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Decoding Liberation: The Promise of Free and Open Source Software

Author: Samir Chopra, Scott Dexter
Publisher: New York: Routledge, 2007
Review Published: March 2009

 REVIEW 1: Brian W. Carver
 REVIEW 2: Andrew Famiglietti
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Samir Chopra and Scott Dexter

Free/Open Source Software (FOSS) has enjoyed a rapid rise in prominence over the course of the last twenty years, from its humble beginnings with Richard Stallman's Free Software Foundation in the early 1980s to its current status as a significant player in the world of computer software. Along the way, FOSS has attracted a conspicuous amount of attention from a wide variety of academic disciplines -- books as varied as philospher Pekka Himanen's Hacker Ethic, legal scholar Yochai Benkler's Wealth of Networks, and anthropologist Chris Kelty's Two Bits have all taken FOSS as their subject matter. This wide-spread attention may be due to the fact that FOSS is itself a heterogeneous assemblage, part method of production, part legal formation, part social movement, and part technological apparatus. The hybrid nature of FOSS is reflected in Samir Chopra and Scott D. Dexter's thought provoking contribution to the growing body of FOSS literature, Decoding Liberation: The Promise of Free and Open Source Software, a book that does justice to the complex geometry of its subject matter and to the diversity of academic work that has preceded it.

Chopra and Dexter accommodate this diversity by splitting their book into five sections, each devoted to examining FOSS from a different perspective, and employing a different body of theory. The sections are held together by an overall goal of demonstrating that "free software embodies the anarchist ideal of eliminating the indiscriminate, opaque application of power" (xviii). Some readers may be frustrated by the fact that, beyond their utility to this broad goal, sections and ever sub-headings are often only loosely linked, leading to some jarring transitions. Ultimately, however, this is a small critique, as Chopra and Dexter offer up a wealth of interesting interpretations of the FOSS phenomenon.

The first chapter, "Free Software and the Digital Economy," begins by briefly tracing the history of FOSS and its roots in earlier "hacker" subcultures. Much of this will be familiar to readers of Steven Levy's Hackers and Steven Weber's The Success of Open Source, but Chopra and Dexter do a good job of synthesizing these and other secondary sources with telling quotations taken from computer science periodicals of the time to show how thought about computer programming as a productive practice, and computer programs as exclusive property, evolved. The section, and indeed the book as a whole, enjoys the further benefit of the authors' close contact with Free Software guru Richard Stallman, whose influence can be seen in the loving and detailed treatment they give here to the history of Stallman's Free Software Foundation. Those who are partisans for the "Open Source" side of the "Free and Open Source" equation may take offense, but Chopra and Dexter do a good job of balancing a justified admiration for Stallman with a recognition of the contributions of others, such as Eric S. Raymond, who have contributed to the field, even when these figures have had profound disagreements with Stallman and his politics.

After recounting the history of how FOSS's unique volunteer-driven and intellectual commons-based political economy developed, the first section moves on to discuss some of the implications of this productive method. Two of the discussions provided here stand out as particularly interesting. The first is their development of the notion, initially posited by Weber, that FOSS governance relies on FOSS developers maintaining a "right to fork" -- that is, to say, a right to split an existing FOSS project into two descendant projects. Forking is widely considered, by theorists and practitioners alike, to be dangerous, as it may lead to duplicate effort and a loss of confidence in FOSS projects. Yet over the course of the following sections, Chopra and Dexter demonstrate some of the ways maintaining the "right to fork" has benefited the FOSS community as a whole. The ability of FOSS developers to fork, they argue, leads to better management of FOSS projects, more aesthetic freedom for FOSS developers, and higher quality FOSS software.

