Contemporary germ forms


  • Initial version edited by StefanMerten
  • Version 2008-03-27 - edited by StefanMeretz: wrote introduction; put peer production first
  • Version 2008-04-04 - StefanMerten: Changes due to comments from [ox-en]
  • Version 2008-04-10 - StefanMeretz: weakening too optimistic statement of the fact to a potential to win the server-race

Peer Production

For 30 years we have been witnessing a tremendous transformation of global capitalism. We can observe a change from a Fordist to a neo-liberal accumulation regime, which aims at integrating a growing number of previously state controlled sectors into a private exploitation process. This process is accompanied by disconnecting large parts of society that are no longer profitable enough. However, another type of disconnecting process is taking place what we call: the emergence of peer production. This is the focus of the following chapter.

We are convinced that the reorganisation of social processes around new modes of production bears the potential to overcome capitalism. Furthermore, we claim that peer production can be viewed as a germ form of a new society which is based on a mode of production beyond exchange, market mechanisms and money. This far reaching hypothesis is substantiated by the germ form approach. Within the general emergence of forms of peer production, so far Free Software is the first, the most developed and the most visible form. Thus, in this chapter we will examine Free Software in more detail in order to learn something about the principles of peer production. [1]

By peer production we mean phenomena characterised by a number of distinct features [2].

Though there are a lot of peer phenomena, peer production is first and foremost about the process of production not about distribution. This differentiates peer production from say barter exchange or other distribution related approaches.

Peer production is based on voluntary contribution, not on coercion or command. Nobody can force others to do anything; and nobody is forced to obey others. However, this does not mean that there are no structures. Quite to the contrary, usually there are maintainers who decide, for example, which contributions to accept and which to refuse. But there is nobody who can compel others to do anything they do not want to do. Moreover, nobody is forced to accept the existing structures as they are. Whenever participants of a project are unhappy about some aspects of the project, they can try to convince the other members to change them. If that fails, they can opt to fork the project: they can break away from the others and establish their own project based on the results so far achieved together.

Only when the members of a peer production project are open for influences from outside, the project can appreciate and use all useful ideas and other contributions, regardless of their origins or convictions. This unlimited openness is indeed one of the decisive advantages of this mode of production--at least as far as the resulting products are concerned. One result of this unlimitedness is the global character of peer production projects. This global character of peer production projects is usually mediated by the Internet; thus, the Internet is an important tool for peer production.

If exchange value is an incentive for a project, alienated objectives are brought into the project. This is not useful. We all know how profit orientation in capitalism can ruin the most interesting projects. If, however, exchange value is not among the incentives, then the use of the product itself is the only driving incentive for its production. We call this use value orientation. Peer production projects have a deep use value orientation, the resulting products are of a higher quality [3]. A peer production process is not limited by the quality which is necessary to sell a product on the market. Instead most peer production projects strive to develop the conceivably best product in their respective field. This is striving for absolute quality, as compared to the relative quality on an exchange based market. Another result of the missing exchange value orientation is that ampleness is not viewed as a threat, but rather as something useful. This contrasts sharply to commodities which are based on scarcity--i.e. the opposite of ampleness.

Contributing to a peer production project has strong elements of Selbstentfaltung [4]. In a peer production project Selbstentfaltung is the individual key incentive for the contributors to make an effort. That is to say that the people making these efforts do so due to their inner motivation and not for attaining alienated goals. There is no external incentive, such as to earn money, so people are able to pursue goals that suit their needs best. In fact, this Selbstentfaltung-orientation is what makes peer production an interesting thing for people who are generally interested in emancipation. Selbstentfaltung really stands for the maximum possible freedom. One decisive point is that Selbstentfaltung and alienation are antagonists.

Freedom of the results is both precondition and outcome of the process itself. This rule transforms the above mentioned openness into a positive feedback cycle. A positive feedback cycle of this kind is needed for any sustainable project. This positive feedback cycle also strengthens the distinctive features of the peer production project [5].

