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February 20, 2007

The Next Layer or:


The Emergence of Open Source Culture

The Next Layer or: The Emergence of Open Source Culture :: Draft text for Pixelache publication, Armin Medosch, London/Vienna 2006-2007

First we had media art. In the early days of electronic and digital culture media art was an important way of considering relationships between society and technology, suggesting new practices and cultural techniques. It served as an outlet for the critique of the dark side of computer culture's roots in the military-industrial complex; and it suggested numerous utopian and beautiful ways of engagement with technology, new types of interactivity, sensuous interfaces, participative media practices, for instance. However, the more critical, egalitarian and participative branches of media art tended to be overshadowed by the advocacy of a high-tech and high-art version of it. This high-media art conceptually merged postmodern media theories with the techno-imaginary from computersciences and new wave cybernetics. Uncritical towards capitalisms embrace of technology as provider of economic growth and a weirdly paradoxical notion of progress, high-media art was successful in institutionalizing itself and finding the support of the elites but drew a lot of criticism from other quarters of society. It stuck to the notion of the artist as a solitary genius who creates works of art which exist in an economy of scarcity and for which intellectual ownership rights are declared.

In the course of the 1990ies media art was superseded by what I call The Next Layer or, for help of better words, Open Source Culture. I am not claiming that the hackers who are the key protagonists of Open Source Culture are the new media artists. Such a claim would be rubbish as their work, their ways of working and how it is referenced is distinct from media art. I simply say that media art has become much less relevant through the emergence of The Next Layer. In the Next Layer many more protagonists come together than in the more narrowly defined field of media art. It is much less elitist and it is not based on exclusivity but on inclusion and collaboration. Instead of relying on ownership of ideas and control of intellectual property Open Source Culture is testing the limits if a new egalitarian and collaborative culture.

In the following paragraphs I would like to map out some of the key components of Open Source Culture. It has been made possible by the rise of Free, Libre and Open Source Software. Yet Open Source Culture is about much more than just writing software. Like any real culture it is based on shared values and a community of people.

Open Source Culture is about creating new things, be they software, artefacts or social platforms. It therefore embraces the values inherent to any craft and it cherishes the understanding and mastery of the materials and the production processes involved. Going beyond craftmanship and being 'open source', it advocates free access to the means of production (instead of just "ownership" of them). Creativity is not just about work but about playfulness, experimentation and the joy of sharing. In Open Source Culture everybody has the chance to create immaterial and material things, express themselves, learn, teach, hear and be heard.

Open Source Culture is not a tired version of enforced collectivism and old fashioned speculations about the 'death of authorship'. It is not a culture where the individual vanishes but where the individual remains visible and is credited as a contributor to a production process which can encompass one, a few or literally thousands of contributors.

Fundamental to Open Source Culture's value system is the belief that knowledge should be in the public domain. What is generally known by humans should be available to all humans so that society as a whole can prosper. For most parts and whereever possible, this culture is based on a gift economy. Each one gets richer by donating their work to a growing pool of publicly available things. This is not a misguided form of altruism but more like a beneficial selfishness. Engaged in a sort of friendly competition everyone is pushing the whole thing forward a bit by trying to do something that is better, faster, more beuatiful or imaginative. Open Source Culture is a culture of conversation and as such based on multiple dialogues on different layers of language, code and artefacts. But the key point is that the organisation of labour is based on the self-motivated activity of many individuals and not on managerial hierarchies and 'shareholder value'.

Open Source Culture got a big push forward with the emergence of Linux and the Internet but we shouldn't forget that it has much deeper roots. History didn't start with Richard Stallmans problems with a printer driver. The historic roots could be seen as going back to the free and independent minded revolutionary artists and artisans in 19th century. More recently, it is based on post-World-War-II grassroots anti-imperialist liberation movements, on bottom-up self-organised culture of the new political movements of the 1960ies and 1970ies such as the African American civil rights movements, feminisim, lesbian, gay, queer and transgender movements, on the first and second wave of hacker culture, punk and the DIY culture, squatter movements, and the left-wing of critical art and media art practices.