The second notable discussion in this first section is the exploration of issues of governance, labor, and co-coptation. Chopra and Dexter respond to FOSS critics like Tiziana Terranova, who argue that capitalism co-opts FOSS volunteers by exploiting their labor without paying them monetary wages. "Compensations in the FOSS economy are diverse," Chopra and Dexter assert, "a programmer who releases code freely may do so anticipating others will release code useful to him" (27). Furthermore:
In FOSS, the conception of the open source user as empowered programmer enables a reconfiguration of the relationship between worker and product that significantly addresses the Marxian notions of worker alienation. The user of proprietary software is alienated from the product; he is unable to perceive the product's infrastructure or adapt it to meet his needs. The FOSS model, by making source code available, modulates this alienation by casting users as workers who might modify the product. (29)
Chopra and Dexter admit, however, that "the open source movement does provide evidence of the trend toward the co-optation of the digital economy by the corporate world" (27), and suggest that the most persuasive evidence of this trend are those cases in which permissive "open source" licensing has allowed programs developed by the community to be re-released as proprietary software, and thus alienated from the community that labored to produce them. While some may quibble with the general way in which Chopra and Dexter invoke the term "alienation," the authors still provide a fruitful intersection between Marxist theory and the historical details of FOSS.

At the opening of the next chapter of the book, "The Ethics of Free Software," Chopra and Dexter pose what they see as the key ethical question poised by FOSS: "What freedoms do software users and developers deserve, and how can those freedoms best be protected?" (37). Here again, they rely heavily on Stallman's thought, giving an extensive explication of the "four freedoms" defined by the FSF's Free Software Definition and exploring the importance of these freedoms and how they are violated by proprietary software. They provide an interesting exploration of the ethical implications of the first of these four freedoms, whimsically named "Freedom 0" by the coders of the FSF (computers start counting from 0), "the freedom to run the program, for any purpose." Freedom 0 presents a dilemma if, for example, a programmer, "is opposed to the continued development of nuclear weapons, and does not want his software used in the guidance system of a nuclear missile" (44). Restricting the possible uses of one's software, even with the noble goal of limiting the proliferation of nuclear weapons, would violate the spirit of Freedom 0. Chopra and Dexter lay out the pragmatic argument for Freedom 0, arguing that it is necessary to prevent "the unappealing prospect of a Balkinization of the free software corpus" (45). Whether one agrees with this pragmatic argument or not (and indeed, Freedom 0 represents a sort of Universalizing move that some critical theorists may find distasteful), the argument presented here does a good job of representing the ethical beliefs of the FOSS community, especially since Chopra and Dexter draw off of debates within that community (specifically those over a recent revision of the Free Software Foundation's software license) to ground their discussion.

The authors then move on to discuss the ethical differences between so-called "copyleft" software licenses, and "non-copyleft" licenses. Copyleft licenses, such as the GPL (or General Public License, a software license developed by the GNU free software project for use in releasing their work), are distinguished by the fact that any software derived from software released under a copyleft license must itself be released under the same terms. Extending their argument from the first section, Chopra and Dexter argue that copyleft licenses do a better job of protecting the freedom of users and developers since, without copyleft, software may be appropriated from the commons of FOSS production and released under terms that may abridge the four freedoms. Interestingly, they assert that the fact that the GPL allows Google to keep "their [Linux] kernel customizations private" (69) -- since Google does not release the code it runs to others, but rather keeps it solely for in house use -- shows that the GPL has struck a wise balance, avoiding "both the foolish generosity of the patsy and the stinginess of the miser" (69). Others, who look upon the rise of Google with more anxiety (a position perhaps made most visible by Siva Vaidynathan's work on his blog and upcoming book, The Googlization of Everything) may see this as representing a lack of foresight on the part of the GPL and a possible loophole for the concentration of a new form of power.

The third chapter, "Free Software and the Aesthetics of Code," lays out some points of contact between the FOSS community and the study of computer software as art object. While the chapter begins with some problematic generalizations which equate "our oldest associations with beauty" with "harmony and order" (74), it moves on to do a good job of grounding the aesthetic principles the authors will employ to examine code as art in a particular historical tradition, namely that of western science and mathematics. Most significant in this section are Chopra and Dexter's arguments about how FOSS nurtures a particular way of thinking about the aesthetic value of creativity and authorship, one that depreciates individual authors in favor of a creative community. These communities, they write, have long been with us in the form of "'shadow networks,' such as the intense conversations leading up to the founding of the impressionist movement" (101). By relying on these "shadow networks," traditional forms of aesthetic practice have often hidden away the collaboration that underwrites much of creativity and thus tended to reinforce a "myth of the individual creator" (101). In contrast, because FOSS communities collaborate in public, they tend to undermine this myth. Thus, FOSS has developed an aesthetic that values collaboration and collective revision creating, "works that display a distinctive diversity in unity" (101).