So far peer production is an easy venture in the realm of digital information. This is a consequence of two aspects. On the one hand there is the ubiquitous use of digital machines and networks. On the other hand the process of digital copy is independent of the meaning of the copied digital information. We say that digital copy is universal with respect to the copied content. In the following we will discuss the emergence of Free Software and Free Culture as subsidiary developments within the overall process of peer production. These developments can also be explained by using the germ form theory; at the same time they serve as further examples to illustrate the theory. Nevertheless we should keep in mind, that the concept of digital copy is not directly applicable to the production of material goods. Whether or not the principles of peer production can be transferred to the material sphere or what at all that might mean is as much an interesting as open research question.

Free Software

As indicated in the designation, Free Software [6] is software--i.e. it consists of programs and data which are needed in order to run your computer or to write texts, to surf the Internet, to play music or games and so on. In this respect, there is not much of a difference to the proprietary software you may be using, say, from Microsoft. Compared to proprietary software the interesting thing in Free Software is its creation process, its mode of production.

One important expression of this special mode of production of Free Software is the openness of the production process. Here, the human readable source code containing all the know-how is available to everyone; it can be seen and read by each and every individual interested. In contrast, the source code of proprietary software--which in short is software built the capitalist way--are a well-kept secret [7]. Vendors of proprietary software take great efforts to prevent any unauthorised access to their source code. This secrecy in proprietary software is needed because the access to the know-how contained in these sources might give competitors an advantage. In this respect the source code of proprietary software is very similar to other business secrets.

As mentioned before, in Free Software this source code is openly available to everyone. In fact, it is a stated goal that others should be able to learn from the know-how contained in the source code [GNU-FreedomRights]. Even more, if you have the source code of some software at hand, you can improve it by changing and adapting it to your own personal needs and preferences. In fact, this is a further stated goal of Free Software. By contrast, usually the vendor of a proprietary product will also want to earn money from selling modifications of or amendments to the original product [8].

A further aspect we would like to point out is how the mode of production influences the particular way in which a production process is organised. Let me explain: For a proprietary software vendor it is vital to hide the know-how from competitors. Thus, you have a closed process. In fact, the secrecy employed by proprietary software vendors is an inalienable feature of that mode of production because the production process is based on exchange. For Free Software, however, openness is not seen as a hindrance, but rather as an advantage for the production process. So even this small part of the big phenomenon gives us some hints on how the mode of production we see here is different from what we know from capitalism.

Another important expression of this alternative mode of production in Free Software is the right to share the results of the production process. Indeed, this type of sharing is fiercely fought by the proprietary software vendors for their products. For proprietary software the type of sharing which is expressly allowed for Free Software is known as pirate copying--quite probably you heard of it. For Free Software, however, everyone is entitled to distribute the software [9]. And this is precisely what happens. There are huge repositories of Free Software. Here, you are not only allowed, but also very welcome to simply help yourself by taking whatever you need. And there is nothing you have to give in exchange. One aspect of this right to share has entailed that most of Free Software comes indeed without a price. Partly this is due to the fact that a lot of Free Software is created by volunteers during their leisure hours.

These aspects of Free Software development again show the new quality arising in this specific mode of production. These fundamental features make it impossible to make a piece of Free Software a commodity in the capitalist sense. Existing Free Software is readily available to everyone; scarcity as the basis for a commodity simply can not be created. When there is no scarcity of a good, you can not sell it--why should you pay for something, you can get for free?

Emergence step: Free Software in the 1980s/1990s

Now that we have a rough idea about Free Software and peer production let's look at how Free Software came about historically. Indeed it can be seen as a germ form development process in the realm of software production.

