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Romanticism, Capitalism, and the Internet

Chapter 6: Open Source, the Expressive Programmer, and the Problem of Property

Every good work of software starts by scratching a developer’s personal itch.
Eric Raymond[1]

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 What it would take to finally put some cracks in the foundation of the neoliberal consensus, it turns out, was the same thing that gave it renewed life in the early 1990s: romantic individualist representations of computing.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Long before the spread of the internet, even before the appearance of microcomputers, Ted Nelson, in Computer Lib, briefly reflected on the problem of funding his system of hyperlinked digital texts he called Xanadu:

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Can it be done? I dunno. . . . My assumption is that the way to this is not through big business (since all these corporations see is other corporations); not through government (hypertext is not committee-oriented, but individualistic―and grants can only be gotten through sesquipedalian and obfuscatory pompizzazz); but through the byways of the private enterprise system. I think the same spirit that gave us McDonald’s and kandy kolor hot rod accessories may pull us through here.[2]

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 2 Though little noted at the time, Ted Nelson thus imagined an entrepreneurial form for his digital utopia, in some ways anticipating the neoliberal framing of computing (discussed in chapter 3) that appeared a decade later.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 But Nelson was not proposing simply a market for a kind of machine in a box, like the microcomputer. As we’ve seen, the microcomputer could be easily imagined as a discrete object one buys and sells. How was one to implement something entrepreneurial, a farmer’s-market-like system of exchange, out of the vast gossamer web of social and technical links and protocols that is an advanced computer network?

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Nelson had an answer. He insisted that Xanadu, while offering a world of hyperlinked texts, also “must guarantee that the owner of any information will be paid their chosen royalties on any portions of their documents, no matter how small, whenever they are most used.”[3] Why? “You publish something, anyone can use it, you always get a royalty automatically. Fair.”[4] And he argues that this economic fairness, moreover, is of a piece with intellectual fairness: “You can create new published documents out of old ones indefinitely, making whatever changes seem appropriate―without damaging the originals. This means a whole new pluralistic publishing form. If anything which is already published can be included in anything newly published, any new viewpoint can be fairly presented.”[5] Nelson is not just a believer in digital property; he hopes that digitalization can perfect property.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 This chapter explores the emergence, in the second half of the 1990s, of what can be called the problem of property on the internet. This was the period when Linux, the open source movement, and music downloading raised both excitement and consternation in many legal and management circles. By pitting free communication against property rights, these developments called into question the premises of the market fundamentalism that had been driving most political economic thinking associated with the internet to that point. All of a sudden, freedom and the market were no longer synonymous and, in fact, seemed like they might, in some cases, be opposed.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 The argument of this chapter is that the internet did not just create new problems for intellectual property. It brought slumbering dilemmas with property in general to the surface. In the first instance, this resurfacing of the problem of property was enabled, not by a critique of property per se, but by the tensions between romantic and utilitarian constructions of the individual. The desires to make a profit and express oneself, which as we have seen had been conflated in the early 1990s, suddenly came to point in divergent directions.

  • [1] There are many print and electronic versions of Raymond’s legendary essay available, which he first presented in May 1997, but the most appropriate would be the version on his own website, complete with a list of changes over the years; see Eric Raymond, “The Cathedral and the Bazaar,” Eric S. Raymond’s Home Page, 21 May  1997, catb.org/~esr/writings/homesteading/cathedral-bazaar/
  • [2] Nelson, Computer Lib, DM 45.
  • [3] Nelson, www.hyperstand.com/Sound/Ted_Report2.html
  • [4] Nelson, Literary Machines: The Report on, and of, Project Xanadu Concerning Word Processing, Electronic Publishing, Hypertext, Thinkertoys, Tomorrow’s Intellectual Revolution, and Certain Other Topics Including Knowledge, Education and Freedom (self published, 1983), chap. 2, 38.
  • [5] Ibid., chap. 2, 38.
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    Source: http://mcpress.media-commons.org/neteffect/chapter-6/