[- The Packet Gang (Part One): Openness And Its Discontents
By jamieking, Section guest host history
Posted on Wed Feb 18th, 2004 at 03:37:34 PM EURODISCORDIA TIME
Here is a piece that I wrote for issue 27 of Mute Magazine, where I am currently Information Politics editor. I am currently composing the second part of this piece, and will post some of the working material from that here over the next few days.
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|The Packet Gang (Part One)
Openness And Its Discontents
1. THE IDEA OF OPENNESS
Since the founding of the Free Software Foundation in 1985 by Richard Stallman and the Open Source Initiative in 1998 by Eric Raymond, the idea of openness has enjoyed some considerable celebrity. Simply understood, open source software is that which is published along with its source code, allowing developers to collaborate, improve upon each other's work, and use the code in their own projects. The cachet of this open model of development has been greatly increased by the high-profile success of GNU-Linux, a piece of `free-as-in-libre and open source software' (FLOSS). But, taken together with the distributed co-composition offered by, for example, the wiki architecture, and the potential of peer-to-peer networks like Bittorrent and Gnutella, a more nuanced and loose idea of openness has suggested itself as a possible model for other kinds of organisation. Felix Stalder of Openflows identifies its key elements as
[...] communal management and open access to the informational resources for production, openness to contributions from a diverse range of users/producers, flat hierarchies, and a fluid organisational structure.
This idea of openness is now frequently deployed not only with reference to composing software communities but also to political and cultural groupings. For many, this is easily explained: FLOSS' `self-evident' realisation of a `voluntary global community empowered and explicitly authorised to reverse-engineer, learn from, improve and use-validate its own tools and products', indicates that `it has to be taken seriously as a potential source of organising for other realms of human endeavour.' In many circles, openness is now seen as `paradigmatic'. Publisher and software guru Tim O'Reilly's presentation at the 2003 Reboot conference, entitled `The Open Source Paradigm Shift', placed FLOSS at the vanguard of a social phenomenon whose time, he said `had come'; its methods of ad hoc, distributed collaboration constituting a `new paradigm' at a level consistent with, for example, the advent of the printing press and movable type.
Such accounts of the social-political pertinence of the FLOSS model are increasingly common. A recent essay by activist Florian Schneider and writer-research Geert Lovink, for example, exhibits the premature desire to collapse FLOSS-style open organisation into a series of other political phenomena:
freedom of movement and freedom of communication [...] the everyday
struggles of millions of people crossing borders as well as pirating
brands, producing generics, writing open source code or using
More soberly, Douglas Rushkoff has argued recently in a report for the Demos think-tank that `the emergence of the interactive mediaspace may offer a new model for cooperation':
The values engendered by our fledgling networked culture may [...]
prove quite applicable to the broader challenges of our time and
help a world struggling with the impact of globalism, the lure of
fundamentalism and the clash of conflicting value systems [...] One
model for the open-ended and participatory process through which
legislation might occur in a networked democracy can be found in the
open source software movement.
Rushkoff does not try to draw direct parallels between FLOSS and other forms of activity in the manner of Schneider and Lovink, but argues equally problematically that the model used in open source software composing communities could be usefully applied to democratic political organisation. 'A growing willingness to engage with the underlying code of the democratic process,' he contends, `could eventually manifest in a widespread call for revisions to our legal, economic and political structures.' Clearly, then, the idea of openness has appeal across very different constituencies - here we already have both the reformist-liberal and the radical-activist claiming openness as an ally. Indeed, as ICT theorist Biella Coleman suggests, the widespread adoption and use of the idea of openness and its `profound political impact' may precisely be contingent on its peculiarly transpolitical appeal. `FLOSS,' she writes, resists
political delineation into the traditional political categories of
left, right or centre [...but] has been embraced by a wide range of
people [...] This has enabled [it] to explode from a niche and
academic endeavour into a creative sphere of socio-political and
technical influence bolstered by the internet.
But the broad-church appeal of the idea of openness suggested by FLOSS need not necessarily be a cause for celebration, especially since many of the constituencies making use of it conceive of themselves as fundamentally opposed. Can the idea of openness these divergent constituencies embrace really be the same? And how can it be that they consider it sufficient to their very different aims?