Free Software started out in the 1980s. A good part of the initial initiative for Free Software came from Richard M. Stallman who started the GNU project in 1983 and founded the Free Software Foundation in 1985 [Wikipedia-GNU]. Richard M. Stallman had worked at the MIT and from the practice there he was used to a very open style of developing software. Before the 1980s software was generally considered an add-on to the expensive hardware--rather like a manual for your new TV. People who worked with software were used to a free and unhindered flow of software artefacts and to changing these artefacts to their own needs. Mr. Stallman loves to tell the story where he was suddenly confronted with a new era in which software became a commodity [Stallman-Printer]. He personally ran into the limitation that to be a commodity software must be made scarce and secret--the exact opposite of the practice Stallman was used to. The end of that story was that Stallman founded the GNU project and created the first Free Software tools [GNU-Manifesto].

As is typical for a germ form during the emergence step, in the eighties of the last century, the phenomenon of Free Software was hardly even discernible. The term Open Source--may be better known than Free Software today--was invented 15 years later and main stream media did not notice Free Software at all. Nevertheless, the experts in the field became acquainted with Free Software by the communication channels and forums already existing in the Internet that was slowly emerging [10]. Thus, the open development process and the sharing of Free Software did lead to the formation of communities who wrote Free Software and made it available by the means of their time.

Many experts in the field of software development experimented with Free Software that was available. Let me (Stefan Merten) give you a personal example. During my first job I needed a C compiler that ran on an SCO operating system. SCO delivered a C compiler as part of the operating system. It did, however, have some really bad bugs that introduced errors into your programs. Proper programming is a difficult enough task. So the last thing you need is buggy tools that even add to the errors, you yourself are making. In this desperate situation, I tried out the GNU C Compiler which was one of the initial GNU products. I was thrilled, instantly, because it worked out of the box and--most important--it had no errors, whatsoever. Like me, many experts were quickly convinced by the Free Software products available at that time.

A next important step was taken in the early 1990s, when Linus Torvalds created the Linux kernel. This kernel, together with the big amount of GNU software already at hand, led to the development of a complete operating system based exclusively on Free Software [Torvalds-LinuxAnnouncement]. For the first time in history, you were not only able to run Free programs on a proprietary platform, but also you had a system in which everything--from the very basis to the most sophisticated application--was Free Software. In contrast to the earlier Free software projects, the Linux project also employed a different development style. This style was first portrayed by Eric S. Raymond [Raymond-CathederalBazaar]. It was even more open in character than the one employed by the GNU project, and, together with the quickly growing availability of the Internet, it brought the final breakthrough for Free Software.

Though the movement gained momentum during the 1990s, it was still difficult to discern the phenomenon of Free Software. Among experts, however, Free Software, in the meantime, was already well known. Quite often, technical staff in big companies began to use Linux boxes, while the official management still swore by Microsoft and other proprietary software vendors. In 1998 then, when the Open Source movement hyped up, those same managers proudly announced, that they had already a Linux box running. Ironically enough, only a few months before, these guys didn't even know, that Free Software existed.

While the historical development of Free Software, in itself, is interesting, in our context, it is far more important to see, that right from the early beginnings, the phenomenon of Free Software has shown the very two key features, which we consider to be crucial for a contemporary germ form and which are deeply embedded in the mode of production of Free Software. The first key feature is the non-alienated nature of the production process. When Richard M. Stallman started the GNU project, he was keen on creating the best software thinkable in order to replace the proprietary variants of the Unix operating system which existed at that time. A motivation of this kind is fundamentally different from that, wanting to sell a commodity. When you want to sell a commodity, it completely suffices to create something which is sellable. Absolute quality is not a goal [11].

This is different in the case, when interested experts work on a project. They do contribute because they are able to employ the best of their abilities and because they are proud of doing so. They do contribute to create the very best possible. In other words: When you take the effort to produce software on a voluntary basis, then you are interested in the use value of the resulting product. As mentioned above, this non-alienated relation between the effort taken and the result of that effort is an important aspect of what we call Selbstentfaltung.

