Beyond Self-Interest, or, Some Initial Thoughts on Re-imagining the Possibilities of the Open Source Movement

Beyond Self InterestIn a recent article on ZDNetUK, Sun’s Simon Phipps argued that the open source movement is premised on the capitalist ethic of self-interest. Below is an excerpt from the article quoting Phipps’ discussion of open source within a capitalist framework:

Speaking at the Open Source Business Conference, Sun Microsystems’ chief open-source officer, Simon Phipps, said that open source had been focused for too long on sharing code instead of what he called “the enrichment of the commons” …

… Phipps said that the message of open source was that “creating and maintaining a completely independent code base was ultimately self-defeating”.

Instead, the future was in co-operation and in organisations preserving what was ultimately of value to them. “This is not volunteerism,” said Phipps. “It is directed self-interest, synchronised self-interest and there is nothing wrong with self-interest.”

And Phipps took time out to take a swipe at some of the exhibitors at the conference who were selling professional advice on negotiating the open source “legal minefield”.

“I disagree with those who say who say open source is a legal minefield,” he said as he threw from the stage a brochure from one firm of lawyers. “If you think open source is a minefield you’re doing it wrong.”

In fact, this intellectual property minefield is the legal mechanism for preserving capitalist self-interest to turn a profit. I think many would agree these days that the litigious spirit of US capitalism has gotten just a wee bit out of control as this idea of sharing and cooperation has been construed as being at odds with self-interest and profit. Given this, I think Phipps call for a re-evaluation of how we understand the open source movement as a necessary and beneficial element of the innovative engine that drives capital is both strategic and astute.

And while I agree with what much of Phipps is arguing here, I think channeling the possibilities of the open-source movement through the human nature argument of capitalism is an attempt to sell this idea to a group of people who can profit from it, using the appropriate buzzwords like “self-interest” and “connected capitalism.”

Such loaded and vague economic terms, such as ‘self-interest,’ seem inadequate to define the potential power of the open source movement. This movement is not premised on the individual as much as it is upon his/her space within a larger collaborative network of groups and communities that by working together are redefining the idea of the economic self, as well as the social self, creative self, etc. -bearing in mind that the term self here becomes increasingly more meaningless for it quickly becomes impossible to rein in or determine.

Open source is premised on using technology as a tool to share intellectual labor in new and potentially profound ways. The driving logic behind the open source movement is at odds with the mythical biopic of the self-interested individual entrepreneur, a bootstrapping capitalist who labors alone in the sole pursuit of his/her benefit, often translated as financial wealth. Edison’s biography can be understood as an example of the paucity of such myths. His patenting of Tesla’s inventions is a fine example of the problematic history of the legal minefield of capitalist self-interest. How different would our ideas of energy be if these two had collaborated rather than competed?

That some are desperately trying to monetize this wellspring of creativity and innovation is not unimaginable or even undesirable, but it does need to be put in perspective. The late 1990s showed that investors (corporate and otherwise) were willing to throw money at just about anything related to Internet technology. This speculative value is, in fact, the predominant method through which we have come to create value in our society. Yet, might we not be able to generate value through collaborative efforts that are premised on more than a speculative faith system that pays homage to the idol of unbounded profit?

An idea that would be interesting to persue in more depth would be how open source may differ from the over-determined figure of capitalist self-interest. How might the open source movement refigure some of our assumptions about capitalism? -many of which are still premised upon industrialized labor? The possibilities and challenges posed by an organized and robust open source community may provide an moment to start re-examining some of our pre-conceptions about concepts like self-interest, speculation and value rather than a moment to routinely reinforce them.

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2 Responses to Beyond Self-Interest, or, Some Initial Thoughts on Re-imagining the Possibilities of the Open Source Movement

  1. Indeed, lots of the open source movement is throwing a good light on capitalist (and social, and democratic) groundings floating around in the U.S. Is this a new kind of capitalism, or a reformulation of very old capitalist principles for the emerging technologies?

    I recently listened to an IT conversation from Mitch Kapur on politics and open source ideas (favorite line: “I think if Thomas Payne were writing ‘Common Sense’ today, he would be doing it on a Linux laptop” (~8:40)). He’s asking similar questions in the field of politics, rather than capitalism.

    I’m also reminded of Eric Raymond’s “The Cathedral and the Bazaar”, which has a lot of thoughts about business models, open source, and capitalism.

  2. jimgroom says:

    Wow, great stuff Patrick, thanks for the links. Does this mean I lose all street cred given that I am writing this from a MacBook Pro? Quite probably. I’ll do the recommended listening/reading and hopefully build more specifically upon some of the abstractions in this post.

    Thanks for adding fruitfully to a conversation I am really interrested in these days!

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