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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In the course of the 1990ies media art was superseded by what I call The Next Layer or, for help of better words, Open Source Culture.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.



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