The second key feature which we have been seeing all along is the unlimitedness of the project. This unlimitedness comes in two ways. Free Software projects are unlimited externally in that everyone can use and share the results of that Free Software project. However, Free Software projects are also unlimited internally in that anyone interested can make his or her contributions to the project. That, in fact, really takes place. Every user of a piece of Free Software can talk to its developers and contribute the desire for a certain feature, a bug report [12] or even pieces of code. In fact, in many Free Software projects there is no clear division between inside and outside. Instead there is a continuum in respect to how far a contributor will or will not be involved in a certain project.

While the internal unlimitedness is usually achieved by open mailing lists, wikis, or forums, where users can present questions and contributions, the external unlimitedness is warranted by Free Software licenses. Free Software licenses are the legal means we have in order to embed the phenomenon of Free Software into a predominant capitalist environment [Merten-Licenses]. Indeed, today the GNU General Public License (GPL) is the most commonly used license; it is one of the very early achievements of the Free Software Foundation. Amusingly enough, the GPL is a genius hack which uses the logic of copyright to turn it against the idea of copyright: Whereas normal copyright restricts the use of the pertaining material, the GPL gives you a lot of rights.

Crisis step: inferior quality of proprietary software

While Free Software was slowly developing in various niches, a major crisis was evolving in the proprietary software world. This crisis mainly spread out within the area of medium sized server operating systems and the associated software. For the relatively rare and expensive mainframes--for the so called »big irons«--special operating systems were available. Customer software was developed in-house for these mainframes. On the other hand, after the invention of the IBM PC, there was a tremendous surge in the field of small personal computers, which mainly ran Microsoft operating systems, and for which there was a great variety of commercial off-the-shelf software available.

For the relatively numerous medium sized workstations, Unix was the perfect operating system. Among experts in the field, Unix, to this day, has been considered an operating system with a few, but ingenious concepts. The most ingenious characteristic is probably the building block system which allows you to build complex functionality from basic building blocks. Nevertheless, after a long open history, Unix eventually turned into a proprietary system, with different vendors having developed different versions of it [13]. Here the problem arised, that these versions were incompatible--which is understandable, when you keep in mind, that each and every vendor strives to sell a set of unique features that differ decisively from those of his competitors. [Weber-SuccessOpenSource]

It is commonplace that in big, coupled systems, network effects are tremendously important for market growth to take place. This is especially true for software, where a product is the more useful, the more computers you can run it on, and the more users apply it. To gain network effects, then, you need standards that unify different products to the extent that they are interoperable. Standards, however, come in two flavours: On the one hand, there are official standards which are defined by a more or less powerful standardisation institution. These standards are open because usually they are readily available and they can be followed by everyone. On the other hand, there are monopolies that define standards rather implicitly. Proprietary monopolies are not open in that they embody only a certain set of practices. These practices are not documented on a regular basis; they can change in unexpected ways and at any time, making it dangerous to rely on them at all.

Microsoft serves as a good example to demonstrate, how network effects are attained by monopolies. Even though the quality of Microsoft products has often been mediocre in comparison to those of competitors [14], Microsoft has managed to leverage the network effects that were set off with MS-DOS.

For the medium sized workstations, there was neither a monopoly, nor a common general standard, that could have unified the technical basis of the different vendors sufficiently. Actually, there even were attempts to create such a standard, but these never took off. As a result, eventually, the Unix market died off. As a result, in 1980s/1990s many experts in the field were worried that Microsoft would prevail by extending its monopoly to those middle sized servers.

Expansion step: Free Software today

Parallel to these developments, however, the germ form of Free Software had also grown enough to restore hope. During the 1990s, it became more and more common to use GNU software and the GNU/Linux operating system on medium sized servers. In fact, the Internet today is inconceivable without Free Software. One of the major success stories in this field is the Apache web server [15]:

Apache has been the most popular web server on the Internet since April 1996.

Apache home page

Side by side with the World-Wide Web, e-mail is the other most important Internet service which is firmly based on Free Software. In addition, all of the software running the basic network infrastructure is, for the most part, also Free Software [16].