The chief purpose of this essay is not to answer these questions by examining the `self-evident' truths of open source production. Such studies are already being carried out in forums like Oekunux ; indeed, in the new issue of Mute Magazine, Gilberto Camara, Director for Earth Observation at Brazil's National Institute for Space Research, has published research that challenges some key tenets of the FLOSS model. This research exposes the possibility that, in many instances, FLOSS does not innovate significantly original software, or sustain projects outside of corporate or large-scale academic involvement. Instead this article seeks to address the intense political expectation around open organisation among diverse elements of the diffuse activist organisations which, post-Seattle, have been loosely referred to as `the social movement' or `social movements'. In referring to the social movement, this article concerns itself primarily with groups such as People's Global Action, Indymedia, Euraction Hub and other such non-hierarchised networks; it does not have in mind more traditionally structured organisations like the Social Forums, SWP-Globalise Resistance or so-called `civil society' NGOs.
In the social movement thus defined, openness is clearly becoming a constitutive organising principle, as it connects with the hopes and desires circulating around the idea of the `multitude', a term whose post-Spinozan renaissance has been secured by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri's book Empire. The multitude is a defiantly heterogeneous figure, a collective noun intended to counter the homogenising violence of terms such as `the people' or `the mass'. For many thinkers in the post-Autonomist tradition, this multitude is a way of conceiving the revolutionary potential of a new `post-Fordist proletariat' of networked immaterial labourers. In certain circuits within the social movement, FLOSS organisation is seen as the techno-social precondition of a radical democracy in becoming. However tenuous this assemblage may be, it goes some way to explaining how FLOSS and the idea of openness have become central rhetorical terms in the struggle to produce an identity for the networked, anti-capitalist movement. But it is also true that certain characteristics of the idea of openness have genuine organisational influence there. A study of openness is thus useful in three degrees: first, to the social movement itself `internally'; second, to `outsiders' wanting to gain a good understanding of `what it is'; third as a critique of those who would seek to represent the movement with, or attempt to manipulate it through, a particular deployment of the idea of openness.
2. `THE REVOLUTION WILL BE OPEN SOURCE'
It is too easy to make sweeping generalisations about the ways in which the social movement realises the idea of openness. Instead we need to look at the ways in which the kind of openness identified in FLOSS may practically correspond to specific moments of organisation in the social movement. Based on direct involvement in the social movement in contexts such as the anti-G8, No Border Camps, PGA meetings and various actions, I see correspondences in five immediate areas:
Meetings and Discussions
The time and location of physical meetings are published in a variety of places, online and off. The meetings themselves are most often open to all comers, sometimes with the exception of `traditional' media. Although often no recordings or pictures are allowed at meetings, there is rarely any other vetting of those who attend. Anyone is allowed to speak, although there is often a convenor or moderator whose role is to keep order and ensure progress. Summaries of discussion are often posted on the web (see below, Documentation) where they can be read by those unable to attend a physical meeting or those otherwise interested parties.
The same is true of IRC meetings, which anyone may attend, and for which the `logs' are usually published (see, again, Documentation). Net-based mailing lists, through which much discussion is carried out, are usually open subscription and, as with physical meetings, those joining are not vetted.
Usually, anyone present at a meeting may take part in the decisions made there, although these conditions may occasionally be altered in favour of those actively involved with a project. Currently, the majority of decision making is done using the `consensus' method, in which any person present not agreeing with a decision can either choose to abstain or veto (`block'). A block causes an action or decision to be stopped, either temporarily or permanently.
In general, documents that form organisational materials within the movement are published online, usually using a content management system such as wiki. In most cases, it is possible for even casual visitors to edit and alter these documents, although it is possible to `roll back' to earlier versions in, for example, the case of defacements.
The majority of demonstrations are organised using the above methods. Not only is their organisation `open' but, within a certain range of political persuasions, anyone may attend. Self-policing is not `hard' but `soft'.
Even some `actions' - concentrated interventions usually involving smaller numbers of people - are `open', using the above methods to organise themselves and, if the action is ongoing, even allowing new people to participate.
