Friday, May 01, 2009

Real Labor Day; Technical Work; Open Source Economics

Today is the real labor day; the one in September was an effort to disassociate the more conservative parts of the labor movement from the radical factions. May Day was relabeled as "Loyalty Day" by Eisenhower.

I'll link to this post I did on the fake labor day a couple of years ago on the nature of programming work.

Very few people in the computer industry seem to care about the unequal distribution of monetary gains in the technosphere. That some people get to be zillionaires while others slave away in cubicles seems very normal. In the heart of Silicon Valley where I work, everyone thinks they are going to get rich, and a significant enough fraction does. The open-source movement, a great idea in many ways, has only intensified the concentration of financial gain, where a few people who manage to occupy a strategic location in the system end up profiting over the unpaid work of others. Almost nobody seems to be critiquing this, but one exception is Seth Finkelstein, who focuses on how the unpaid labor of thousands of Wikipedia writers and editors has not only enriched the world, but a few individuals who get to take credit for this vast network of volunteers.

Oh well, I'm just bitter because I have managed pretty well to avoid getting rich, my interests have always either been non-commerical and/or mistimed (I had a proposal for a www-like system in 1986, a few years before the actual web took off). Luck has a lot to do with who wins in a winner-take-all economy; so does having a particular personality type. We live in a culture that worships outrageous success and disdains those whose accomplishments are modest. The genius of the labor movement was in giving a voice to the ordinary, in glorifying the mundane. Only partly successful, of course -- the dynamics that lead to inequality of status are powerful and perhaps innate to human existence; the global market economy did not invent them, it just perfectly embodies them.

The labor movement was a response to the dislocations of the industrial revolution. We are in the midst of a postindustrial revolution; new economic forms are being invented as we speak (virtualized companies, open source projects, intellectual commons...) and who knows how that's going to shake out. Nobody seems to have a very good model for how the information economy (where goods are expensive to create and free to reproduce) should relate to the everyday economy of scarcity, of things like food and energy. Open-source is creating great value for the world while the people who create it have to beg and scrounge to support their efforts. This seems wrong and unsustainable in the long term.


TGGP said...

I verged off into discussing modern electronic gift economies, profit and desert here.

Michael said...

To describe Wikipedia contributors as exploited laborers seems to me to be a stretch. They are volunteers and they know they will receive no payment. That it is an electronic medium is not significant. They might as well be blood donors at a Red Cross bloodmobile. Are those people "exploited," too?

Presumably the compensation of a volunteer is whatever gratification he gets for having done whatever it is he did - whether it be the pleasure of having well accomplished something difficult, or having done a good deed, or whatever admiration or credit he may be accorded by others who are aware of the fact. In any event, money doesn't enter into it.

Dr. Johnson said that "no man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money." Yet at the time he said it, writing for publication was much more the consequence of being a gentleman than it was of any expectation of monetary return. Perhaps after the nineteenth-century development of the publishing industry, and the separation of the functions of printing and binding from those of actual publication - i.e., wholesale distribution, publicity, and bearing the risk of not being able to recover a book's or journal's production costs - the number of paid writers, as a percentage of the total, rose from its earlier level. If this is so, the advent of the Internet has merely restored the status quo ante.

You aren't being paid to write this blog, are you? Do you consider yourself exploited?

mtraven said...

I did not use the word exploitation, and I'm somewhat surprised to hear you deplying it -- implying that some laborers are in fact exploited. But, indeed, the situation of open-source workers is not much like the kind of exploitation that Marx and his followers like to talk about. Open source is an entirely new mode of production, and it is not clear at all how it should work.

The situation that Seth Finkelstein is complaining about is more akin to discovering that you and many others are freely donating time and money to some worthy cause, only to find out that the leaders of the cause are getting rich off of your efforts. You may not be exploited, but you might not be overly happy about it. Actually the analogy is flawed because the charity case is more zero-sum than Wikipedia -- if the leaders of a charity are siphohing off money that detracts directly from the cause, but Jimmy Wales earning huge speakers fees doesn't cost Wikipedia anything. So I don't think that this is exploitation or even all that bad.

Open-source is essentially a communist utopian dream come alive -- property is held in common for all; labor is purely voluntary and unalienated (save for the emerging problems mentioned above); and surprisingly, the quality of the product is high. All this is possible because the economics of informational goods are very different than that of material goods. But I do wonder at how open-source efforts will be sustainable in the long run. It isn't very fair and doesn't seem very practical for programmers to donate their labor for free when the farmers and plumbers that supply the services they need still need to be paid in cash. I made this point to Richard Stallman in the very early days of the free software movement. It turns out that these problems didn't matter as much as I thought and the movement has been more successful than I could have dreamed, but they haven't gone away either.