Having shown that FOSS is an effective and novel system of production that can create software with both ethical and aesthetic advantages, Chopra and Dexter go on to outline the benefits of FOSS to computer science as a scientific practice. They suggest that it is the community and openness that FOSS enables (and relies on) that provides the greatest scientific benefit. This chapter begins, as the first chapter did, with another good summary of the pertinent history, providing a useful short reading on the impact of patent and copyright law on the academic field of computer science. Chopra and Dexter argue the "closing of computer science" (123) harms the discipline in several ways. First, it ties the discipline too closely to corporate concerns, since departments and students depend on donations of proprietary software and other forms of funding from industry, limiting the discipline's freedom of inquiry. Perhaps more importantly, the fact that source-code is kept closed prevents students learning from its example, and prevents scholars studying and critiquing its functions. For Chopra and Dexter, this profoundly limits the discipline of computer science: "Such policies fail to promote innovation, encourage the 'enclosure' of scientific knowledge, and constrain community-wide scientific discourse" (129). In contrast, they write, FOSS, "provides and protects openness, not only through community-wide criticism but also through its challenge to the very idea of 'intellectual property'" (129). They close the chapter with a call for "a computer science based on open code, protocols, and standards" (142), a courageous and all too rare call by academics for reform of the academy itself.

The final chapter, "Free Software and the Political Philosophy of the Cyborg World," attempts to hammer home why the productive, ethical, aesthetic, and scientific advantages of FOSS are of crucial importance to our contemporary society as a whole. Drawing off of the work of Donna Haraway and other cyberculture theorists, Chopra and Dexter posit we are entering into a "cyborg world" where code and other manifestations of cyber-technology will play an increasingly central role in society. They write: "As the cyborg displaces man/machine dualism, the cyborg world dissolves the dichotomy of physical space and cyberspace" (149). Working from Foucault's insights, as well as those of James Boyle and others, they make the case that, in such a world, software code can function as a distributed form of what Foucault would call "micro-power." "Because software determines interaction between user and machine," they argue, "cyberspace is plastic, and is equally amenable to change by governments, criminals, law-abiding citizens, or corporations. Thus, code can function as law, even when the laws of the physical world lag behind" (153). Chopra and Dexter go on to briefly cite Larry Lessig's work establishing the notion that "code is law" (157), before extending this notion to suggest that, in the cyborg world, code begins to exercise fundamental power in the realm of language: "The cognitive development of our extended mind [...] depends on the public language it employs. This language of the cyborg mind is composed of natural and programming languages" (157). They hold that, under these conditions, "restrictions on the cyborg world's languages would entail that their expressive power and communicative capacity would be severely curtailed, limiting their ability to augment cyborg cognition" (159). Thus, the limitations of software freedom represented by closed code become, in the cyborg world, substantial obstacles to political autonomy and freedom. Chopra and Dexter give this somewhat theoretical construction good grounding by showing what happens when these issues play out in the real-world example of e-voting and e-government. When government systems such as voting machines use closed code, "it denies the public nature of democracy" (167). Opening code and using FOSS, they argue, increases government transparency and the ability for the many to participate in public life. They conclude: "Free software provides a framework for interpreting normative claims about the eventual politics of the cyborg world. The need of the polity of the cyborg world for adequate communication undergirding political participation is met by the extension of free speech protections to software" (173).

Taken together, these five sections provide a comprehensive exploration of a variety of issues pertaining to FOSS. This breadth is both the key strength and main weakness of Decoding Liberation. Those who come to this book looking for a comprehensive treatment of any one theoretical approach to the issue of FOSS are likely to come away disappointed. That said, such a treatment does not seem to be Chopra and Dexter's goal. Instead, they appear to have set out to give a "road map" of sorts, laying out the varied points of intersection between FOSS and different fields and theoretical cannons. In this, they have succeeded, and have provided a wealth of jumping-off points that might be fruitfully explored by themselves and others in the field.

Andrew Famiglietti:
Andrew Famiglietti is finishing his PhD in the American Culture Studies program at Bowling Green State University. His dissertation Hackers, Cyborgs, and Wikipedians is an exploration of Wikipedia and the peer production phenomenon through the lens of cultural studies and political economy.  <afamiglietti@gmail.com>

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