Thus some key moments within the social movement demonstrably share certain characteristics with the FLOSS model of openness. Indeed, the movement deploys many of the same tools as FLOSS communities (i.e., wiki, IRC and mailing lists) to organise itself and carry out its projects. But its characteristic uses of openness are not enshrined in any formal document. Rather, they have developed as a way of organising that is tacitly understood by those involved in the social movement: an idea of openness that, to differing degrees, inflects its organisation throughout. Although the principles are not rigidly followed, there is often peer criticism of groups who do not declare their agendas or who act in a closed, partisan fashion, and, generally speaking, any group or project wanting to keep itself closed has an obligation to explain its rationale to other groups.
Some of these attitudes and principles derive from the People's Global Action (PGA), an influential `instrument' constituting a visible attempt to organise around networked openness. The organisational philosophy of PGA, which was formed after a movement gathering in South America in August 1997, is based on `decentralisation'. With `minimal central structures', the PGA `has no membership' or `juridical personality': `no organisation or person represents' it, nor does it `represent any organisation or person'. It is a `tool',
a fluid network for communication and co-ordination between diverse
social movements who share a loose set of principles or `hallmarks'
[...] Since February 1998 [...] PGA has evolved as an interconnected
and often chaotic web of very diverse groups, with a powerful common
thread of struggle and solidarity at the grassroots level. These
gatherings have played a vital role in face-to-face communication
and exchange of experience, strategies and ideas [...]
The PGA has attempted to structure itself around a set of `hallmarks' which have been updated at each key meeting. These are currently as follows:
1. A very clear rejection of capitalism, imperialism and feudalism;
all trade agreements, institutions and governments that promote
2. [... A rejection of] all forms and systems of domination and
discrimination including, but not limited to, patriarchy, racism and
religious fundamentalism of all creeds. [...An embracing of] the
full dignity of all human beings.
3. A confrontational attitude, since [... it is not believed that]
lobbying can have a major impact in such biased and undemocratic
organisations, in which transnational capital is the only real
4. A call to direct action and civil disobedience, support for
social movements' struggles, advocating forms of resistance which
maximise respect for life and oppressed peoples' rights, as well as
the construction of local alternatives to global capitalism.
5. An organisational philosophy based on decentralisation and
These hallmarks function to structure participation in the PGA process. In theory, they allow the network to remain `open' while designating the kinds of activities that don't fall within its field. PGA meetings, for example, do not exclude those who don't subscribe to its hallmarks, but neither would discussions explicitly contrary to them be given much attention. Certain kinds of discussion are openly privileged over others on pragmatic grounds.
Structures like PGA and those being experimented with more widely are part of the social movement's general rejection of organisational models based on representation, verticality and hierarchy. In their stead comes `non-hierarchical decentralisation' and `horizontal coordination'. `From this movement,' writes Massimo De Angelis, `emerges [...] the concept and practice of network horizontality, democracy, of the exercise of power from below.' For this `radical political economist'[,] this form of `social-cooperation' is `ours'. It is `our' horizontality, and these are `our' networks, part of a set of modes of coordination of human activity that
go beyond the capitalist market and beyond the state. [...] we are
talking about another world. [...] the slogan on T-shirts in Genoa
was entirely correct: another world is not only possible. Rather, we
are already patiently and with effort building another world - with
all its contradictions, limitations and ambiguities - through the
form of our networks.
In other words it is the open, networked, horizontal form of the movement that produces its radical potential for social change: the message, yet again, is the medium. In the case of the self-described `open publishing' project Indymedia, for example, the open submission structure is said to collapse the distinction between media producer and consumer, allowing us to `become the media'. The Indymedia newswire, write the collective
works on the principle of OPEN PUBLISHING, an essential element of
the Indymedia project that allows anyone to instantaneously
self-publish their work on a globally accessible web site. The
Indymedia newswire encourages people to become the media [...] While
Indymedia reserves the right to develop sections of the site that
provide edited articles, there is no designated Indymedia editorial
collective that edits articles posted to the news wire.
Here, the idea of openness presents itself as absolutely inimical to the `dominant multinational global news system', where `news is not free, news is not open'. With open publishing, by contrast,
the process of creating news is transparent to the readers. They can
contribute a story and see it instantly appear in the pool of
stories publicly available. Those stories are filtered as little as
possible to help the readers find the stories they want. Readers can
see editorial decisions being made by others. They can see how to
get involved and help make editorial decisions. If they can think of
a better way for the software to help shape editorial decisions,
they can copy the software because it is free and change it and
start their own site. If they want to redistribute the news, they
can, preferably on an open publishing site.
