Free software as a Commons
by Arturo Di Corinto
“Thanks to its characteristics, free, open source software, is a distributed property that is capable of evolving into a Public Good.”
Its “open” and modular language, which is freely accessible and created thanks to the collaboration of many in different stages, allowing it to be perfected and modified, make the free software a “relational good” that, thanks to its accessibility, non-exclusivity and lack of competitiveness presents all the characteristics of a common resource: something which everyone can make use of, even if they have not participated directly in its creation.
The free software as an “environment for interaction”, presents itself as a meeting place for scientific research, social cooperation and innovation. Thanks to its “openness”, the free software is capable of “evolving” as an incubator for ideas and relations, which are the abstract constituents of highly evolved technological products.
The free software acts as an incubator, offering tools and resources to produce a social capital and hence, a repertoire of information and relations that present themselves as a resources available to the collectivity. This offers single enterprises the opportunity to organise themselves and work in unison.
The free software represents a space-environment-instrument for sharing, collaboration and commerce, oriented towards the production and development of other softwares. It facilitates the coming together of demand and supply, the interaction between producers and users and encourages the creation of products that are flexible and adaptable to the needs of agents and markets.
The free Software favours an evolution based on variability because it is characterized as a “vivisystem”, where the genetic pool of software and the digital lifespecies express their “phenotype” through the interaction with its socio-technical environment. The lifespecies that best adapt themselves to the environment are reproduced, spread and carry their genetic type to the next generation according to the rules of “natural selection”. Also, similarly to “natural selection”, the mutations that occur in the software are those which reveal themselves most efficient in relation to their environment. They also decide the fitness of the artificial organisms and of the software itself.
The Value of Self-organisation
The study of emerging systems has shown that complex activities develop from single behaviours and that these are somewhat different from their simple sum.
From the behaviour of bees and ants to the community that is responsible for developing the software, the principle of self-organisation presents itself as the dynamic element in the development of recognizable macro-behaviours, which allows for the successful achievement of complex objectives.
Similarly to the community of programmers, “smart mobs” are complex and adaptable systems that show an emerging behaviour, they develop a peculiar movement from lower level rules to higher and more sophisticated levels.
With time, these behaviours can increase in intelligence and respond to specific necessities that are present in their surrounding environment.
This occurs because we are dealing with complex systems, in other words, systems with multiple agents that interact dynamically in different ways, following local rules and are able to co-evolve in symbiosis with the environment itself.
A system is emerging if it produces a recognizable “macro-behaviour”: in vivisystems, the most common “macro-behaviour” is cooperation. Indeed, symbiosis and cooperation are observed at all levels of life, from cells to complex societies.
If, within a colony of ants, single behaviours are initiated by the DNA and the objective of cooperation is to safeguard the genetic pool of the colony, in a community of software programmers, behaviours are informed by shared cultural regulations and the objective is to produce an increasingly intelligent software.
The cultural rules of the developers’ community, which follow the method of free, open source software development, invariably go back to the strategy of cooperative altruism and hence, to the gift logic. This is a consolidated method within the scientific community that has, in time, been configured in a similar way to a gift economy.
The gift economy, contrarily to what one may think, is an adaptive and complex behaviour with a highly rational nature. Particularly in a context characterized by a high rate of competitiveness and an abundance in resources/knowledge.
Those individuals who cooperate by following the logic of gift, compete most favourably and achieve better results than those who do not. The evolution of the GNU/Linux makes up the best example. GNU/Linux is an efficient technological system, whose added value is given by cooperation.
The mechanism of exchanging gifts, which is at the basis of free software production, facilitates the process of accumulating global knowledge. The latter, differently from many other goods, is not deteriorated by the circulation process. On the other hand, its use and consumption enhances its quality and the opportunity to create new products. This is exactly what occurs with the Commons. A common good is in fact a good that increases through consumption.
Cooperation, which is at the basis of free software production is a good example of the production of “digital commons” that “behave” themselves differently from the majority of other collective goods, characterised by a life span and level of consumption beyond which the resource cannot reproduce itself.
The mechanism of free software is a typical example of the emergence of cooperation within a complex, social supply chain whose parts autonomously concur but are coordinated to determine a result that is incommensurable to the sum of the actions by the single participants.
The emergency of cooperation
Why should cooperation be necessary? Studies on cooperation have been carried out and show that, whenever two subjects in competition (such as stakeholders with different interests) are given the opportunity to cooperate, the results of that cooperation are to the advantage of both.
Game theory has attempted to provide an explanation to this behaviour, showing that even in highly competitive environments such as in “the prisoner’s dilemma”, reciprocity based cooperation is the winning strategy. This strategy, referred to as tit for tat, presupposes that one should begin by cooperating and then by replicating the partner’s behaviour, hence maximising the results of cooperation.
Whereas in game theory, cooperation is an “economical” choice to maximise individual outcomes, in a gift economy, cooperation is based on solidarity, which is subordinate to a series of social obligations and non-economical factors, which guarantee that the community will benefit from the cooperation. The gift economy is not so much associated with the idea that things are free as it is based on a different model of exchange: the model of reciprocity. Reciprocity is the ring that joins together competitive cooperation and cooperation based on generosity.
Reciprocity that lies at the basis of gift-exchange a triple obligation: to give, receive and return. Giving a gift is also assuming that you will, at some point, receive a gift in return. Hence, although it is not immediate, there exists a convenience in donating a gift. One is both obliged and seeking an interest when offering a gift.
In the case of the free software, for example, the innovative contribution that each person gives may be motivated by the intellectual challenge of producing something different and useful. In other words, these is a will to create a social tie, which is geared towards advancing your local community and advertising the product to facilitate its entrance in new market fields.
However, this model of exchange, which in the case of free software leads to an accumulation of richness, is influenced by non-economical factors, such as trust in collaboration.
In the production model of free, open source software, the logic of cooperation between egoists, which is typical of Game Theory, i.e. to cooperate only “if and when the other cooperates” changes to: “I will cooperate so long as the other cooperates too.”
The strategy of donating gifts, until the other continues to donates gifts, presupposes a trust in the other person’s behaviour or the certainty that you will manage to induce a collaborative behaviour.
The precondition for such a thing to occur is that there must be a likelihood that interests will communicate and have numerous occasions to meet.