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Free Software as Part of the Anarchist Toolkit
Software direct action gets the goods
This article presents the case that the phenomena of free software is an important tool in pushing forward anarchist ideals and raising awareness in the wider public through example.
Free Software as Part of the Anarchist Toolkit
The way we write software both now and in the past is heavily influenced by the history of software and computers. People tend to think as software being a recent phenomena, which it is and thus they do not tend to think in terms of histories. Its as if not a long enough time period has elapsed for history to begin.
The beginnings of software got off to a relatively slow start and was restricted to a very limited number of individuals, although they made huge progress and contributions. It wasn't really until the late 70's and onwards into the 80's that it became something, done by masses of people to the present situation where perhaps a million or more people now write software.
Looking back at the roots of computers and software, we can see that their primary usage then was largely of mathematical origin as were the immediate goals. The people involved at the beginning were nearly all either mathematicians, physicists and engineers. Much like the development of science and scientific knowledge, information and ideas were shared and in the early days of software, much of it was shared and given away free. In certain respects then, it paralleled the trajectory of science.
With the arrival of the personnel computer (PC), companies started charging for software. However there were clearly some people who were not happy with this development and whether it was a result of it or not, or just a spontaneous thing, the Free Software movement of open source and freeware got started and quickly flourished. In the early days, programs were shared by floppy disks and even through listings in PC magazines like 'Byte' for example. With the arrival of the Internet and widespread availability of modems, bulletin boards and other such sites (e.g. the famous SimTel site) become the dominant means of sharing software. And with the arrival of the Web there are hundreds if not thousands of websites offering free software.
In many ways though this idea of giving 'information' is not new. One could argue that for thousands of years folk music was and largely still is free, where musicians are free to copy and modify songs and music as they see fit. Only in recent times has music become more commercial and fenced off under the banner of private property through the legal invention called copyright. Still though that does not prevent literally millions of people from playing music themselves and creating it via their own instruments. Had music been copyrighted from day one it is certain that we would have never have the rich heritage of traditional music found all over the world.
The same applies to the progress and advancement of science. There would basically be none. What if, Newton, Faraday, Maxwell and many others, had patented their discoveries?
We are in a similar position with software, except thankfully we have not been fenced in yet, although software patents are capitalism's current battering ram to crush the movement and fence off intellectual ideas.
The Nature of Software. What is it?And this brings us neatly to the idea of software and what it really is? It could be defined in various ways depending on where you are coming from. So if you were writing a mathematical program, you might call it an algorithm which was a common enough term not so long ago. A slightly different perspective might describe it as a state machine bringing in the notion of its roots in logic and logic processing.
Getting more philosophical one might simply say software is information or can be representative of an idea harking back to the algorithm concept. Some might argue that describing software as information is incorrect, but to some extent we can think of HTML (used for creating web pages) or XML as both a program or state-data and at the same time as information. Since we mentioned music earlier, it is worth returning to it. About 50 years ago most people would have described music as sound but now in this age of CDs and MP3 players, it can definitely be thought of as data. As the data stream from a MP3 file is processed by a piece of software it can produce music, although we would all agree it is necessary to produce sound, we would also all agree that the characteristics of that piece of music is embodied in the data.
So where does all that leave software? Probably nowhere extra special really and it is just another variant and in the same category as information, music (+video) and ideas. The universe of information is different to the physical world of stuff, because in the physical world you have to get stuff, it tends to be fixed in size, takes up lots of space, is very finite (e.g. gold) and takes lots of energy and time to lug it around. That makes sharing difficult and means there will always be limited supplies.
Not so with information, where you can have as much as you want for very little effort and it can be passed around to everyone with tremendous ease and little cost. All of this obviously makes it much harder to control as opposed to the physical world where it is easier to hold territory and horde resources which might explain the much better success that capitalism has had in taking the commons (land) and privatising it thus denying people the ability to sustain themselves and therefore make them dependent on capitalists for survival.
The Means of Production in our HandsIf we take a Marxists view of software in relation to work or the economy, then it is another angle on the means of production and it's social consequences. As everyone knows, capitalists through owning the means of production (i.e. factories and machines) control it and make the workers dependent on them, since they already, as stated above, took away their means of growing their own food. By owning the means of production, it gives capitalists a big role in determining the uses that the outputs of industry will be put to and the resulting wider social effects. In this respect it might be worth considering the priority and large amount of resources given over by capitalism to the production of things like cars, tanks, fighter aircraft, missiles and nuclear weapons. It might be counter argued the former USSR produced these things, but then again that was a State Capitalist system. However the common denominator being that it is the tiny minority of those in power (in the case of the USSR) or the owners of capital that make the decisions. Not only that, this power is nearly always unaccountable too.