The working parts of journalism are exposed. Open publishing assumes
the reader is smart and creative and might want to be a writer and
an editor and a distributor and even a software programmer [...]
Open publishing is free software. It's freedom of information,
freedom for creativity.
Accounts such as this and De Angelis' demonstrate the extreme amount of expectation being focused on openness as an agent for change. Not only is openness central to the organisation of the social movement, but in many cases it is taken that the organisational quality of openness is inherently radical and will be productive of positive change in whichever part of the social-political field it is deployed. This is seen, for example, in the work of the group Open Organisations, comprised of three individuals - Toni Prug, Richard Malter and Benjamin Geer - who were previously closely involved with UK Indymedia, and who have until relatively recently been united in their belief in the radically liberatory potentials of openness. For them, any problems with openness have been seen as a consequence of its being an as-yet insufficiently theorised and elaborated form, and thus they have been working on what might be characterised as a `strong' or `robust' openness model which recommends a set of working processes or practices intended to foster it. `Open Organisations', in their model,
are entities that anyone can join, [that function with] complete
transparency and flexible and fair decision making structures,
ownership patterns, and exchange mechanisms, that are designed,
defined, and refined, by members as part of a continual
transformative and learning process.
3. PROBLEMS WITH OPENNESS: THE CRYPTO-HIERARCHY
In effect, by creating `structured processes', Open Organisations try to provide for a consistent openness. In doing so, they implicitly recognise that there are inconsistencies between the rhetoric and behaviour of contemporary political organisations. But what are these problems and who -- indeed /where/ -- are openness' discontents? In fact they abound.
In the case of Inydmedia's `open publishing' project, for example, openness has been failing under the pressures of scale. Initially small `cottage-industry' IMCs were able to manage the open-publishing process very well. But, in many IMCs, when the number of site visitors has risen past a certain level, problems have been generated. Popular IMC sites have become targets for interventions by political opponents, often from the fascist right, seeking opportunities to disrupt what they regard as an IMC's `countercultural' potential, and a platform from which to promulgate their own rhetoric. Of course there is nothing to prevent this in the IMC manifesto; but it has impelled the understandable decision to edit out fascist viewpoints and other `noise', using the /ad hoc/ teams whose function was previously to develop and maintain the IMC's open-publishing system. Some IMCs have ultimately been seen to take on a rather traditional, closed and censorial function that is all too often undeclared and in contradiction with the official IMC `become the media' line. In other words, Indymedia channels are often politically censored by a small group of more-or-less anonymous individuals to quite a high degree.
This emergence of soft control within organisations emphatically declared open is becoming a common and tacitly acknowledged problem across the social movement. As with Indymedia, practical issues with open development and organisation too often give the lie to the enthusiastic promotion of openness as an effective alternative to representation. After one PGA meeting, the group Sans Titre had this to say:
Whenever we have been involved in PGA-inspired action, we have been
unable to identify decision-making bodies. Moreover, there has been
no collective assessment of the effectiveness of PGA-inspired
actions [...] If the PGA-process includes decision-making and
assessment bodies, where are they to be found? How can we take part?
This problem runs through the temporary constitutions and dissolutions of `open' organisations that make up the social movement. The avowed `absence' of decision-making bodies and points of centralisation can too easily segue into a concealment of control /per se/. In fact, in both the FLOSS model and the social movement, the idea that no one group or person controls development and decision making is often quite far from the truth. In both cases it is formally true that anyone may alter or intervene in processes according to their needs, views or projects; but practically speaking, few people can assume the necessary social position from which to make effective `interventions'. Open source software is generally tightly controlled by a small group of people: the Apache Group, for example, very open-handedly controls the development of the Apache Web server, and Linus Torvalds has the final say on the Linux kernel's development. Likewise, in the social movement, decision making often devolves to a surprisingly small number of individuals and groups who make a lot of the running in deciding what happens, where and when. Though they never officially `speak for' others, much unofficial doctrine nonetheless emanates from them. Within political networks, such groups and individuals can be seen as `supernodes', not only routing more than their `fair share' of traffic, but actively determining the `content' that traverses them. Such supernodes do not (necessarily) constitute themselves out of a malicious will-to-power: rather, power defaults to them through personal qualities like energy, commitment and charisma, and the ability to synthesise politically important social moments into identifiable ideas and forms.