Michael said...

No, of course I don't mean to imply that any workers are exploited. It just seemed such typical bolshie cant that it fit with your and Finkelstein's analysis.

I don't think the left really understands charity. Stuck as it is in materialism, the left views charity solely as an economic activity, which it really is only in an incidental fashion. Charity is undertaken for the spiritual benefit of its giver; the economic benefit of its recipient is merely a byproduct. The spiritual benefit enjoyed by the giver is essentially connected with the voluntary character of his gift; when this is absent, so is that benefit.

mtraven said...

What does charity have to do with anything we were talking about? Honestly, sometimes you seem like a jukebox that emits various cranky rightwing talking points at random.

Michael said...

"What does charity have to do with anything we were talking about?"

Charity has to do with voluntarism, and voluntarism with the free work done by (for example) Wikipedia contributors. The reward they receive - whatever benefit or gratification they may get from their efforts - is of the same nature as the reward received (for example) by a Red Cross blood donor. It is precisely this point that appears not to be evident to you.

To complain about how 'the unpaid labor of thousands... has not only enriched the world, but a few individuals who get to take credit for this vast network of volunteers' reflects a misunderstanding of the nature of charity. One might as well say this about any charitable or voluntary effort that is broadly supported by persons who donate their time and effort, while being administered by a small professional staff - and it would be just as wrong.

Honestly, sometimes you seem like an automaton fundamentally incapable of making basic logical connections, who occasionally and at random emits what seems like a symptom of ratiocination.

mtraven said...

Charity and open-source work are both voluntary but other than that they are not very similar.

When volunteers for Habitat for Humanity (ie) build a house, they build it for someone else and then move on. That's charity. Work on open source source software or Wikipedia is more like a large community building a shared house that they then inhabit and do further work on. People who do such work feel an ownership stake in the product (in the emotional if not legal sense).

I doubt you have the background to appreciate the issues around open source. Even the people in the industry who deal with them on a daily basis haven't fully grasped the implications. There's an economic revolution happening here, it's mostly for the good but in any revolutionary situation people are going to get messed up in the transition. A few economists have started to grapple with the issues (there are OK books by Yochai Benkler and Steven Weber) but they barely scratch the surface.

Michael said...

We have seen many fields of activity long before the electronic period in which work - even (perhaps especially) intellectual work - is compensated monetarily little or at all, because of the number of persons willing to do it for nothing. Writing is perhaps the most notable of them, despite Dr. Johnson's remark. There are others.

One that is rather striking is photography. When first invented, it was an activity requiring a high degree of technical competence, and since then it has been put within reach of anybody able to buy a cheap and simple camera. Even fifty years ago the major photographic suppliers, such as Eastman Kodak, catered to the commercial photographic industry almost as an afterthought to the much bigger and more lucrative amateur market. I have known several commercial photographers, and every one of them left the business (some even before the advent of digital photography) with the observation that it had become impossible to make a living in it. Even though the average amateur has nothing near the skill of even a journeyman professional, the great majority of people are satisfied with the kinds of photographs they can make for themselves, and this has led to a shrinking of opportunities for the commercial operator.

Music is another field in which very few people can make a satisfactory living by practising the art. How many folks are there who play an instrument - sometimes very well - just for their own satisfaction in doing so? And how much opportunity for profitable employment has this denied those who seek it in music? Recall that in Bach's time, every little village had its church, and the church had its (paid) kapellmeister, choir, instrumentalists, etc. Today church choirs in this country (at least) are volunteer organizations, and only the most prosperous have a full-time paid music director.

Whether the work done is charitable in a strict sense or is not, the compensation of the volunteer - whether it be a sense of spiritual benefit, or merely the secular pleasure taken in its accomplishment - is in any event non-monetary. And of course such amateurs or volunteers can be seen as denying economic gain to those who seek it in similar work. I suppose the Red Cross blood donor is in this sense an unwanted competitor to the layabout who seeks to gain a few dollars by selling his blood.

Persons in the computer industry, in my observation, do not have the broader background in economic history to appreciate that the market phenomena with which they deal are not new or unique to them.

mtraven said...

It's true enough that creative work for reasons other than monetary gain is as old as humanity. But open source production is quite different in at least two ways:

- the network technology and other tools that allow hundreds or thousands of people to collaborate in a coordinated fashion on a single project;

- the legal innovations in licensing that encourage (and force, in some cases) work to remain in the public domain.

Nothing against music or photography, but such work is done by individuals (or small groups) and is not economically important as a factor of further production.
Whereas open source projects can have enormous complexity (writing an operating system) that used to require a large industrial organization to capitalize and manage. The open source software ecosystem is a globally-scaled form of communal property; that is something new.

