[iDC] the next layer or the emergence of open source culture

Armin Medosch armin at easynet.co.uk
Sat Feb 17 03:46:57 EST 2007

my previous remarks about web 2 anti social media can maybe better
understood in the light of the following text
thank you

The Next Layer or: The Emergence of Open Source Culture

Draft text for Pixelache publication, Armin Medosch, London/Vienna 2006
- 2007

First we had media art. In the early days of electronic and digital
culture media art was an important way of considering relationships
between society and technology, suggesting new practices and cultural
techniques. It served as an outlet for the critique of the dark side of
computer culture's roots in the military-industrial complex; and it
suggested numerous utopian and beautiful ways of engagement with
technology, new types of interactivity, sensuous interfaces,
participative media practices, for instance. However, the more critical,
egalitarian and participative branches of media art tended to be
overshadowed by the advocacy of a high-tech and high-art version of it.
This high-media art conceptually merged postmodern media theories with
the techno-imaginary from computersciences and new wave cybernetics.
Uncritical towards capitalisms embrace of technology as provider of
economic growth and a weirdly paradoxical notion of progress, high-media
art was successful in institutionalizing itself and finding the support
of the elites but drew a lot of criticism from other quarters of
society. It stuck to the notion of the artist as a solitary genius who
creates works of art which exist in an economy of scarcity and for which
intellectual ownership rights are declared. 

In the course of the 1990ies media art was superseded by what I call The
Next Layer or, for help of better words, Open Source Culture. I am not
claiming that the hackers who are the key protagonists of Open Source
Culture are the new media artists. Such a claim would be rubbish as
their work, their ways of working and how it is referenced is distinct
from media art. I simply say that media art has become much less
relevant through the emergence of The Next Layer. In the Next Layer many
more protagonists come together than in the more narrowly defined field
of media art. It is much less elitist and it is not based on exclusivity
but on inclusion and collaboration. Instead of relying on ownership of
ideas and control of intellectual property Open Source Culture is
testing the limits if a new egalitarian and collaborative culture.

In the following paragraphs I would like to map out some of the key
components of Open Source Culture. It has been made possible by the rise
of Free, Libre and Open Source Software. Yet Open Source Culture is
about much more than just writing software. Like any real culture it is
based on shared values and a community of people. 

Open Source Culture is about creating new things, be they software,
artefacts or social platforms. It therefore embraces the values inherent
to any craft and it cherishes the understanding and mastery of the
materials and the production processes involved. Going beyond
craftmanship and being 'open source', it advocates free access to the
means of production (instead of just "ownership" of them). Creativity is
not just about work but about playfulness, experimentation and the joy
of sharing. In Open Source Culture everybody has the chance to create
immaterial and material things, express themselves, learn, teach, hear
and be heard. 

Open Source Culture is not a tired version of enforced collectivism and
old fashioned speculations about the 'death of authorship'. It is not a
culture where the individual vanishes but where the individual remains
visible and is credited as a contributor to a production process which
can encompass one, a few or literally thousands of contributors. 

Fundamental to Open Source Culture's value system is the belief that
knowledge should be in the public domain. What is generally known by
humans should be available to all humans so that society as a whole can
prosper. For most parts and whereever possible, this culture is based on
a gift economy. Each one gets richer by donating their work to a growing
pool of publicly available things. This is not a misguided form of
altruism but more like a beneficial selfishness. Engaged in a sort of
friendly competition everyone is pushing the whole thing forward a bit
by trying to do something that is better, faster, more beuatiful or
imaginative. Open Source Culture is a culture of conversation and as
such based on multiple dialogues on different layers of language, code
and artefacts. But the key point is that the organisation of labour is
based on the self-motivated activity of many individuals and not on
managerial hierarchies and 'shareholder value'. 

Open Source Culture got a big push forward with the emergence of Linux
and the Internet but we shouldn't forget that it has much deeper roots.
History didn't start with Richard Stallmans problems with a printer
driver. The historic roots could be seen as going back to the free and
independent minded revolutionary artists and artisans in 19th century.
More recently, it is based on post-World-War-II grassroots
anti-imperialist liberation movements, on bottom-up self-organised
culture of the new political movements of the 1960ies and 1970ies such
as the African American civil rights movements, feminisim, lesbian, gay,
queer and transgender movements, on the first and second wave of hacker
culture, punk and the DIY culture, squatter movements, and the left-wing
of critical art and media art practices.

In terms of the political economy, Open Source Culture could mark an
important point of departure, by liberating the development of new
technologies from being dictated by capital. The decision of what should
be developed for which social goals is taken by the developers
themselves. Technological development is not driven by greed but by deep
intrinsic motivations to create things and to be recognized for ones
contribution. Despite that, Open Source Culture is not an
anti-capitalist ideology per se but has the potential to change
capitalism from within and is already doing so.

Open Source Culture needs to be constantly aware of capitalisms
propensity to adapt, adopt, co-opt and subjugate progressive movements
and ideas to its own goals. The 'digital revolution' was already stolen
once by the right-wing libertarians from Wired and their republican
allies such as Newt Gingrich and the posse of American cyber-gurus from
George Gilder to Nicholas Negroponte. More recently adept Open Source
Capitalists have used terms such as Web 2.0 and social software to
disguise the fact that what those terms are said to describe has emerged
from open source culture and the net culture of the 1990ies and the
early 2000s. Once more the creativity of the digital masses is exploited
by alliances between new and old tycoons. The Next Layer emerges at a
time when capitalism is stronger than ever before and it emerges at the
very heart of it. This is the beauty of it. It cannot be described in a
language of mainstream and underground. Open Source Culture is the new
mainstream which is what capitalist media are doing their best to hide,
scared by the spectre of communism as well as commonism. We don't need
to ressort to the language of the Cold War and its dichotomies, howver. 

The Next Layer contains not only a promise but also a threat. It emerges
at a time when the means of suppression and control have been increased
by rightwing leaders who try to scare us into believing we were engaged
in an endless 'war on terror'. With their tactics they have managed to
speed up the creation of a technological infrastructure for a society of
control. The general thrust of technological development is coming from
inside a paranoiac mindset. 25 years of neo-liberalism in the American
lead empire have degraded civil liberties and human values. The
education system has been turned into a sausage factory where engineers
are turned out who construct their own digital panopticons. Scary new
nano- and bio-technologies are created in secret laboratories by Big
Science. And the bourgeioise intelligentsia meanwhile has stood still
and does not recognize the world any more but still controls theatres,
publishing and universities. In this situation it is better if Open
Source Culture is not recognized as a political movement. The Next Layer
will find ways of growing and expanding stealthily by filling the
niches, nooks and crannies of a structurally militant and imperialist
repressive regime from which, given time, it will emerge like a clear
spring at the bottom of a murky glacier.

* The Next Layer is a book project by Armin Medosch about Open Source
Culture. It has been supported by Franz Xaver and the Medienkunstlabor
Graz in 2006. Passages of this text are informed by an extensive study
into free software hackers and open source activists. Materials will be
released in due time at http://theoriebild.ung.at/

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