Social Technologies and the Digital Commons

Social Technologies and the Digital Commons

Francesca da Rimini
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-368-5.ch052
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This chapter investigates the premise that software is culture. It explores this proposition through the lens of peer production, of knowledge-based goods circulating in the electronic space of a digital commons, and the material space of free media labs. Computing history reveals that technological development has typically been influenced by external sociopolitical forces. However, with the advent of the Internet and the free software movement, such development is no longer solely shaped by an elite class. Dyne; bolic, Streamtime and the Container Project are three autonomously-managed projects that combine social technologies and cooperative labour with cultural activism. Innovative digital staging platforms enable creative expression by marginalised communities, and assist movements for social change. The author flags new social relations and shared social imaginaries generated in the nexus between open code and democratic media. In so doing the author aims to contribute tangible, inspiring examples to the emerging interdisciplinary field of software studies.
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The evolution of computing is woven through with histories of power, capital, and social control. Each major innovation benefited from a rich accretion of ideas and inventions, sometimes spanning centuries, cultures, and continents. Specific political imperatives (serving national or imperial interests) and wider societal forces shaped the development pathways of computing. From cog to code, information technologies have never been neutral.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Social Technologies: An umbrella term which could include free software, social software, recycled electronic equipment in free media labs, and so on. Technology put to use by the people, for the people.

Digital Commons: A conceptual framework for considering the common wealth of intellectual goods, knowledge products, creative works, free software tools, shared ideas, information, and so on which are freely and democratically shared, and possibly further developed, via the Internet

Open Source Software (OSS): A strategic business-friendly “rebranding” of free software emphasising the practical benefits of the model of participatory software development and open code, and downplaying the original ideological and philosophical positions.

Social Software: The term came out of the nexus between cultural and social activism, art and tactical media, and was originally used to designate software that came into being through an extended dialogue between programmers and communities of users, ensuring that the software was responsive to user needs. The phrase no longer carries the same import, as it is now applied to software-assisted social networking platforms such as MySpace.

Free Software (FS): Software in which the underlying code is available to be inspected, modified, shared, with the proviso that it remains open, even following modification. To ensure it remains open, free software is distributed under the General Public License (GPL) or similar legal agreements.

Peer Production: A horizontal, distributed method of cooperative, creative labour, generally facilitated by high levels of communication, information, and file sharing via the Internet.

Free Software Movement: The philosophical and political context underpinning the creation of free software, and the subjective sense of community shared by developers and users.

Immaterial Labour: A theoretical framing of knowledge work, labour processes, and social relations in information society, initially articulated by Italian theorists including Maurizio Lazzarato and Christian Marazzi.

Free/Libre Open Source software (FLOSS): A convenient acronym for “free libre open source software.” It neatly bundles the revolutionary associations of “free (libré) as in freedom” together with the more technical and neutral connotations of “open source.” The term implicitly acknowledges that differences between the two camps exist, but they are operational in the same field.

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