Open source is the new false consciousness?!

Lately, I’ve been participating in a project called Fembot: an open source online community of feminist scholars searching for collaborative alternatives to the peer review process of scholarly publication. In thinking about how to construct a scholarly publication with a feminist ethos, we’ve been talking a great deal about the democratization of software and open-sourcery. In doing some scrounging around on the web, I’ve found some interesting new critiques of open-source software as part of the tools of the oppressor, as the result of surplus value, and as technology (in the Foucauldian sense) in an oppressive political economy.

So, from the get go, let me define two terms: political economy and surplus value. I’m using political economy to go beyond economic calculation and account for 1) all of the process of the transmutation of values, and  2) all of the social and cultural production involved in that transmutation. This value, for me, is located in meaningfulness as much as it is materials. What something can mean is as much dependent on the value assigned to it by society (as good, beneficial, fundable, etc.), as it is by the economic conditions that make it viable (i.e. funding), and as Marx would have it these things are dialectically engaged with one another. Second, is the notion of surplus value.  We begin with use value—the value of something’s actable-ness, and the benefits its use produces—and exchange value—what the thing is worth in terms of another thing or stuff. In exchange for the use value of productive labor, capital supplied an exchange value equivalent to the cost of the reproduction of labor power, but less than the exchange value of labor’s product itself.

Now, why are these terms relevant? Well scholarship is starting to take a look at the history of software design as that of class struggle ala Marx. Recent articles on the political economy of the internet and software (Steven Kettell, Henry Farrell, and a recent dissertation by Bruno de Moura Borges) have addressed the ways in which open-source anything is a result of surplus value. In an intellectual economy where the production of knowledge is the key to survival, and authorship/originality is the sign of value, the ability to create crowd-source software is only possible when someone has enough surplus capital that they can compromise the ‘value’ of their labor. This interpretation then renders open sourcerers’ claims to marginality- as if a radical push against the system- as a bunch of hot air.

But, as I suggested with my short introduction, the political economy is as much about meaningful-ness as it is the economic proper of the situation. The thing that I think we need to recognize is that this interpretation of open sourcery is part of, and not separate from, the very political economy it analyzes.

So, the amateur political economist asks- why is it now, when open source has become a means for non-academic and political movements to gain support and exchange ideas, that open source is given value (qualitative) based on a Marxist sign of exploitation and negativity? More directly, all we need do is replace the word subjecthood with open source, and Nancy Hartsock renders the question even more pointed:

“Why is it that just at the moment when so many of us who have been silenced begin to demand the right to name ourselves, to act as subjects rather than as the objects of history, that just then the concept of subjecthood[/open source] becomes problematic?” (From Foucault on Power: A Theory for Women)

From a political economy perspective, the approach to open source as a surplus value is meant to create a qualitiative judgement that is quite negative, focusing on open source as an indicator, or better yet a symptom, of exploitation. It seems to be a back pedaling. Where open source freedom was a property of the elite computer users to share content that was para-commodity moreso than counter-commodity, it is now problematic as its use begins to cut into the privilege that allowed its creation. The negative interpretation might be seen, then, as a veritable white flight from the confines of the “counter-culture” open source ideal, and one that is indeed implicated in the racial and class politics of white flight noted in dana boyd’s study of myspace/facebook.

What’s the purpose of this re-casting of open source as excess and sign of exploitation? As those on the fringe like feminists (academic and non-), anti-institution intellectuals, people of color, lower-class individuals, etc. come to amass a means to share ideas and create intellectually viable spaces, they challenge the authority and resources of the [white] academic bourgeois patriarchy and diminish the prestige they were allotted by their own para(counter)culture. Put succinctly by Marx in the communist manifesto, capitalism creates the weapons for its own undoing and the people to arm those weapons. All that the bourgeois can do is suggest that we not be interested in those weapons.

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