For an Overt Politics of Software

richard-stallman1

I have recently been reading the work in geography on software/information/geodata, and there is a lot of good stuff there, but one large concern I have is that the work, in general, seems to be quite aloof, or detached, or trying to stay above the fray, to remain non-committal, as though that were the more professional, academic stance to take.  All this detachment seems to have produced an upshot that is something like: “with all the new technologies coming into our lives in the past 10 years or so, it is important to think through their implications instead of just adopting them uncritically.”  One piece even goes so far as to say that we shouldn’t try to judge if what software does is good or bad, we should just see it as productive, as making things happen, and then try to understand how it works.

While I am all for understanding how it works (technically and socially both), I think that if this is all the literature is willing to do politically (I have certainly not read all of it), then it is failing spectacularly to do what is needed.  I think we desperately need to explicitly engage the political/ethical questions that software raises, to discuss extensively what it means for software to be good or bad (again, both technically and socially), and to never cease having that debate.  One obvious example of what such engagement looks like is the free software movement, which for years has been joining the political battle by advocating something like a “code commons” and decrying the model of proprietary corporate code.  Oddly, the question of free vs. enclosed software rarely comes up in the literature, as far as I can tell.

For my part, I think what “the good” means in this arena is that people produce, distribute, and maintain code themselves, rather than having another entity (most often a large software corporation) do it for them.  Within those communities, the code should be common, which is to say it is freely shared (and never enclosed), because it is understood to be necessarily a product of a whole community’s collective intelligence.  And lastly, the skills to do this work (producing, distributing, and maintaining the code) should be widely distributed within the community.  The work should not fall to (or be hoarded by) a small group of experts.

Of course that is only one position, and it begs other positions and continued debate.  But as academics I think we should be waist deep in such debates, rather than hovering above them and declining archly to take sides.

 

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Property and the Commons

I recently participated in a conference called “This Land in Your Land: Remaking Property after Neoliberalism,” which was organized by Unbound, the journal of the legal left at Harvard Law School.  It was an interesting experience and really made me think about the disciplinary boundaries between law and political theory, and the professional boundaries between law and academia.  The organizers have posted video of the panel sessions, which are at:

http://www.legalleft.org/conference/remaking-property-conference/

(for the record, despite appearances, I am not sleeping, but listening intently 🙂

Lodge Yourself on a Stratum (or, For Exodus)

Exodus

This is how it should be done: Lodge yourself on a stratum, experiment with the opportunities it offers, find an advantageous place on it, find potential movements of deterritorialization, possible lines of flight, experience them, produce flow conjunctions here and there, try out continuums of intensities segment by segment, have a small plot of new land at all times.

I have always loved this passage from A Thousand Plateaus, but I have also chafed a bit at how they want us to spend so much time paying attention to the stratum.  I thought it was just a kind of unreflective pragmatism, an acceptance of the fact that, like it or not, you have to start from where you are.  But Hardt & Negri (Commonwealth) suggest something more positive.  They say that the family, corporation, and the nation are the most important social institutions that capture us presently.  But mostly what these institutions are doing is gathering and mobilizing our common power.  As such, we should pay very careful attention to them, not because they are currently dominant and we have no choice but to work with them, but because they are storehouses of our common power.  As we struggle to leave capitalism and the state and build an alternative common life together, we will have to reappropriate our common power, make it our own again, and turn it toward our own common project.  So it makes sense to know intimately where that common power is currently stored, and how it is being put to use.  Lodge yourself on a stratum.

OMG! Ubuntu! Free activity, FOSS, and me

ubuntu-12.10-quantal-quetzal-wallpaper-3

I just finished installing Ubuntu, the Linux-based operating system, on my computer. I am in heaven (as of now). Everything (more or less) is open source, everything is free, and overall everything looks and works just great. It was a bit of a hassle getting Ubuntu installed because the new Windows 8 machines have a new security system installed that makes it hard to install an open-source operating system. But Microsoft’s attempt at enclosure only gave me more energy to find a way around it. And it didn’t take very long. I was able to track down this version of Ubuntu, and it installed just great after I disabled Microsoft’s fences. To do it, I had to learn about bios, hard drive partitioning, write a little code, and just generally take a more active role in managing my computing habitat. It took a bit of effort, but there was a payoff: a feeling of being in control, of not just letting Apple or Microsoft do it for me, of taking the time to understand better how things work and how to shape them so they meet my needs. And there is also the feeling of being connected to many, many others who are on the same adventure I am, an adventure in which the desire to create is not fuelled by the desire for money, but by curiosity and the delight that comes with having created something that works and then sharing that creation with others. As I learn more about how my hardware and software works, and as I turn to others to help me solve my problems, I am coming to know very well how limited my own knowledge is, and how dependent I am on the knowledge flowing through the network. And that knowledge is flowing because many smart people are doing lots of free activity (as Marx called it) and then sharing the results of their activity, giving it away for free. I am utterly dependent on others, but not on profiteering corporations, I am dependent on a network of knowledge-and-labor-in-common. Anyone can avail themselves of what others have achieved and shared, and no one has to pay for the privilege. To be sure, I am just beginning the journey. But I couldn’t be happier I started walking.

Ubuntu 12.10 (Secure Remix)

LibreOffice 3.6.2.2

Firefox 18.0

Thunderbird 17.0.2

FocusWriter 1.3.6

All of it’s free, and all of it kicks ass. Or at least it kicks equal ass when compared to its locked-down and privatized counterpart.

Whatever Watershed

In The Coming Community Agamben writes,

Common and proper, genus and individual are only two slopes dropping down from either side of the watershed of whatever (p. 20).

It seems he does not want to give either condition primacy, that he wants to refuse both 1) the idea that the common is merely an aggregate of the originary proper (or the community an aggregate of individuals), and 2) the idea that the proper is only extracted from of an originary common (or an individual just one example of a group).  Whatever being then becomes an idea in which he can locate a thing’s being-as-such, neither proper nor common, and as a result in each opposition–proper and common, owned and shared, individual and community–both terms flow from something else, from a more bare or original state of being.  Neither the proper nor the common is more basic, more original, rather:

The passage from…the common to the proper comes about every time as a shuttling in both directions along a line of sparkling alternation on which common nature and singularity…change roles and interpenetrate.  The being that is engendered on the line is whatever being, and the manner in which it passes from the common to the proper and from the proper to the common is called usage–or rather, ethos (p. 20).

The implication, I am speculating and perhaps rushing ahead too far to fast , is that neither communism nor capitalism is a more basic or truer form of social organization, that humans in their stripped-down, bare existence are both sharers and owners, members of a group and individuals, general and particular.  It is through action, or practice, or ethos that we work out and emphasize or suppress these modes of being, all of which we are entirely capable of.

I am still in the process of digesting this; any thoughts welcome…