That this soft control by crypto-hierarchies exists is tacit knowledge for many who have had first hand experience with `open' organisations. Statements such as the following by a political activist introduced to what he calls `the chaos of open community' at a Washington State forest blockade camp in 1994 and then later the Carters Road Community, are typical:
the core group, by virtue of being around longer as individuals, and
also working together longest as a sub group, formed unintentional
elites. These elite groups were covert structures in open consensus
based communities which said loudly and clearly that everyone's
influence and power was equal [...] We all joined in with a vigorous
explanation that [...] there were no leaders [...] The conspiracy to
hide this fact among ourselves and from ourselves was remarkably
successful. It was as though the situation where no leaders existed
was known, deep down by everyone, to be impossible, outsiders were
able to say so, but communards were hoping so much that it was not
true that they were able to pretend...
To examine how much this `pretence' is the rule within the social movement is beyond the scope of this essay. But what is clear is that each of the five characteristics of `openness' described above, when subjected to scrutiny, reveal themselves as extremely compromised. The details, for example, of meetings and discussions are published and circulated, but this information is primarily received by those who are able (and often privileged to be able) to connect to certain (technological/social) networks. Likewise, the language of a `call', or equivalent, can determine whether a party will feel comfortable or suitable to respond to it: like PGA's `hallmarks', language (including, but not limited to tongue) and phraseology are points of `soft control', but not ones that are openly discussed and studied.
Furthermore, meetings may be `open to all', but they can quickly become hostile environments for parties who do not or cannot observe the `basic' consensus that is often tacitly agreed between long-term actors in a particular scene. This peer consensus can indeed, on occasion, so determine the movement's `open' decision-making process as to turn it into a war of attrition on difference, with divergent points of view gradually giving themselves up to peer opinion as the `debate' wears on and on. The `block' or `veto' is in fact rarely used because of the peer pressure placed on those who would use it (`Aw, come on, you're not going to block, are you?' - a common enough plaint at movement meetings). In some cases the apparently neutral `moderator' role can also become bizarrely instrumentalised, giving rise to the sensation that `something has already been decided', and that the meeting is just for performative purposes.
Likewise, documentation of meetings and decisions usually only tells half the story. Points of serious contention are frequently left out on grounds that the parties involved in the disagreement might not want them to be published. This `smoothing over' of serious difference is quite normal. In fact participants in IRC discussions habitually inflect what they say because of the future publication of the logs, using private channels to discuss key points and only holding `official' discussions and `lines' in the open. Too often the open channel only `hears' what it is supposed to hear and important exchanges are not published.
All of this explains why some activist-theorists are beginning to interrogate the experiment with openness as it is taking shape in the social movement. History has put significant resources at their disposal. Jo Freeman's `The Tyranny of Structurelessness' is a key document, originating from the experiences of the `60s feminist liberation movement, and provides a critique of the laissez faire ideal for group structures still absolutely relevant today. As Freeman argues, such structures can become
a smoke screen for the strong or the lucky to establish unquestioned
hegemony over others. Thus, structurelessness becomes a way of
masking power. As long as the structure of the group is informal,
the rules of how decisions are made are known only to a few, and
awareness of power is limited to those who know the rules.
Freeman's insight is fundamental: the idea of openness does not in itself prevent the formation of the informal structures that I have described here as crypto-hierarchies; on the contrary, it is possible that it fosters them to a greater degree than structured organisations. Underneath its rhetoric of openness, the non-hierarchical organisation can thus take on the qualities of a `gang'. As Jacques Camatte and Gianna Collu realised in 1969, such organisations tend to hide the existence of their informal ruling cliques to appear more attractive to outsiders, feeding on the creative abilities of individual members whilst suppressing their individual contributions, and producing layers of authority contingent on individuals' intellectual or social dominance. `Even in those groups that want to escape [it]', writes Camatte, `the [...] gang mechanism nevertheless tends to prevail[...] The inability to question theoretical questions independently leads the individual to take refuge behind the authority of another member who becomes, objectively, a leader, or behind the group entity, which becomes a gang.'