Furthermore, open source software also make up an increasingly large fraction of the IT infrastructure that keeps the whole world running. This is rather different from amateur musicians.

Persons in the computer industry, in my observation, do not have the broader background in economic history to appreciate that the market phenomena with which they deal are not new or unique to them.The open source production model does indeed have some antecedents (like the early scientific community) and does indeed apply to areas other than software. So what?

The works I cited are not by computer scientists. Benkler is at Harvard Law and Weber is a political scientist. And the whole point of open source production is that it is not a market phenomenon, so please spare me the patronizing attitude until you've bothered to familiarize youself with the basics.

Michael said...

Well, my dear sir, spare me YOUR patronizing attitude.

The principal challenge of digital media is to the law of intellectual property that was based on older means of publication. This doesn't differ, except in degree, from the effects that the introduction of printing had on the diffusion of literature, the introduction of photography did on the diffusion of images, and the introduction of recording did on the diffusion of music.

Law needs time to accommodate technical changes. There was, for example, no law against embezzlement until after the development of a credit economy and monies of account. Henry VIII's statute against embezzlement followed only about 40 years after the appearance of Pacioli's treatise on double-entry bookkeeping. Traffic speed limits followed in due course the development of automobiles capable of moving dangerously fast.As these examples show, law eventually addresses the problems posed by new inventions.

Computers are simply office machines, albeit more sophisticated than earlier types of office machine. They and the consequences of their use should not be enveloped in hype and mystique.

mtraven said...

If the internet and digital technologies can have the kind of impact on economic, cultural, and political structures that the printing press had, it will be very signifcant indeed. Office machines indeed. And electricity is just a more sophisticated form of campfire, I suppose.

ac said...

I always found the unpaid labour aspect of open source challenging. Spend all day toiling, and then spend my evening helping write a better operating system so that some company I have no interest in can avoid paying for MS Office? How many cones have you had?

Sure, it's a communist dream turned reality, but it smarts when a company can use the communal property as capital with no obligation to give back.

Still that's not how it has seemed to work in practice - when open source is used in a commercial environment, seems to me more often than not bugs are found and patched, features are added, and developers end up spending paid company time improving the communal codebase.

Don't misunderstand me, I'm all for OSS, and even though it rankles a little I'm more or less convinced of the superiority of the BSD style license to the GPL.

Michael said...

At least you are now acknowledging that there are technical developments that have had greater effect on society than computers. I suppose this is an advance in your understanding.

I doubt that open-source software, Wikipedia, etc., will have as significant an effect as did the printing press, simply because they are just derivatives of pre-existing technologies. The electric telegraph was a development of more significance. Without the telegraph, there would not have been the telephone; without the telegraph and telephone, there would not have been the wireless, or the teleautograph ("fax" machine - invented by Edison long before it became widespread), the photo-lathe, or many other advances in communication at a distance that underly the Internet and things like Wikipedia.

The gun, the printing press, and the magnetic compass were harbingers of the modern age because they were completely new. I see nothing of such importance or novelty in open source software. You are vastly overestimating its importance.

mtraven said...

At least you are now acknowledging that there are technical developments that have had greater effect on society than computers. I suppose this is an advance in your understanding.Um, when did I say otherwise? You are so eager to disagree with me on every possible point that you attribute all sorts of beliefs to me that I don't have. That makes the dialog even more pointless than it otherwise is.

I doubt that open-source software, Wikipedia, etc., will have as significant an effect as did the printing press...I didn't say that either.

I would claim that the development of digital electronic computational and communication technologies, a process which began with the telegraph and is still ongoing, is a change that is revolutionary on roughly the same scale as the development of printing and related technologies, or greater.

Wikis and open source are only a part of this revolution, although an important and interesting part. They are products, production processes, and social institutions that could not really exist prior to the development of the internet. And they are enabling technologies that make further development possible.

All of this is mind-numbingly obvious. There are some interesting controversiesaround these issues, but you haven't addressed them. Like, for instance, what is gained and lost by Wikipedia displacing traditional reference works like the Britannica? This is somewhat analogous to the issue I started this post out with, namely the problems caused by amateurism displacing professionalism in software development.

Michael said...

You didn't say that either?

In your post at 2:35 pm you wrote:"If the Internet and digital technologies can have the kind of impact on economic, cultural, and political structures that the printing press had, it will be very significant indeed. Office machines indeed. And electricity is just a more sophisticated form of campfire, I suppose."

Maybe that's not quite a straightforward assertion, but it is certainly suggests an affirmative conclusion.

