It’s difficult to talk about ‘open source’ as if it were a unitary phenomenon. It’s telling, for instance, that one way of referring to it these days is F/LOSS (for ‘free/libre open source software’) an orally hygenic acronym which captures the ‘free as in speech’ meaning of ‘free’ by glossing it into its less ambiguous generic romance-language equivalent (“biella”:http://www.healthhacker.org/satoroams/ is really the expert on this sort of thing). The term is meant to knit together an ‘open source’ approach (think Eric Raymond and Bruce Pehrens) with a ‘free software’ approach (think Richard Stallman) which diverge on several key issues. But open source’s cup runneth over and has spilled out into our culture more generally. Academics, for instance, have developed the concept of ‘open access’ publications, while Lawrence Lessig has been just one of the many voices who have argued for ‘free culture’ as a model of and for the natural history of pretty much any kind of creative activity.
Both internal diversity and external diffusion, then, make nailing down open source’s ‘brand’ difficult. In recent comments Judd Antin “argued”:/2005/09/25/is-anthropology-averse-to-open-source/#comment-1633 argued that the heart of what it means to ‘open source’ is to engage in a collaborative ‘process’ of scholarly research, and that simply releasing a finished ‘product’ such as an article that can be freely circulated is secondary this more central meaning of ‘open source.’ John McCreery “argues”:/2005/09/25/is-anthropology-averse-to-open-source/#comment-1644 argues that Linux coders have “a shared project” and are “opposed to the notion that knowledge is private property” — a position which encourage cooperation while Anthropologists undertake “a jumble of private projects” under the influence of “an insistence on personal ownership of intellectual property” which discourage cooperation. Both contrast with my position about the role of ‘open source’ in anthropology not because we disagree about the importance of ‘open source’ as a cultural idea or movement, but because of our fundamentally different approaches to intellectual and creative production.
Judd’s idea, as I understand it, is to use digital technology such as blogs and wikis to facilitate group research. As someone who contributes to wikipedia and has my own (somewhat languishing) “research blog”:http://digitalgenres.org I obviously agree with this. But I don’t understand why he thinks what he is doing is ‘open source’. First, what he is doing is obviously a group research project. But this sort of thing is not new — think, for instance, of Griaule’s large-scale expeditions, or Steward’s ‘People of Puerto Rico’ project to name just a few. But the fact that you are working closely with others does not make something ‘open source’ — if it does then I’m in an ‘open source’ choir. Second, he is using digital collaborative tools such as wikis and blogs. But clearly, the simple fact of using new media to collaborate does not make something ‘open source.’ Anyone familiar with the great successes of open source software should recognize this immediately — believe it or not, many kernels and compilers managed to get written Back In The Day when people didn’t use blogs or wikis at all! And in fact, it seems that a lot of his group’s work is closed, not released under an open source license, and not available to the general public. I’m not clear on the details, but he does state, for instance, that their blog is ‘private,’ and I suspect that only members of the group can edit their group wiki. In sum, group research + digital collaboration != open source.
In fact one could criticize Judd by arguing that if he was truly committed to having an ‘open’ development process for his research, he would release all of his data and writing into the public domain so that it could be built upon by others. This criticism is two-pronged. From the point of view of a Richard Stallman, this critcism points out just how far short Judd’s program falls from the true ideals of ‘real’ open source coders. From the point of view of a generic professor, the criticism points out how bad it would be if Judd actually did this. I wonder, for instance, if the human subjects review board who ok’d this project would have done so if they knew Ito and Lyman (the PI’s of Judd’s project for whom, btw, I have enormous respect) planned to release onto the Internet the names and social security numbers of the children they studied?
This example — that human subjects have human rights which perl code does not — indicates one of the many ways in which the idea of “debugging culture” as if it were code rests on a raft of problematic assumptions about similarities coding and anthropology which I don’t have time to get into here. The point is just that although Judd claims to be hewing more closely than I to the model of open source as practiced by programmers, in fact his use of the term to mean “group research + digital collaboration” is in fact quite removed from a strict reading of what it means to be ‘open source.’