So when we regard the ongoing expansion of the use of Free Software on the server side it seems justified to assume that Free Software has the potential to win the competition as far as the servers are concerned. Even though today we take notice of a large-scale endorsement to this view, the consequences of this development can be all but overestimated: A new mode of production embodied by Free Software is potentially able to overcome the traditional mode of production embodied by capitalism in one of the most important and advanced facilities of our time! In fact, this might be the only example of its kind since the shift from feudalism to capitalism.

Even though the server side may be considered won, the final frontier for Free Software is the desktop. As mentioned above, Microsoft has been able to leverage network effects and still holds a near-monopoly on desktop computers. However, our hopes are rising that step by step this monopoly will also be overcome by Free Software. The most interesting development during the past years is probably the Ubuntu software distribution bringing Free Software to an ever greater number of desktops. Microsoft, one of the richest companies on earth, will probably have to suffer the greatest losses if Free Software does continue to gain momentum. So it is interesting to see the reactions of this multi-national company. The history of Microsoft's reactions can be summarised well by a quote from a well known non-violent revolutionary:

First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win.

—Mahatma Gandhi [17]

For a long time, at least officially, Microsoft ignored Free Software. Internally, however, studies on that new phenomenon and what it could mean to Microsoft [Raymond-Halloween], were conducted. Then, for a short period, Microsoft publicly ridiculed Free Software. Finally, Microsoft began to fight Free Software. This has been going on in many fields. It started, for instance, by comparing Free Software with cancer [Microsoft-Cancer]. Then, a great number of times, Microsoft did whatever they could to keep the governments of developing nations from adopting a Free Software strategy [Microsoft-ThirdWorld]. Today, Microsoft is beginning to embrace companies earning money by selling services associated to Free Software [Microsoft-Novell].

Free Software has been declared dead and gone ever so often, during the past 25 years; nevertheless, as always, it is still alive and doing very well. According to our own analysis, the very reason for this is that a number of fundamental principles of Free Software--namely the possibility for Selbstentfaltung and the unlimitedness--can not be copied by the capitalist logic. Capitalism can not cope with unlimitedness because you need scarcity to sell a commodity. Copyright is a way to make information goods scarce and thus subject to commodification. Copyleft turns this around and destroys scarcity. On the other hand, Selbstentfaltung is the opposite of alienation. However, the money system of capitalism is built upon one of the most massive alienations mankind has ever seen, so far, and alienation destroys Selbstentfaltung, at least to some extent. If the reasons for the success of Free Software in fact do lie in Selbstentfaltung and the unlimitedness, then capitalism will not be able to cope with this unless it relinquishes its fundamental positions. In other words: Capitalism is not able to absorb the principles underlying the success of peer production.

Free Culture

Now you might reply: »OK, this special mode of production seems to work for software - but though this is interesting, software is still only a small part of the world«. That's true. However, the mode of production seen in Free Software is applicable to all information goods where creativity plays a role. Two important examples beyond Free Software are the Wikipedia and the OpenAccess movement.

You have probably heard of Wikipedia. It's that huge Internet based encyclopedia which has been created by volunteers during the past few years. Though the subject of Wikipedia is very different from the subject of any Free Software project there are still a lot of commonalities. Most important, both are information goods. Above, both, Wikipedia, as well as any successful Free Software project, have a visible and a worthwhile goal which can be shared by many. This, in turn, will attract many knowledgeable contributors, which makes the whole thing even more interesting for an even greater number of people, which in turn attracts even more contributions... As you can see, the positive feedback cycle is exactly the same in both cases.

