DIGITAL NATION


Duel Heats Up Over Culture of the Internet

By Gary Chapman

Copyright 1998, The Los Angeles Times, All Rights Reserved


The proposed merger of America Online Inc. and Netscape Communications Corp. seems to have pleased Wall Street, and boosted almost all Internet stocks, but it created a sour and anxious feeling among longtime Internet activists and programmers.

They see this new goliath as yet another encroachment by "the suits," the corporate culture that has recently discovered the Internet, and as perhaps the cyberspace equivalent of suburban sprawl, the "malling of America." AOL's flirtation with the metaphors of commercial TV, with its "channels" and ubiquitous advertising, raises the specter of the Internet turning into a commercial wasteland like TV, subverting the promise of cyberspace as a different kind of medium.

New-media pundit Jon Katz wrote that the AOL-Netscape merger is a "catastrophe" for Net culture.

The hacker and activist community on the Internet is deeply suspicious of any company that seems to harbor ambitions of being emperor of cyberspace, whether it's AOL-Netscape or Microsoft. These programmers, activists and idealists think the Internet is working just fine already, the way they created it.

What seems to be shaping up is a fascinating duel between two models of Net culture, both of them gaining strength in the last year: the commercial culture of big corporations and the "gift economy" developing among thousands of computer programmers who are contributing to "open source" software such as the operating system Linux. These two models will coexist for a while, but how they interact with each other is likely to be the most interesting story in the technology field for some years to come.

Linux has been the rage in all the technology press lately, in part because of its radically different development from the corporate model represented by Microsoft and its Windows operating system. A familiar story by now, Linux was first developed by Linus Torvalds in 1991, when the Finnish computer science student wanted a version of the Unix operating system to run on his 386 PC.

Torvalds used software tools produced by the Free Software Foundation, an organization founded by Richard Stallman in Cambridge, Mass. Stallman's personal philosophy -- which earned him a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" -- is that software should be free and widely shared in a community committed to improving its capabilities, not unlike the way we regard scientific knowledge. This does not mean that software should cost nothing. It means that software source code, the text of a program that is interpreted by computers as instructions, should be freely available for modification and improvement by others, for the benefit of all.

Torvalds put Linux into this model of software development and relied on the distributed intelligence of thousands of volunteers around the world to improve the operating system. He also made it free in the conventional sense of that word: It's available for download, without cost, through many sites on the Internet.

The result is that Linux is now widely used -- estimates of its user population vary from 6 million up to 20 million people, depending on whom you ask -- and widely admired for its stability, scalability (its ability to handle large tasks) and speed. It's highly customizable because its source code is accessible to programmers, unlike that of Windows. Linux doesn't crash, or only rarely, also unlike Windows. And Linux is so fast and efficient that it can resurrect otherwise obsolete -- and therefore cheap -- computers and turn them into effective Internet servers or desktop machines. And because it's free, it greatly reduces the expense of implementing cutting-edge computing.

The Mexican government, for example, last month announced that it will install Linux in 140,000 computer labs in Mexican elementary and secondary schools. Government officials estimated that Windows licenses for all these labs would cost them close to $125 million. Linux is not only free, it doesn't require replacing older computers, and it's possibly the operating system of the future -- Mexico could lead the world in producing Linux system administrators. This may be the smartest thing the Mexican government has ever done.

Aside from its technical benefits, however, the most interesting thing about Linux and other open source software -- which includes the scripting language Perl and many applications -- may be the corresponding phenomenon of the open source model of development as a true social movement. And the resurrection of the idea of a "gift economy," a term with a long history in anthropology, to apply to a high-tech subculture is intriguing and portentous.

The phrase was coined by French anthropologist Marcel Mauss in his 1924 book "The Gift" (translated into English in 1935), a study of the potlatch ceremonies of Northwest American Indians. It has been, since then, a paradigm of anthropological study but almost exclusively of "primitive" societies such as South Sea islanders, North American Indians and African tribes. It refers to the practice among these groups of circulating gifts -- such as blankets, shells or herd animals -- as a mode of prestige and exchange.

Anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski, in his 1922 book, "Argonauts of the Western Pacific," wrote about the gift circulation of shell armbands among the Kula on islands near New Guinea. He wrote that one of these armbands enabled a Kula man "to draw a great deal of renown, to exhibit the article, to tell how he obtained it, and to plan to whom he is going to give it. And all this forms one of the favorite subjects of tribal conversation and gossip."

This description is pretty much identical to what happens among the thousands of programmer volunteers working on open source software code, who clearly view themselves as part of a community. Their conversation and gossip can be found on Usenet sites, where people get free technical support advice, and on Web sites like Slashdot (http://www.slashdot.org), which ills itself as "News for Nerds. Stuff That Matters." The volume of traffic on Slashdot is astounding, with hundreds of new messages every day. And the overall gestalt of Slashdot and other open source sites is evangelical, pushing the concept of open source software as the superior method of software development.

Eric Raymond, who wrote the influential open source manifesto "The Cathedral and the Bazaar," (http://www.tuxedo.org/~esr/writings/cathedral-bazaar/) and who is the president of a new organization called the Open Source Initiative (http://www.opensource.org/), says, "In a real gift culture, the wealth is inside the person's head, not in economic value.

"One of the things that ticks me off," says Raymond, "is when the corporate types approach the Internet as a tabula rasa, as unexplored wilderness that can be transformed by corporate beneficence. They don't understand that the Internet already has its own folklore, its own heroes, its own values. If you come to the Internet like some British imperialist thinking that your mission is to civilize the natives, they're not likely to take it very well." Indeed, antipathy to Microsoft and the other "suits" of the "new economy" is part of the glue that holds the open source community together.

"This is my politics, as well as my technology," Raymond adds. "When someone says 'social movement,' I typically reach for my gun -- it usually means coercion. But the open source movement is about voluntarism, cooperation, gift-giving, building community. It's about working for the benefit of everyone without anyone holding a gun to your head."

It will be strange and fascinating if the real long-term threat to Microsoft is less another corporate competitor or the Justice Department and more a high-tech version of an ancient human ritual of exchange, the gift economy. Bill Gates must be watching this in utter stupefaction.


Gary Chapman is director of The 21st Century Project at the University of Texas at Austin. His e-mail address Is:
gary.chapman@mail.utexas.edu.

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