As for the consequences of Wikipedia displacing Brittanica, they are much like those of bloggers on the order of Matt Drudge replacing the so-called 'objective' reporting of the mainstream media.

It is interesting to note that the self-proclaimed objectivity and high standards of journalism are of quite recent origin. Such 'professionalism' is, furthermore, more highly rated than it mostly deserves to be.

Less than a century ago everyone knew that the purpose of a newspaper was to advance its publisher's viewpoint. When one bought the Chicago Tribune, one got Col. McCormick's. When one bought the New York Times, one got Sulzberger's. And so on... Papers were named "Democrat" (like the Little Rock, Ark., "Democrat-Gazette") or "Republican" (like the Red Wing, Minn., "Republican-Eagle") so as to leave their readers in no doubt as to the viewpoints they would find represented within their pages. There still is - or was until very recently - a paper called the Cecil County (Md.) "Whig," which shows just how long this was the custom.

The bloggers have just restored the overt polemical slant that always was associated with news reportage in the past. I suggest that this is more honest than the hidden slant of 'objective' reporting. The latter is often less evident in the content of the stories that are reported than it is in the decision that other stories aren't worth reporting.

In like manner, a reference like Wikipedia simply replaces the tacit biases and valuations of the 'scholarly consensus' that guided the standard references of the past with a sort of free-for-all in which competing revisers attempt to inject their own biases and others as soon delete them. This is why it's interesting to read the 'discussion' page linked to any Wiki article about which there's any controversy.

Again, this is a reversion to the status quo ante. Scaliger said in the sixteenth century that in the realm of France all were given leave to write and no one was required to think. Well into the nineteenth century - and perhaps even later - there was a surprising amount of individual and polemical flavor to published discourse, even of a scholarly or scientific kind. Every religious sect of course had its own theologians, who skirmished constantly with those of other denominations. Literature and its criticism were wildly individual and combative. Even the sciences did not escape this. Justus von Liebig was probably the greatest chemist of his age, but was a man of violent temper and noted for his tactlessness. He once arranged for a counterfeit edition of a respected scientific journal to be printed, containing an article parodying the style of one of his rivals, and attributed to an author named "S.C.H. Windler" - schwindler of course meaning in German what its cognate does in English.

If the Internet can be criticised for having led to the publication of some less than reliable, "unprofessional," or strongly slanted information, it will be salutary to remember the old maxim - "don't believe everything you read in the newspaper." There is almost nothing new under the sun, except what has been forgotten.

mtraven said...

Why don't you just take the clear statement I made at 11:44 for what it is and stop worrying about what you might have erroneously inferred from what I wrote earlier?

I don't care much about journalistic objectivity, and I welcome the diversity of good, strong, opinionated writing that the internet has made possible. What will be missed if newspapers go out of business is the funding model for expert investigative journalism. Bloggers can't (unless they are funded somehow) perform the functions of foreign bureaus, war correspondents, and in-depth investigators. Such functions are a vital check on government abuses.

I imagine if newspapers actually do fold then some of this work will be picked up by independent reporters (aka bloggers) funded by foundations and other nonprofits.

There is almost nothing new under the sun, except what has been forgotten.I thought you agreed that the printing revolution was a real change. It's pretty clear that the changes wrought by electronic communications and digital technologies are just as revolutionary, but I suppose opinions can differ, and we aren't finished with it yet.

Or is this just Grampa Simpson crankypants talk? Obviously, new things are being invented all the time.

Michael said...

You have obviously missed the point that I made about the bloggers vs. newspapers, which was that the Wiki vs. Britannica situation was analogous to it. In both cases, there is a reversion to the status quo ante, one of frankly polemical exchange as opposed to a mostly false appearance of ojbectivity and consensus.

I said that there was "almost" nothing new under the sun. Printing was new - gunpowder was new - the magnetic compass was new. So was electric/electronic communication, beginning with the telegraph. Most "new" inventions are merely derivative, rather than being complete novelties, and this is true of the Internet and things like Wkipedia or open-source software. It is my observation that many people who are connected in some way with the computer industry have an overweening sense of their own importance, the product (perhaps) of being brought up by parents and teachers petrified of damaging their "self-esteem." They need from time to time to be reminded that they aren't as significant as they suppose.

mtraven said...

I think we are largely in agreement on this issue and are sniping at each other out of habit.

One thing to add: it is certainly true that there is an enormous amount of hype in the computer industry. Believe me, I know this, I have to deal with it daily. Nevertheless, the ultimate impact of digital technology (however you want to demarcate it) is probably underestimated if anything, if all you read is the mainstream press, which can't really envision anything more than a few years into the future.