At the moment, Wikipedia is facing serious governance problems. As opposed to Free Software, the biggest problem probably lies in the fact, that Wikipedia is dealing with information that influences very directly a great number of areas in the whole world. On the one hand, that's nice; it is an indication of Wikipedia's success. On the other hand, it attracts the attention of many groups who want to modify this information to suit their own interests. This poses serious problems to Wikipedia. Free Software projects have also had to deal with governance problems. Often they were able to solve them in one way or another. [18]

Even though you might have heard of Wikipedia, quite probably you are yet to be introduced to the OpenAccess movement [Suber-OpenAccess]. The OpenAccess movement is a movement grounded in the scientific community, more specifically in the natural sciences. Scientists from many fields began to demand that the results of their research should be free and publicly available. This contrasts sharply with the established practice of publishing research results exclusively in scientific magazines.

During the era of the print media, publications in scientific magazines were probably the most appropriate way to communicate; now however, in times of the Internet, print media seem inopportune and obsolete as means of transmitting information. This, plus the so-called magazine crisis--which arose due to the tremendous price increases of various scientific publishing houses--led to a number of initiatives currently creating publicly available scientific magazines directly in the Internet [Merten-Berlin4]. It is noteworthy, that this common practice of publishing openly has had a long history in the sciences. The technical possibilities made available by the Internet can help this practice and logic to expand. Nevertheless, also in this case, the scientists motivation and their interest in good research are at the root of this development. OpenAccess style science suits their Selbstentfaltung better than traditional approaches.

Apart from the examples mentioned above, there are plenty more phenomena of cultural peer production out there. The blogosphere, for instance, can be considered another peer production phenomenon. Or take Jamendo or similar sites, in the field of music, that distribute music under the CreativeCommons licenses. Especially in South America, there are interesting developments in music and in the cultural arts, in general. Finally, there are also peer production models with a commercial component like MySpace, Flickr and similar platforms. In summary, it can be stated that the Free Software initiative has been setting off a growing number of peer production projects in other fields. However, so far all of these projects have been restricted to the informational sector.

New front-lines

In fact, it is in the field of the production of information through which the main front-line between the old logic and the new logic runs, today. In the capitalist system, copyright and its restrictions have been in effect for a very long time. Indeed, copyright privileges and laws were actually established at the very point in history, when it became possible to make money with what today is called intellectual property [Wikipedia-CopyrightInvention]. Other laws and regulations concerning intellectual property, such as patents, have also been in place for very long. However, in the course of the last decades this area has been attracting increasing attention. In 1967, for instance, the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) was founded, and has, since then, been trying to refine and implement restrictions on the flow of information, world-wide.

These new front-lines concerning intellectual property run through any of the pertinent fields. Let me draw upon the sciences again, to demonstrate this. On the one hand, those scientists involved in peer production join the OpenAccess movement. On the other hand we see how universities are urged to lock away their information and to run for patents. It is fascinating to watch the developments of these two opposing movements in respect to one and the same subject-matter. In our view this is an indication that the development of society as a whole is at stake.

Software is another good example. In software we have a copyright; it is the basis of all of the Free Software licenses. But while a copyright pertains to only a single, identifiable expression, patents, on the other hand, pertain to ideas. For some years now, in the USA, there are software patents which make ordinary software development a dangerous thing to do. This is so, because software patents are granted for the most simple and obvious ideas. This means that you or I could easily develop a piece of software which violates any one of the innumerable software patents existing, not even knowing about the trouble we have got ourselves into.

In practice software patents are mainly held by large companies with large software patent pools who also have non-aggression-agreements with other big players having their own patent pools. Needless to say, software patents restricting the use not only of software, but even of ideas, are completely contrary to the spirit of Free Software. Software patents pose a real danger for Free Software because developers of Free Software have no big patent portfolio to negotiate with. As a result, it is easy to endanger a Free Software project by claiming that it violates a software patent. And this is something that does happen [Hibernate-Patent].

In the USA, software patents are a fact. In the EU, to this day, they have been able to be prevented. In fact, this was one of the rare occasions upon which the Free Software movement materialised and fought for its rights with classical means, such as demonstrations. Together with a number of small and medium sized software businesses, the Free Software movement was able to keep the EU parliament from passing a law that would have introduced software patents in the EU [Register-EUNoSoftwarePatents].