In terms of the political economy, Open Source Culture could mark an important point of departure, by liberating the development of new technologies from being dictated by capital. The decision of what should be developed for which social goals is taken by the developers themselves. Technological development is not driven by greed but by deep intrinsic motivations to create things and to be recognized for ones contribution. Despite that, Open Source Culture is not an anti-capitalist ideology per se but has the potential to change capitalism from within and is already doing so.

Open Source Culture needs to be constantly aware of capitalisms propensity to adapt, adopt, co-opt and subjugate progressive movements and ideas to its own goals. The 'digital revolution' was already stolen once by the right-wing libertarians from Wired and their republican allies such as Newt Gingrich and the posse of American cyber-gurus from George Gilder to Nicholas Negroponte. More recently adept Open Source Capitalists have used terms such as Web 2.0 and social software to disguise the fact that what those terms are said to describe has emerged from open source culture and the net culture of the 1990ies and the early 2000s. Once more the creativity of the digital masses is exploited by alliances between new and old tycoons. The Next Layer emerges at a time when capitalism is stronger than ever before and it emerges at the very heart of it. This is the beauty of it. It cannot be described in a language of mainstream and underground. Open Source Culture is the new mainstream which is what capitalist media are doing their best to hide, scared by the spectre of communism as well as commonism. We don't need to ressort to the language of the Cold War and its dichotomies, howver.

The Next Layer contains not only a promise but also a threat. It emerges at a time when the means of suppression and control have been increased by rightwing leaders who try to scare us into believing we were engaged in an endless 'war on terror'. With their tactics they have managed to speed up the creation of a technological infrastructure for a society of control. The general thrust of technological development is coming from inside a paranoiac mindset. 25 years of neo-liberalism in the American lead empire have degraded civil liberties and human values. The education system has been turned into a sausage factory where engineers are turned out who construct their own digital panopticons. Scary new nano- and bio-technologies are created in secret laboratories by Big Science. And the bourgeioise intelligentsia meanwhile has stood still and does not recognize the world any more but still controls theatres, publishing and universities. In this situation it is better if Open Source Culture is not recognized as a political movement. The Next Layer will find ways of growing and expanding stealthily by filling the niches, nooks and crannies of a structurally militant and imperialist repressive regime from which, given time, it will emerge like a clear spring at the bottom of a murky glacier.

* The Next Layer is a book project by Armin Medosch about Open Source Culture. It has been supported by Franz Xaver and the Medienkunstlabor Graz in 2006. Passages of this text are informed by an extensive study into free software hackers and open source activists. Materials will be released in due time at http://theoriebild.ung.at/


Interesting text. The formulation of a high art version of media art is particularly relevant at the current moment, as more and more media artists are trying to cross over into the commercial art world, getting gallerists and selling their work as commodities.

While I understand your critical view of "high art", I wonder if you have considered an economic model for artists to survive without some form of commodification. While Open Source is clearly a viable and attractive model, most of its proponents live from other means of income or are supported by academic institutions. At the moment, many media artists are reliant on the media art "ghetto" of publicly funded festivals, but it rarely pays enough to support a family or plan a long life.

I do find it ironic that one has to subscribe to the construction of value through scarcity, when the digital object is by its nature infinitely reproducible. But if value cannot be constructed, how are artists supposed to pay their rent without taking "real" jobs? Even if YouTube etc. should find a licensing model for paying authors for their work, I doubt it will put food on the table for most artists.

Or should your text be read as saying that the role of "artist" is simply redundant , in favor of a more egalitarian model of "culture producers" not depending on institutions for support?

-marius [posted on SPECTRE]

FROM NETTIME: http://www.nettime.org

Kimberly De Vries wrote:

Well, give how poorly American students are (allegedly) doing in science, maybe this threat has a limited future, in the US, that is. But I wonder, if remaining unrecognized is so important, wouldn't it be better not to draw attention with articles like this? I hope this doesn't sound like heckling, but in fact large corporations and also some political groups have really gone after people/companies/groups they saw as threats. Should we actually behave in a more conspiratorial way in order to protect the Open Source movement? Anyway, it sounds interesting. When do you expect it to be finished and released?