Contrast this with the fruits of the free software movement so far, where the means of production is back in the hands of the ordinary people -well programmers at least but who are not driven by the motive of profit but seem instead to be acting out the human values of creativity, inquisitiveness and solidarity and sharing. Instead of the destructive products some of which were listed above, I think it would be fair to say that the products produced have enhanced human culture, and helped in the exchanged of ideas and further advancement of communication amongst and between people directly. When I say this, I am thinking of course of software like the Mozilla/Firefox browser, Apache webserver (reckoned 50% of all webservers are run on Apache), Perl and PHP programming languages, various free music players, email programs (Mozilla Thunderbird), ftp software, wikis, blogs, free publishing tools, free image, video and audio players and editing tools (gvim) and loads of other stuff. And of course Linux. And this has not been restricted to just the English speaking Western world because a lot of this software has been translated into numerous languages and the benefits of this intellectual capital is available to all the countries of the world.
And yet potentially this is really only the beginning.
The Current SituationAlready at this juncture there is a vast array of sites and tools to push the evolution of the free software movement further along. For example there are sites like sourceforge.net that offer free disk space for hosting free software projects and there are thousands of websites and email lists and forums.
The amount of free software and projects seems to be growing all the time and the number and range of ideas is huge where it seems each success seems to inspire and spur others on. It ought to be acknowledged though that most projects are small and not very active, while the number of big and successful projects is small but they do tend to have relatively big impact.
Briefly dwelling on the negatives, Capitalism is well aware of the potential threat that free software represents whether that be directly to profits or to long term objectives like the control of information and ideas. Free software is fundamentally at odds with the nature of capitalism, but it would be fool hardy to not accept that capitalism can be and is very flexible in accommodating and ultimately co-opting any of the threats it faces, as it has done throughout the 20th century. We have to be ever vigilant against the dead hand of control.
What's more, humanity is at a turning point because we are faced with a number of grave issues all coming together simultaneously. In large measure these would be the current 6th mass extinction event as agreed by 400 of the worlds top biologists and ecologists 1 and which we are experiencing in the biosphere as we speak. The second issue is global warming where now the consensus of atmospheric scientists seems to indicate we will experience not just the low end of the forecast, but the medium scale warming of up to 4odegrees globally. And in the past few years, there is increasing discussion amongst leading atmospheric scientists that we are in danger of triggering the high end of the forecast with 6+ degrees and that would be a direct threat to continuation of the species. (For example it is estimated without global warming as part of the mass extinction we will lose ~50% of species. Including global warming brings those estimates up into the 60% to 70% bracket.) The third issue is Peak Oil 2 and the long term consequences for industrial society.
So the question is, should we fail the above challenges and humanity enters a long slide downwards and the decay of industrial society, will this era of rapid global communications, vast amounts of digital storage and spare time to write software -disappear, only to be a short lived and unique phenomena in the history of humankind? In other words will the problems we face overwhelm the infrastructure needed to support all these technologies? (And which is suggested in the original Club of Rome reports. These were published in the 1970s and identified not just resource limits, but the possibility of a pollution crisis too as overwhelming industrial society and causing its downfall.) Of course the answer won't be found here but I think a small part of finding the solution is in fact here in the form of free software.
For free software has two roles. 1) and it is doing this already, is to make available the tools to spread out and share information as widely and as easily as possible, thereby making society more informed and achieving rapid (and needed) culture change and 2) to help the transformation from the current fragmentary representative and badly functioning democracy to one of participatory democracy. This is of course very much along the lines of what Anarchism is about. And I say participatory because it is in the nature of free software that it encourages people to get involved in whatever way is possible for them. To achieve such a transformation on the wider scale, requires people to have already tried the equivalent or similar at the smaller scale and to become familiar with it. And free software is potentially one of those opportunities. Wikipedia is one of those things that springs to mind in drawing people in to participate and add their worth.
