Democracy's operating system
Jim Walch
16 - 12 - 2002
The challenge Open Source offers to Microsoft’s monopoly could precipitate a new form of global civil society.

In the discourse about democracy and information and communication technology (ICT), hopes have been expressed that the development and spread of ICT will somehow enhance democracy. It is the ‘somehow’ that needs investigation, but in the process it is ‘democracy’ that needs to be defined, and perhaps re-conceptualised.

In my book In the Net, I approached this issue from the perspective of demonstrating through practical examples how ICT is strengthening civil society, perhaps even precipitating a new form of global civil society.

Speaking as a political scientist, I would say that democracy is both a mode of society (as German philosopher Jurgen Habermas argues) and a way of making decisions and running societies (as agreed by most political scientists). In other words, democracy is about both culture and power. This means analyses of the potential of the Internet and its related technologies to enhance democracy have to move beyond the use of ICT in creating a more well-informed and active citizenry, and even beyond the Internet’s potential to undermine closed, undemocratic regimes through information.

The true potential for this technology may in fact lie deeper, in the practice of the loose network of coders and programmers that make up the Open Source movement. Before we get to that, I would like to focus on three assumptions in the claim that information technologies enhance democracy.

  1. Formal decision-making: can ICT be used for making decisions? Probably not; at least not in the present, or even in envisioned future forms of democratic decision-making. Anyone who has tried this, even within a small organisation has learnt of the problems involved. There’s probably no substitute for face-to-face communication. And as we know, ICT can be used to misinform, as well as inform our representatives.

  2. Agenda control: can ICT influence what comes up on the agenda for decision-making? I think this has been amply demonstrated. Where did the landmine campaign come from? How did East Timor suddenly become ‘an issue’ after decades of silence about the genocide there? My answer is that ‘ICT activists’ are ensuring that certain issues do not go away after tidy resolutions have been passed in international, and national, bodies.

    This ‘watchdog’ function is a new form of journalistic activism and is becoming more and more necessary as traditional media become increasingly monopolised and self-censoring. This is supported by the rush by media corporations to establish themselves on the cyber newsstand. Sorting out the increasing is a major challenge to ICT activists. At any rate, the information industry is getting a run for its money. The speculative bubble that burst is probably a healthy development, hopefully pulling the technology back to its non-commercial, communicative roots.

    But it is not only decision-making that is important, both in terms of substance and who makes the decisions. There is a power system that regulates non-decision making, that is, what is kept out of decision-making arenas. This system is obviously strongest at the global level, largely outside traditional democratic national boundaries.

  3. Reclaiming power: accept for a moment what many are telling us (Manuel Castells, for example), that ICT is the ‘cutting edge’ of the modern economy. If this is the case, then it is extremely important who owns and controls this technology and how it is run. So far, Bill Gates with Microsoft has defined the road ahead as one leading to total monopoly. Recent judicial and extra-judicial decisions in the US that thwart attempts to put up a roadblock to Microsoft should hardly surprise anyone. State power in capitalist countries is there to keep the traffic flowing – and sometimes to assist victims of road accidents.

    To take an educational analogy (I can’t help that I’m a teacher): what Microsoft is trying to do is not just grow and make money. Trying to monopolise operating systems for personal computers is like trying to take out a copyright on the English language. Language is the equivalent of an ‘operating system’ when I write this, and you read it. While many would surely like to take out a copyright on language (and on DNA, traditional farming in India, etc.) this is not culturally or politically acceptable. Fortunately, there is a growing community of people that realise that locking up the cutting edge of economic development is neither wise nor acceptable. Many are in the Open Source movement.

Open Source, open democracy?

The Open Source movement is developing both an alternative ‘free’ set of tools for use in ICT and a new way of thinking about information society. (‘Free’ is in quotation marks to remind readers that the term is used in the sense of.) Let’s take a brief look at the heart, or rather the kernel, of the Open Source movement, Linux. This is the ‘alternative’ operating system (to Microsoft Windows for instance) that is spreading rapidly. Originally developed by a young Finnish student, Linus Thorvalds, it is ‘copyrighted’ under the General Public License (GPL) that says a piece of software is ‘free’, that is, open and accessible to all at no cost – and that this freedom cannot be restricted by anyone who redistributes, uses, changes and/or develops it. This is referred to not as copyright but as ‘copyleft’.

In terms of capitalist economics, this is somewhat revolutionary. In terms of everyday life, it is just saying: I do not have to pay anyone for writing this essay in English, or any other language.

Since Linux first appeared in 1991/92, thousands of people around the globe have added on to it and developed the software. This is an ongoing and accelerating process. Linux is constantly being repackaged by companies that compete to produce ever more user friendly and complete packages of Open Source software. Linux/Open Source is on the verge of a real breakthrough into the proprietary software market, especially in those areas where costs cannot be passed along to someone else: private consumers and the public sector. Scandinavian governments are now doing preparatory work for the switch. States in India are prohibiting the purchase of licensed software, and so on. (So it was no surprise to read in the newspaper that Microsoft is going to start investing big in India, as well as passing out money to combat HIV/AIDS. Any guesses as to which states will be getting the money?)

Now to be very specific: who ‘owns’ Linux, the alternative, copyleft operating system, and all the other Open Source software distributed under the GPL? It is ‘owned’ by the thousands of people who have and who are developing it. Read that again – it is ‘owned’ by the thousands of people who have and who are developing it. In other words, a growing part of the ‘cutting edge’ of the means of production is socially owned. Not through any government, state agency, holding company or even a formalised organisation – but through a network of cyber citizens. Now this is pretty revolutionary (somebody please go to Highgate and put a flower on Karl’s grave).

The collective, egalitarian and uncontrollable ownership of the means of production is a frontal attack on both private ownership of knowledge and its ideology. I think this awareness is starting to grow. For example, several members of the US Congress have been trying to find ways to stop the GPL/Open Source system. For what would happen if the GPL/Open Source ideology started spreading and people reclaimed the right to their own DNA, and Third World farmers the rights to their traditional seeds and plants? Intellectual property rights are fiercely defended by the North against the South, even if this means millions of preventable deaths for the want of available but undistributed HIV medicine.

For those who find it difficult to see or accept the above (Castells’ thesis and/or Marxian logic) then the GPL/Open Source movement can still be seen as a non-commercial alternative to commercial monopoly. Whichever way you see it, the hackers are giving Gates a scare.

Progressive computing as democratisation

I would like the reader to stay in dialectical mode a while longer. This is so I can say that ‘democracy’ is the process of democratisation. It is in the struggle that the spirit lives. If that’s too Hegelian, then plainer English (an open operating system) would state that it’s in the movement for democracy that democracy takes on both its form and content. What an open, global democracy will be like depends on the form and content of the movement toward it. The first, small steps determine the direction. Open Source, in this sense, is one small step.

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