From: Armin Medosch:

Hi Kimberley

thanks for your your detailed feedback. this text is a draft and some phrases or sentences are not as well considered as others. I definitely dont want to sound paranoid because I am not. Maybe I get carried away a bit rethorically at the end but I dont really see the need to 'hide' the political content. what I try to say, the beauty is, it happens anyway, even if it is not being seen as that.

From a European point of view I dont think there are political witchhunts for people in academia going on, not yet at least. But what does the job pretty well of weeding out the baddies, the not so ideologically well adjusted, are 'self selecting' economic measures. ma courses closed down for low student numbers, cuts, etc. it is one of the ironies particularly here in Britain that much talkied about values of education get systematically undermined by the way the system is constructed.

The intended book will still take a while. This text is an attempt of getting a meta-view, away from the detail. I have made interviews with free software developers and artists and I will make them accessible on the theoriebild.ung.at wiki, at least in excerpts, slowly and bit by bit, cause its lots of work to edit them into some consumable shape.


From: kanarinka:


I am reading an interesting book ("From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network and the Rise of Digital Utopianism") which is not line with what you are saying above and goes against the commonly held assumption that "capitalism" commodified an otherwise pure cultural force. The author Fred Turner tracks how computer technology became "liberating" and how digital utopianism was always hand-in-hand with various forces: corporate, market-driven, scientific, and institutional. He also shows how Wired came out of leftist libertarian New Communalist politics and long practices (on the part of Stewart Brand) of creating networked spaces of social utopianism, discussion and exchange between various actors.

From: Alexander Galloway


Thanks for this interesting polemic. First a minor point: can you please qualify the "we" in "First 'we' had media art"? Who is the we? One can only assume that by "we" you mean happy-go-lucky nettimers? The sorts of people who attend net art conferences? Lefty westerns in Euramerica who hand out Ubuntu disks on the street? I think I know who you mean, but some precision in your clarion call would be helpful.

A more thorny problem however is this question of "the new." This strikes me as inadequate for any progressive polemic today. If you maintain this position, fine, but you will have to make your peace with a number of formidable socio-political critiques that have emerged in recent years. I'm speaking of the growing list of authors and critics who recognize that "the new" is precisely the location of exploitation and valorization in today's economy, not an escape from it.

Armin's post recalls the German romantic poet Friedrich Schiller who in 1795 in his "On the Aesthetic Education of Man" put forward a notion of play as integral to human evolution and liberation. But by the early twentieth century, Adorno is on record critiquing this position: "Playful forms are without exception forms of repetition," wrote Adorno in his "Aesthetic Theory." "In art, play is from the outset disciplinary [and] art allies itself with unfreedom in the specific character of play. [...] The element of repetition in play is the afterimage of unfree labor" (pp. 317-318).

The work of Pierre Bourdieu would also undermine your position. There are certainly reasons to be skeptical of his work, but one must admit that Bourdieusian theory essentially scuttles any notion that intellectuals or knowledge workers are "creating" and working in communities free from capitalization and exchange. Bourdieu's pseudo-deterministic "fields" of cultural production indicate that there are indeed new modes of capital that exist entirely within the superstructure.

