[iDC] Introduction: where's the labour in software studies?

Johan Söderberg johan.soderberg at sts.gu.se
Fri Jun 12 18:41:35 UTC 2009

Having now been named by Gabriella, I too feel compelled to step out of the shadow as a long-time lurker. Her proposal of making a list over labour-centred studies of software is excellent, so I would like to make an addition of my own: The many articles in Capital & Class no.97, 2009. It is a special issue dedicated to debating this theme, among which is included an article written by myself and George Dafermos, and whose title is suited to your request, Ned: "The hacker movement as a continuation of labour struggle".

I would also like to make a brief remark as concerns the disputed importance of the "play-labour complex", whether it could possibly contribute to radical social change or if it is more likely to arrest such change. Here I take the lead from Theodors Roszak's classic The Making of a Counter Culture. While the shortcomings of the counter culture was clear to him already back in 1968, he nevertheless insisted that it was urgent to study them, for one simple reason: there existed no other movement to work with. That observation is just as relevant for the FOSS-developers, pirates, etc today. The shortcomings of these movements are even more appalling when judged against the standards of a leftist theoretical critique. No doubt, these movements cannot match up to the challenges of environmental devastation, world poverty, militarisation etc. which certainly carry a lot more weight for moving the world in one or the other direction. Still, in my opinion, it would be unfair to assess the significance of hackers, pirates etc. based on their struggles after these have been recuperated by state & capital, without also asking how things would have looked if those struggles had not taken place at all. Take for instance Philip Zimmermann's Pretty Good Privacy, whereby ordinary computer users got access to strong encryption and gained some limited protection from government surveillance. Though NSA has probably worked its way around this nuisance by now, and the dissemination of encryption methods has fostered thousends of shoddy busineess on the internet, I still find it to be of some significance that hackers, by playing around with software code, have deprived the state of its monopoly over secure data communication. The same might be said about filesharing. From Napster to The Pirate Bay, these sites have been run as for-profit ventures by entrepreneurs, and the practice is endorsed by free-market pundits like Chris Anderson. Likewise, the files downloaded pretty much conform with the popular tastes of the culture industry. Still, something has to be said for the fact that for a new generation of youth, intellectual property is not a natural right that must be respected, in the way we have been thought to perceive all other kinds of private property.  


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