Forging Ahead and Creating Alternative FuturesReturning to one of the core features of free software that of controlling what you produce; this very much ties in with the slogan: Another world is possible. Indeed it is and many of those who repeat this slogan often talk about how there ought to be more democracy and giving people voices. As we've seen already when we have that, the results are really good. Free software is all about this and has already produced the goods. At this stage, events in the world of information should be influencing the physical world and inspiring people to action. Others might caution that since these are quite different domains, we should not be drawing lessons and coming to the wrong conclusions. Well that's too weak an argument to do nothing.
In earlier times, during the Industrial Revolution and probably a time when there was a greater sense of community than is currently the case in any part of suburbia, there were many voluntary groups that arose to provide free services. Examples are the early Fire Brigades, Ambulances and Lifeboats. Over the years these functions have been taken over by the State, but certainly that Anarchist spirit was there even if the people involved didn't think of it that way. Around the same time many charities sprung up and again these reflect the inherent human traits that some people have for sharing, empathy and so forth, although one could argue on an intellectual level these were often co-opted even to this day by religious notions. It is to this tradition that we need to rekindle these ideas amongst the wider public but in new forms applicable to society today. And so we need to start the process of migrating, these ideas and concepts of free software to which more and more people are exposed and familiar with in their daily lives, across to the real (physical) world.
And one of the leading ideas that comes to mind is the freecycle groups which are basically email lists for local regions where people can offer up things for giving away free like furniture, clothes, books, or whatever. Presumably it is things they no longer need or have a use for. But it does represent a foothold in the physical world of free software concepts, largely because in people's minds it is associated with the Internet, PCs and software since the email list is the thing that glues it altogether.
Further ideas are free travel on public transport which actually exists very sporadically in places (Perth?, Australia), although free travel for certain groups of people like old age pensioners is more common (e.g. Ireland) and indeed very liberating for them. Free public transport is something that can be pushed much harder now by using the argument that it would cut down oil consumption and CO-2 emissions immediately, unlike waiting and paying a fortune for magic technologies to be invented and save us. It is something that can be done right now. While it makes a lot of sense, we all know that without the big push it will not be accepted, because in the present scheme only solutions that don't challenge capitalism can be accepted or even considered.
We also have the age old concept of public libraries and many of these have extended this concept by providing free Internet access. For the person who is technically oriented, these days many firms and corporations get rid of their old PCs that are more than about 4 or 5 years old because they are not powerful enough to run the latest bloated Microsoft software. Refitting these PCs entirely with free software can give you a very useable PC that will allow you to email and surf the Internet. These could then be made available to those who don't have the finances to buy one.
As the saying goes teach a man to fish and you can feed him every day, although I guess that does not take on board the notion of depleting fish stocks. Likewise the Internet and free software could play a role here by helping to setup websites and provide the details for people to self learn and share ideas on how to maintain and repair things from everyday things like bikes, washing machines and the vast range of DIY skills from plumbing, carpentry, building and electrical skills. How many times have you tried to fix something but can't because you are either not skilled enough or don't know what to do next? Currently the barricade of copyright prevents people from posting detailed diagrams and information about the workings of various machines. If we could help open this up, it could provide the means to slowdown the consumerism and the throwaway attitude so prevalent. It would also mean especially for those who perhaps can't afford a new bike or washing machine or whatever nor can afford to pay someone to fix it, that we provide them with the means to do it themselves. We need wikiMechanic, wikiRepair, wikiDiY etc.
On the education front, the Internet and free software provide huge opportunities. They are an effective means for creating self help, educational groups and resources and importantly provide a viable if not alternative, then certainly additional aid to the state education system which so often fails many. Indeed if you read the writings of John Gatto 3 you will come to realize State education is not about producing intellectually stimulated people at all.
So as we can see the concept of free software easily and already has transferred over to the idea of providing knowledge (and education) for free. As hinted earlier, this activity to some extent predates free software, but is obviously extremely effective with the Internet. Into this field, coming directly from the free software domain, has been the creation of Wikipedia and all it's variants as alluded to above. Again while there are some valid criticisms of them, they would seem to be quite beneficial and most importantly useful and available to all. Not only that they have taken participation by the public to a new level. wikitravel.org is a good example of where most people could probably add something. Not exactly politically revolutionary but yet another working example of how sharing, mass participation and making things free, benefits everyone.
