code of a music recorder with that of a film capturing-application to create a movie-editing program.

[35] Raymond, 22-23.

[36] Ibid, 30.

[37] The community-based ideology of the FOSS movement has been present since its inception. In its formative stages, Linux, the most popular FOSS operating system, relied heavily on user-generated modifications of its source code as it was preparing for its first official release and would have never progressed as rapidly as it did without the support of dedicated hackers.

[38] Linus Torvalds, and David Diamond. Just for Fun: The Story of an Accidental Revolution (New York: Texere, 2001), 116-119.

[39] Michel Foucault, "Life: Experience and Science." The Essential Foucault. Ed. Paul Rabinow and Nikolas Rose (New York: The New Press, 1994), 15.

[40] As mentioned before, the distinguishing characteristic between hackers and other types of programmers is the issue of financial compensation, meaning that "developer," as it is used here, denotes any programmer employed by professional software company. However, hackers can still maintain close relations with development companies, as is demonstrated by the use of hackers as community moderators in public open-source software initiatives supported by professional companies. For example, see the Fedora Project, which is an open-source operating system sponsored by the Linux development company Red Hat and is maintained by unpaid community volunteers.

[41] This employment of resistance must happen amid the possibility that such an error could be seen as detracting from the development of proprietary property because, as we should not forget, any limitation of possibility contradicts the potential of information itself. Once again, a Kierkegaardian leap of faith -- wherein one could see code error within the frame of property and teleological determination -- underlies FOSS's ideology and user participation therein.

[42] Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: Volume One. Trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage-Random House, 1990), 95.

[43] Raymond, 19.

[44] This is not to say that life's error permeates all aspects of contemporary economics, nor does it insinuate that there is something inherent to computer programming that would make it more applicable to life's erring tendencies than other forms of production. However, the correlation between the biopolitical underpinnings of FOSS's emergence and the ensuing functioning of living phenomena in open source code modification provides a strong foundation to question just how one-sided capitalism's permeation of life actually is.

[45] The centralization of the margin is a common theme in Foucault's works on sexuality. However, the application of this centralized margin to economic terms has usually been depicted in terms of consumption and identity politics. One need only look at the "I'm a Mac" vs "I'm a PC" string of commercials that seem to continually one-up each other's self-righteousness as one example. However, few have applied the central role of marginal identities to the production of resources. FOSS poses an interesting gateway into the application of the centralized margin usually reserved for sexuality precisely because of the biopolitical implications within the hacker community, presenting us with an economic system that resonates with the both the process formulating sexuality and the neo-liberal principles that Foucault discusses.

[47] Raymond, 52.

[48] Stuart Hall, The Hard Road to Renewal: Thatcherism and the Crisis of the Left (New York: Verso, 1988), 246.

[49] Andrew Ross, Nice Work if You Can Get It: Life and Labor in Precarious Times (New York: New York University Press, 2009), 187.

[50] Ibid, 188.

[51] Christopher Negus, Fedora 10 and Red Hat Enterprise Linux Bible (Indianapolis: Wiley, 2009), 11.

[52] "Microsoft and Novell Announce Broad Collaboration on Windows and Linux Interoperability and Support," Microsoft.com, http://www.microsoft.com/presspass/press/2006/nov06/11-02MSNovellPR.mspx (accessed on 24 April 2011).

[53] Pamela Jones, "The Morning After -- Reactions to Novell-MS," Groklaw.com,, http://www.groklaw.net/article.php?story=20061103073628401 (accessed on 6 April 2011).

[54] Mark Shuttleworth, "Welcome, OpenSUSE developers!" Markshuttleworth.com, http://www.markshuttleworth.com/archives/81 (accessed on 6 April 2011).

[55] Given the inability to fully account the number of particular users for any Linux distribution, it is difficult to chart the actual impact that partnership with Microsoft had on Novell due to a loss of community support. Numerous user websites decrying Novell and aligning themselves with other FOSS developers did emerge, and it is not unrealistic to assume there was a noticeable change in the popularity of openSUSE since the agreement.

[56] The anxieties and enthusiasm of using information to manipulate life happens on both the literal level -- such as the interest in genetically modified foods, the progress made in the human genome project, or the controversy surrounding stem-cell research -- and conceptual level, as seen throughout this examination.

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Matthew Kelly is a graduate student in the University of Pittsburgh's English department. He is currently studying the intersection between technology, subjectivity, and materiality in late-19th and early-20th century American monastic communities. This research has allowed him to pool from a large spectrum of critical and pedagogical fields, including post-structuralism, Christian theology, viticulture, and open source software.

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