Similarly, Alan Liu's "The Laws of Cool" would also cast doubt on your claims. While I find his reading of digital art unsatisfying, his assessment of knowledge work and capitalist cultures of creativity is excellent. In my view it's the best book on the subject, at least the best one that doesn't treat creativity and "the new" as simply a question of political economy (as someone like Manuel Castells does). For Liu it is entirely a question of aesthetics and cultural production. Liu also does the extremely valuable task of providing an overview and critique of recent management theory. This body of literature--exemplified by Tom Peter's 1992 book "Liberation Management"--also casts doubt on your credo due to its explicit endorsement of "chaos," "flexibility," "change," "innovation," "diversity," "the next" as central virtues of the new economy. The management consultants know that creativity is highly valorizable. In my view this mode has been hegemonic in the economy since the 1990s, and central but not yet dominant since the 1970s. (The work of Hardt and Negri on immaterial labor is also important here, but this material is likely more familiar to nettimers.) Technology-wise, Google, Flickr, Myspace, youTube, del.icio.us, etc. are all examples of what you call "playfulness, experimentation and the joy of sharing," but I hope we can admit that all these are at the same time extremely shrewd new models for production and exploitation. (Example: Google makes money based on lots of very small amounts of unpaid "creative" labor performed by billions of web users. This is what exploitation looks like under

Additionally, there are a number of people in art history who suspect the uninterrogated category of "the new." I'm thinking of Rosalind Krauss' "The Originality of the Avant-Garde" and Peter Burger's "Theory of the Avant-Garde."

But on the other hand, there are a number who agree with you about the essentially liberatory and progressive nature of "the new." Derrida and others from the '68 generation would be important figures here. But in the contemporary debate, McKenzie Wark's book "A Hacker Manifesto" might be the best endorsement of the resistive and progressive nature of "the new." In his view, hackers are those who "produce new concepts, new perceptions, new sensations, hacked out of raw data" (p. 2). Wark's work is extremely evocative in general, yet this point is problematic for the reasons hinted at above.

Perhaps it might help to divide the rhetoric of your piece between (1) creativity, play, and the new, and (2) the gift, the public domain. The second group of terms strike me as still fundamentally corrosive for capitalist valorization (even if capitalism might still rely on "common" entities like protocols or natural resources to grow and prosper). Furthermore, I think you can make your same argument, while avoiding pie-in-the-sky proclamations about the miraculous advent of "the new" or the liberatory potential of the knowledge labor of the creative classes.

Finally, in this age of dotcom boosterism, I'm surprised you selected a phrase like "The Next Layer" to describe your project. This sounds more like a Vista service pack, no?

... with warm regards from the evil empire,

- -ag

From: Kimberly De Vries

Hey Armin,

I don't mean you should hide it, but maybe mention/document some examples when you talk about various covert deals made between groups--just claiming they exist won't convince a reader who doesn't already agree, and I assume you would like to persuade them.

I think in the US, at least, people are sometimes so reluctant to believe these things that you have practically club them over the head with evidence.


I think that is a problem in the US as well, especially since educations has been underfunded since probably the 70s--perhaps not coincidentally the point at which it was most closely allied to civil rights and anti-war movements.

And now in Arizona, a state-level House committee has approved legislation that would ban any public school educator or college professor from advocating for or against a political candidate in class, or advocating for a social, political, or cultural issue that is part of a partisan debate. If this passes, I can't imagine what they will talk about or write about in History class, or composition, or really any of them. I guess we can all just switch to multiple choice tests.


Perhaps you should make that aim explicit and say more about how it will help? I'll be interested to see the interviews. How many people have you spoken or will you speak to?



From: Kimberly De Vries


Sorry for being unclear earlier. I was thinking of passages like this:

"The 'digital revolution' was already stolen once by the right-wing libertarians from Wired and their republican allies such as Newt Gingrich and the posse of American cyber-gurus from George Gilder to Nicholas Negroponte. "

And this:

"The education system has been turned into a sausage factory where engineers are turned out who construct their own digital panopticons. Scary new
nano- and bio-technologies are created in secret laboratories by Big Science."

In the US, some people will nod in agreement when reading this, but by no means all, and probably most people would question many assumptions implicit in these statements.

I personally agree that coding really can't help but be political, given the current debate about copyrights and IP, etc. (among other things) and also with your ultimate proposal that the cocoa coop and hack-lab should unite. I am just pointing out that some of these underlying assumptions will probably provoke considerable resistance in some readers. You might persuade more of them if you unpack those genral statements a bit and offer some concrete examples.



Posted by jo at February 20, 2007 02:01 PM