4. OPENNESS: OPEN TO ALL CONSTITUENCIES
What this initial investigation indicates is that the idea of openness, which is receiving such a promotion on the heels of the Free-Libre and Open Source software movement, is not in and of itself an immediately sufficient alternative to the bankrupt structures of representation. There seem to be good reasons for the discontent with open organisation felt by many activists, much of it based on evidence that must remain, by nature, anecdotal. But what is clear is that, if we are going to promote open organisation within the social movement, we must also take care to scrutinise the tacit flows of power that underlie and undercut it. The accounts here suggest that once the formal hierarchical membrane of group organisation is dismantled - in which, for example, software composition or political decision-making might have previously taken place - what remains are tacit control structures. In FLOSS, limitations to those who can access and alter source code are formally removed. But what then comes to define such access, and the software that is produced, are underlying determinants such as education, social opportunity, social connectivity and affiliation. The most open system theoretically imaginable, this is to say, reveals perfectly the predicating inequities of the wider environment in which it is situated; and what the idea of openness must tackle first and most critically is that a really open organisation cannot be realised without a prior radicalisation this social-political field. And that, of course, is to beg the oldest of questions.
 See: `What is Wiki?' at [http://wiki.org/wiki.cgi?WhatIsWiki]
 See: [http://www.zeropaid.com] for a review of current peer to peer and fileshare services
 Felix Stalder, `One-size-doesn't-fit-all. Particulars of the Volunteer Open Source Development Methodology', available at [http://openflows.org/article.pl?sid=03/10/25/1722242]
 Adam Greenfield, `The Minimal Compact: Preliminary Notes on an "Open Source" Constitution for Post-National Entities', [http://www.v-2.org/displayArticle.php?article_num=339]
 Tim O' Reilly, `The Open Source Paradigm Shift,' Keynote, Reboot 2003, available at [http://www.reboot.dk/reboot6/video/]
 Florian Schneider, `Re: Reverse Engineering Freedom', Nettime, Tue, 14 Oct 2003, available at [http://firstname.lastname@example.org/msg01248.html]. See also Florian Schneider and Geert Lovink, `Reverse Engineering Freedom,' in Make Worlds, 2003. Available at [http://www.makeworlds.org/?q=book/view/20]
 Douglas Rushkoff, `Open Source Democracy: How Online Communication Is Changing Offline Politics', Demos, 2003 [http://www.demos.co.uk/opensourcedemocracy_pdf_media_public.aspx]
 Rushkoff, ibid
 Biella Coleman, `Free and Open Source Software', in Survival Kit, Part one, proceedings of RAM4
 See: [http://www.apg.org]
 `Sophie', ChiapasLink UK, `We are everywhere! People's Global Action meeting in Cochabamba, Bolivia', posted to A-infos list, 8 Dec 2001. [http://www.ainfos.ca/01/dec/ainfos00120.html]
 PGA hallmarks, available at: [http://www.nadir.org/nadir/initiativ/agp/free/pga/hallm.htm]
 Massimo De Angelis, `From Movement to Society', in The Commoner, August 2001, [http://www.commoner.org.uk/01-3groundzero.htm]
 De Angelis, ibid
 Indymedia collective statement
 Matthew Arnison, `Open Publishing is the Same as Free Software', March 2001, available at
 Statement taken from: [http://wiki.uniteddiversity.com/open_organisations]
 Sans Titre, `Open Letter to the People's Global Action', 05-09-02. [http://www.pgaconference.org/_postconference_/pp_sanstitre.htm]
 See, for example, Paula Roone, `Is Linus Killing Linux?', in TechWeb, January 28, 2001, [http://www.techweb.com/wire/story/TWB20010126S0013]
 Chris Lee, `An Article Concerning the Issue of Covert Power Elites in Open Communities', 4/12/2001, [http://cartersrd.org.au/covert_elites.html]
 Jo Freeman, `The Tyranny of Struturelessness', first printed by the Women's Liberation Movement, USA, 1970 [http://www.anarres.org.au/essays/amtos.htm]
 Jacques Camatte, `On Organisation', in Invariance, Annee V, Serie II, No.2, reprinted in This World We Must Leave and Other Essays, Autonomedia: New York, 1995, p.30
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