There are many more examples showing that the front-line of intellectual property is very important. The attempts to privatise life itself by claiming patents on genes and organisms is one such instance. Another instance is the continually rising number of attempts to enforce patents on medical drugs. The problem is that many medicines can be produced at a very low cost. Common sense says that this is good news, because the people in need of them can thus afford them. Because, however, the pharmaceutical industry can not earn a lot of money by selling cheap medicine, they are not interested in putting these drugs on the market. As a result, the medical drugs are not produced and not sold at all; also because the developing countries particularly interested in them are not allowed to produce generics due to the patents on them. As a consequence, ever so many people in the developing countries suffer and die from illnesses which could be treated rather easily [MSF-Generics]. So if you have been looking for a further proof and demonstration of the inhumanity of the intellectual property system, here you probably have found a very convincing example.

Today: the expansion step has been reached

In the field of software, it is safe to assume that according to germ form theory the expansion step has been reached. Today, Free Software is an important aspect of development within the prevailing old form. For other fields this can not be assumed with the same certainty; but, as mentioned, we have found a number of promising examples which point in the right direction.

Let us keep in mind, that at this stage, approximately in the middle of a long revolutionary era, according to germ form theory, we are witnessing the onset of a new mode of production with a new logic replacing the old one, step by step. Presumably, a major change in the mode of production equals with a change of paradigms--with an extremely deep impact on the further course of human history. Therefore, at this point in the middle of the process, nobody can be expected to predict its consequences or the final result. In addition, on the expansion step, the old and the new logic are both strong; thus, contradictions are not an exception or an accident, but a logical necessity.

When looking at Free Software, for instance, people are often puzzled by the fact that Free Software developers still need a job and money to make a living. Well yes, of course, that's true. But that's not a problem. Free Software developers, to some degree, already live in both of these worlds. At present, the process of overcoming the old structures has not yet proceeded far enough in order for us to be able to rely on the new forms completely. But this type of contradiction [19] does not imply that it is essentially impossible for a new logic to overcome an old one--all it needs is time and effort.

We would like to emphasise again that what we see today is not the final stage. Remember: we are in the third of five steps. When capitalism started its expansion step, nobody was able to envision a concrete capitalist world 300 years later. Nonetheless, today we are part of it, and nowadays we are having a hard time imagining a world based on new and unknown fundaments such as peer production. This is especially true for the field of material production. Today it is hard to see how material production can be organised according to the logic of information goods. Today, indeed, we see a big difference between digitised information goods which are more or less non-rival by virtue of the Internet, and material products, where a single instance of a material product can be considered rival [20].

Looking back in history gives us a hint. The production of food in feudal times was also organised according to a completely non-capitalist logic. Then we saw that the production of food, step by step, became subject to capitalism and nowadays has reached a stage, where food production is simply an annex to industrial and capitalist production. Thus, it is perfectly possible that in a dominance or restructuring step, the problem of how to embed material production into the peer production mode will be solved by means inconceivable to us as yet.


[1]In the unabridged version there is a final chapter, where we will evaluate the historical relevance of peer production on a more general level.
[2]A set of criteria to distinguish peer production processes from other phenomena is work in progress. There probably is some vague consensus in the research community around Oekonux but it is not yet settled. See [GermForm-Criteria] or [Siefkes-Peerconomy] for some suggestions.
[3]In fact there are peer production projects which have one or another commercial appendix which is not oriented in use value but in making profit. What this means and how it needs to be considered is in fact a difficult question which probably can not be answered on a general basis. Several examples from Free Software show, however, that it is fundamental that the core project keeps its use value orientation and the commercial interests are grouped only around the core process. Indeed peer production projects with a commercial part are a contemporary contradiction typical for the expansion step of a germ form.
[4]We are using a German term here because there is really no good English term for this concept. Even in German what we mean by Selbstentfaltung differs from a more general understanding of the word.
[5]In the unabridged version there is an example showing railways as a good illustration of an historical feedback cycle.