Other wikipedia like possibilities are undertakings like the "California Coastlines" website which is an online catalogue of digital images of the entire coastline and has proved invaluable to environmentalists. Similar projects could easily be initiated for other things that people value. This might be a good time to photograph the view of and view from every mountain top in your area before wind turbines surely dominate the landscape. Most importantly though with so many people with digital cameras, it gets them all involved and suddenly they will feel a greater sense of concern if that thing they photographed and put online for the world to see, is threatened. And thats the key, to get people to actually do something, because after the first step, they are more like to do more and think about things a bit more.
Another concept worth discussing, is the annual CoastWatch survey that takes place in Europe every autumn to survey the coastlines and is carried out by ordinary members of the public (walking along beaches) using a standard form for reporting. (It is not clear if it is still taking place, but did so through most of the 1990s). It is relevant here because it involves the public in both science and environmental protection, monitoring and education in an active rather than passive way. Apparently similar one off type of events have been done for counting particular species of butterflies and birds. People might laugh at such things if they don't interest them and they also might seem trivial, but the more of this type of activity, the more it will spread out into other areas and the result will be the beginnings of a society where regularly thousands and thousands of people work together for an overall good and not for any commercial benefit. And these sort of things are ideally advertised and coordinated by the Internet and free software. The rapid increase in access to broadband and availability of webcams makes this coordination amongst groups even easier. In general if people get involved in something, anything, then the more likely they will with other things because those first steps often break down many barriers and frequently opens up new possibilities in their mind.
The Role of Access to Resources in the Real World and Virtual WorldCapitalists have always had huge resources at their disposal. In general that is one of the main characteristics of power in that you control resources. This is normally in the form of armies, industrial capacity or in this context computing power and storage. Battles of all kind tend to be about who has the most resources and in the case of war your industrial capacity can be a good correlator of your chances of winning. In our everyday physical world of the state we as individuals are hopelessly at a disadvantage because the resources at the State's command are vastly greater than the individual. Only through our own organisations can we gain any sort of chance of something remotely approaching an equal footing. Hence it always has been and always will be in the state's interest to co-opt and crush the movements and organisations of the people, the prime example because of its historical importance being the unions. And as any activist knows it always tries to stop any type of movement growing from a small group of people, chiefly by preventing it from getting any decent media coverage and intimidating members in all sorts of shadowy ways away from mainstream public gaze, when those issues are of great importance. It goes without saying that our greatest resource is our large numbers and that too has been addressed by measures to divide by (socio-economic) class and the careful maintenance of the manufacture of consent through the media to control our knowledge of our own situation and preventing us from acting on our predicament.
Thankfully in the software world it is not quite as bad. We through peer to peer networks, sharing of computers can leverage large resources in terms of communications, computing power and storage. One should not be totally naive though and remain unaware of how agencies like the NSA can hoover up and tap as much as that information as they wish. Again though we probably outnumber them in the number of people now engaged in the free software movement and the creativity within it. Creativity is not lacking in the non free software world, but it is more likely to be stifled and left untapped. Overall though the state almost certainly still has the upper hand in this domain too. And obviously most people involved in free software are not anarchists nor think of themselves as such, just to make that point clear.
Nevertheless this pleasant and perhaps temporary period where we have more equal access (than normal) and crucially control of resources means we can circumvent some of the chains put on us in the real world, namely our ability to organise and the means to breakout of the walled gardens of news and information and escape the framing of debates and shaping of public opinion. But we must be ever vigilant because continually the capitalist system is trying to impose new rules to control the Internet and free software and each time an initiative is rejected, it relentlessly tries a new approach.
ConclusionThe free software movement has unwittingly presented the peoples of the world with an important tool to avail of, on the frontlines of democracy. Many of those previously and currently engaged in the free software movement are unlikely to be fully aware of the consequences and benefits of their work and may still be living in the fantasy belief world of neo-liberalism, free markets, trickle down economics, endless growth, domination and mindless consumerism. This is simply because many of the participants just do it ( -i.e. write code) and are not in any formal way a member of anything in particular, or politically motivated. Undoubtedly global capitalism has also fed off the free software movement and gained its own benefits, but on balance it would seem it has been positive to ordinary people too.
It is clear that most people like and want to be part of something constructive and it is inspiring projects and ideas about the future that are always more appealing than the often necessary dwelling on the negatives. And this is something we need to tap into.
The next stage of development of the free software movement most likely will be just as important as the last, but it is incumbent on us all to get involved to some degree to protect the gains we have made and push it even further and help usher in the rapid cultural change needed to get society to make the necessary change to go down the path of sustainability and survive.
Note: The software running the Anarkismo site, Oscailt, is free software.