John McCreery argues that the ideals of anthropologists (and, presumably, the academy more generally) are orthogonal to those of the open source movement — a claim which will seem ironic (if not downright bizarre) to anyone familiar with the history of FOSS. The ideals of the university are, of course, what originally inspired F/LOSS — as anyone familiar with Stallman’s own history well knows. It is telling that in both his case and Judd’s they consider individual scholarly articles ‘products’ of a lone scholarly ‘process’ that needs to be opened up and made collaborative. For scholars themselves have a very different paradigm of creativity and production which does not oppose ‘process’ and ‘product’ in the way they do. This paradigm was captured very well in Machiavelli’s famous description of his study habits in his letter to Francesco Vittori in 1513:
On the coming of evening, I return to my house and enter my study; and at the door I take off the day’s clothing, covered with mud and dust, and put on garments regal and courtly; and reclothed appropriately, I enter the ancient courts of ancient men, where, received by them with affection, I feed on that food which only is mine and which I was born for, where I am not ashamed to speak with them and to ask them the reason for their actions; and they in their kindness answer me; and for four hours of time I do not feel boredom, I forget every trouble, I do not dread poverty, I am not frightened by death; entirely I give myself over to them.
For Machiavelli, as for any scholar, academic production is not the ‘jumble of private projects’ that John seems to think it is. It is a participation in the ‘long conversation’ with other thinkers in the canon (a canon which is, to be sure, fluid and contested) that is part of a tradition that is literally thousands of years old. We see our articles and books as being a momentary intervention in an ongoing argument that has developed for centuries and that will continue for (hopefully) even longer. Where other people see a silent library full of books, we see a room full of voices.
This is why Lessig’s ‘Free Culture’ approach is so popular for academics. Lessig’s focus on the way in which any individual creator in the present relies on prior art and will themselves be considered prior art by future creators captures perfectly the sense that academics have that they are merely one moment in an academic tradition that stretches from the past, through them, and into the future. For anthropologists Lessig’s approach has the added advantage of using the notion of culture in a way that is congruent with much of our own writing on the topic. Lessig sees culture as something that we get from the past and transform through innovative practice — something directly comparable to Sahlins’s work on the structure of the conjuncture, or Ricoeur on metaphoric innovation. This idea of any text being situated in a prexisting background of voices is clearly very apropos to the Bakhtinianly inclined or interested in (as Sherry Ortner glosses it) ‘practice theory.’
So while it is true — thank goodness! — that anthropology doesn’t have a Kuhnian ‘normal science’ paradigm in place, this does not mean that what we do is a jumble, or uncollaborative. It merely means that if you haven’t heard the first half of the conversation it’s not surprising you may have trouble figuring out what we’re talking about now. It is easy to miss the logic interconnections between different anthropological projects because discerning them requires a clear sense of their genealogy and interrelation. It would be easy to read this entire entry, for instance, without realizing that to a certain extent it represents a second-generation attempt to combine the work of Leslie White, Karl Polanyi, and Claude Levi-Strauss! And institutionally, obviously, the academy encourages people to contribute to this conversation as freely as possible. Unlike the music business, where people tour to support the album, anthropologists make their living doing live gigs, and sell records of their thoughts at little to no profit. But because our position within a univeristy is determined by how well-known we are outside of it, we have a strong incentive to write well, write often, and make our texts as widely available as possible.
Looked at in this way, the academy is like open source collaboration. Our open software project is The Sum Total Of Human Knowledge. Our SVN servers are libraries. Our articles are our contributions to the code and, like all programmers, we don’t want to commit anything to the repository that will break the tree. Once committed, however, we do encourage people to quote, copy, and reuse our words and ideas providing that they give us credit. Looked at from this point of view, scholarship (not surprisingly) looks very much like a FLOSS project, and an emphasis on open access licensing — rather than collaborative writing — is intelligible not merely as “an insistence on personal ownership of intellectual property” but indeed as a concern with keeping process open by allowing individual contributions to circulate as freely as possible.