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Felix Stalder, "Open Source Projects as Voluntary Hierarchies"

"Open Source Projects as Voluntary Hierarchies"

Felix Stalder

Reviewing Stephen Weber, The Success of Open Source.
(2004) Cambridge, MA,
Harvard UP

ISBN: 0-674-01292-5, pp. 311

Over the last half-decade, free and open source software (FOSS) has
moved from
the hacker margins to the mainstream. Corporations, large and
small, have
invested in it, some governments are actively supporting it and it is
becoming an increasingly important tool for the building of an
international
civil society. In the social sciences, the field is receiving a
growing share
of attention, evidenced by a widening stream of research output.
The central
repository for relevant papers, opensource.mit.edu, lists some 250
researchers with a self-declared interest in all things FOSS and
almost as
many scholarly papers, contributed in just five years.
Additionally, there
are several volumes written by activists, book-length treatments by
journalists, plus biographies of the two most prominent figures,
Richard
Stallman and Linus Torvalds.To this burgeoning literature, the most ambitious contribution is
Steven
Weber's The Success of Open Source. Weber, a political scientist from
University of California, Berkeley, focuses on a political economy
approach
which he understands as 'a system of sustainable value creation and
a set of
governance mechanisms' (p.1). His main interest lies in the social
formations
built around FOSS's particular mode of production. What
differentiates this
mode from other systems of immaterial production is its approach to
property.
Whereas the conventional notions of property are based on unambiguous
ownership and the associated right of excluding others, in the
context of
FOSS, property is organized around the right to distribute. Its key
concerns
are not how to ascribe ownership and manage exclusion, but to
develop the
best strategies to maximize access and collaboration. This is a
profound
change, and Weber puts it rightly at the beginning of his analysis.
In this
perspective FOSS is a public good, a resource that, once produced,
everyone
can use, akin to a street light. Standard political theory assumes
there are
no incentives for private entities to produce public goods, because
the
non-excludability invites free-riding, impeding markets built on
scarcity.
Thus, the provision of such goods is usually in the hands of
governments who
invest in them for the benefit of society as a whole.

FOSS is a counter-intuitive example where a large number of entities,
individuals as well as organizations, produce highly complex
products as
public goods with no, or very little, involvement of the state. Early
analysts recognized that, given mainstream theoretical assumptions,
FOSS is
an 'impossible public good' (p.1). Clearly, however, it is not a
fluke. Many
of the core projects — such as the Linux kernel, the Apache
webserver, the
GNU software — are by now more than a decade old and are still
growing, so
it is no longer in doubt as to whether FOSS represents a 'system of
sustainable value creation'. But what kind of system? The two core
chapters
of the book (which also contains a thorough history of FOSS and
somewhat less
thorough sections on business and law) focus on the
'microfoundations', the
individual motivations to contribute to FOSS projects, and on the
'macro-organizations' involved. Weber aims to show that
contributors are not
altruistic, but guided by range of incentives, from seeking aesthetic
pleasures to reputation and identity building. The question of
incentives is
probably the best researched of all aspects of the conundrum that
FOSS poses
to conventional political and economic theory and Weber does a very
good job
of systematizing and summarizing the state of the discussion, even
if he adds
little new.

More interesting and original is the chapter on the macro-
organization of FOSS
projects. Here, Weber shows that these projects are not chaotic at
all, but
tend to have explicit formal structures (release schedules, project
leaders,
official repositories, etc) and that notions of self-organization
do not
really clarify much. To bring together the two basic observations
that all
contributions are voluntary, and that projects are hierarchically
structured,
Weber develops the notion of a voluntary hierarchy (though, he
never quite
calls it that). In such a governance system, individuals
voluntarily accept
their position in a hierarchy, because they realize that doing so is
beneficial to them. Their own contributions get recognized and the
overall
project develops into a direction that they like. In such as
system, contrary
to what we usually think of hierarchies, power flows from the
bottom to the
top 'because the leader depends on the followers more than the
other way
around[']... Asymmetrical interdependencies favor the potential
followers, who
will make a free and voluntary choice where to invest their
work' (p.160).

The freedom of choice if and where to contribute is not just based
on the fact
that all contributions are voluntary, but also, perhaps even more
importantly, on the ability to fork the project, to reorganize the
project
under a different leadership. This happens if contributors believe
that the
current leader no longer supports their own individual goals. If a
significant number of contributors share this sense of
disaffection, the
project splits, or routes around the unpopular leader. Given the
free access
to the source code, all the resources to form a new project are
there. The
only thing that is needed is the credible claim of another leader
to be more
responsive to the community. The hurdle for forking is, as Weber
argues,
simultaneously very low and very high. It is so low that it forces
the leader
to stay attentive and responsive to the community. The Utopian
vision that
'authority follows and derives from responsibility' (p.163) comes
to be
realized to a reasonable degree. The fact that forks happen quite
rarely
shows that the hurdle, in practice, is nevertheless high enough to
allow for
a high degree of project continuity. As projects mature and grow in
complexity, governance structures are becoming more explicit
(foundations,
board of directors, etc) without replacing the essentially
voluntary nature
of the hierarchy.

For Weber, the reason why the political economy of FOSS works is
because the
main task of such production processes is no longer to organize the
division
of labor (as it was with industrialism) but distributed innovation.
The
latter cannot be divided into a linear sequence of steps, but is
better
modularized and flexibly networked. For such a task, the open
source way of
flexible, voluntary self-assignment is (more) efficient and
attracts rational
individuals who want to optimize the returns they receive on their
time
invested. The difficulty with this analysis is that the efficiency
criterion
runs the danger of becoming tautological since it is not clear in
relation to
what efficiency is supposed to be assessed. Successful project are
efficient,
because efficiency leads to success. While Weber acknowledges that
the FOSS
mode of development can be 'expensive and messy' and lead to 'wasted
resources' (p.158) he sees the efficiency of FOSS embodied in 'a
powerful
sense that it is not merely inefficient, but downright stupid, almost
criminal, for people to have solve the same problem twice' (p.138).
Yet, in
fact, FOSS is so full of duplications that it is impossible to
count the
number of Linux distributions or text processing programs or music
players.
Here, clearly, something different than economic efficiency and
resource
maximization is driving development as well. Perhaps the beauty of
FOSS is
that it is not only about efficiency, but also about freedom and
idiosyncrasies, which makes it hard to tell in advance what is a
brilliant
innovation or a tremendous waste of time.

Weber's book serves both as a solid introduction to the social and
political
issues raised by FOSS and as an advanced analysis of some of its
aspects,
particularly the novel governance mechanism and the productive
concept of the
voluntary hierarchy.