Actually there are two common terms for the phenomenon described here: Free Software and Open Source. Free Software is the older term while the term Open Source has been coined explicitly as a marketing term striving to strip the political context from the term Free Software.

On a practical basis the terms are interchangeable in nearly all aspects. This text will prefer Free Software over Open Source.


Computer programs exist in two flavours: On the one hand there is the executable code which can be executed by the machine. This type of code is on a very low expression level very close to the features of the machine. It is hard to understand for humans.

On the other hand there is the source code from which the executable code is generated. The source code is what humans use to express what they want the machine to do. It is much easier to understand than executable code and it is far easier to read and write. While from executable code it is next to impossible to understand the know how contained in a program a good piece of source code is exactly made to help this understanding.

[8]But see Eric v. Hippel's work on the importance of user innovation [Hippel-Democratizing] also in general production of material goods.
[9]On what terms you may redistribute Free Software in fact is governed by the license which allows you to do so. The most used license GPL contains the so-called Copyleft principle which not only obliges you to redistribute the executable form of the software together with the source code, but determines, that modified (derived) versions of the software also have to be covered by GPL when distributed.
[10]I for instance learned about the programming language Perl back in the late 1980s when its inventor Larry Wall published Perl 4 through the Usenet.
[11]Indeed quality in proprietary projects is less important the more a vendor has a monopoly. If you have a monopoly--such as Microsoft nearly has on the desktop market--quality doesn't matter at all. In fact it was the success of the Free Software Firefox who forced Microsoft do write a new Web browser replacing a years old product.
[12]The term bug is a technical term used for an error of some sort in a piece of software.
[13]The operating system Unix itself has an interesting history which can not be pointed out here. Its life started as a very open, university based project and then branched into several proprietary variants which co-existed with still open variants. The acronym GNU standing for "GNU is Not Unix" reminds of this history. However, only GNU/Linux were able to pick up the openness of the early Unices and become a big success at the same time.
[14]An easy reference for this is the comparison of Windows 3.1 and the Apple operating systems of that time. When Microsoft finally released Windows 3.1 it was really inferior to the operating systems which ran on Apple MacIntosh computers at the same time. However, the Apple operating systems were also proprietary at this time and not available for the hardware Microsoft products were made for and so were no real alternative.
[15]A web server is the piece of software which serves the pages of the World Wide Web so you can watch and use them with your Web browser.
[16]In fact some network routers which do not look like computers are running Free Software network stacks.
[17]Quoted after
[18]In fact peer governance is a major topic for which so far there is relatively little research. One of the central insights (not only) of the Oekonux project is that peer governance often involves an explicit maintainership including an explicit maintainer role.
[19]The unabridged version uses germ form theory to explain the development of capitalism. Contradictions of this type are also considered there.
[20]Something is called rival if my use of it prevents your use of it. Things which are used up by using them, such as food, are a good example of rival things. On the other hand my use of non-rival things doesn't interfere with your use of these things. Radio waves are a typical example of a non-rival thing.


[Merten-Licenses]Discusses Free Software licenses from an Oekonux perspective (slides) URL:
[Siefkes-Peerconomy]Christian Siefkes, From Exchange to Contributions. Generalizing Peer Production into the Physical World, Ed. C. Siefkes, 2007
[Weber-SuccessOpenSource]Steven Weber; The Success of Open Source; Harvard University Press; 2004; ISBN 0-674-01292-5
[Stallman-Printer]Sam Williams, Free as in Freedom. Richard Stallman's Crusade for Free Software, O'Reilly, 2002
[GNU-Manifesto]The GNU Manifesto,
[Hippel-Democratizing]Eric von Hippel, Democratizing Innovation; MIT press; 2005; ISBN 0-262-00274-4

StefanMerten/Papers/CapitalAndClass/ContemporaryGermForms (last edited 2009-06-02 17:10:42 by StefanMerten)

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