update: no longer think “hacker class consciousness” is important

by Sebastian Benthall

I’m going through old papers and throwing them out. I came upon an early draft from my first year in graduate school titled “Hacker Class Consciousness”. It was the beginning of an argument that those that work on open source software needed to develop a kind of class consciousness recognizing that their work bears a special relationship to capitalist modes of production. Open source software is a form of capital (a means of production) that is not privately owned. Hence, it is actually quite disruptive to capitalism per se. A la early Marxist theory, a political identity or “class consciousness” of people working in this way was necessary to reform the government to make it more equitable, or environmentally friendly, less violent, or whatever your critique of capitalism (or neoliberalism, if you prefer) is.

I didn’t get very far past this basic economic logic, which I still think is correct. I no longer think that class consciousness is important though. And I don’t think there’s an inevitability to capitalism containing the seeds of its own revolution through the eventual triumph of open source production.

I think it’s a good practice to make oneself accountable when one changes ones mind. There’s lots of evidence to say that when people publicly commit to some belief, they wind up sticking to it with more confidence than they ought to. Shame related reasons, I suppose. A good alternative habit, I believe, is publicly admitting when you are wrong about something, with the reasons for the update.

So why did I change my mind on this? Well, one reason is that I took some shots at formally modelling the problem several years ago and while it showed the robustness of open source software as a way of opening a market that had previously been dominated or locked in by a proprietary vendor or solution, there isn’t the profit motive driving open source production as a first mover. So the natural pressures of the market make open source coexist alongside proprietary systems, providing a countervailing force to privatization but never dissolving it entirely.

Another reason I changed my mind was a more general shift away from Marxist to Bourdieusian modes of thinking, which I’ve talked about here. A key part of this change in perspective is that it sees many kinds of capital at work in society, including both economic and cultural forms, and populations are distributed across the resulting multidimensional spectrum of variation, not stratified into a one-dimensional class structure. In such a world, class consciousness is futile. This futility may explain the futility of the Marxist project in general, as there was never really the kind of global collective action of the proletariat that he predicted would end capitalism. There’s always too many other kinds of population difference at work to allow for such a revolution. Race, for example.

It is good that a matured attitude has left me less eager to engage in a futile revolutionary project. There’s nothing like pursuing a doctorate for grinding that kind of idealism out of you. Now I can scintillate with cynicism, and would like to be much better at it. Which is to say, I’m beginning to regret ever turning away from the dismal science of economics, which now seems much more like the doctrine worth pursuing and improving.

One nice thing about economics is that it is quantitatively rigorous. This is not simply an intellectual gate-keeping statement designed to box out the innumerate. It’s rather a comment on how such a field has strictly more expressive power because of its capacity to represent a statistical distribution of variation. It’s not enough to say there’s black and white when there are shades of gray. And it’s not enough to say there are shades of gray when the particular variation in density of light across the field is what’s important.

A grayscale raster, from the OpenGeo Suite

A grayscale raster, from the OpenGeo Suite

It’s this kind of expressive power that gives computational social science much of its appeal. I forgot to even make this argument in my paper about the subject. That may be because this notion of the expressive power of different representational systems is part of what one learns in the course of ones computer science education, and that argument was written primarily for people without a computer science education.

Which really brings the discussion back around to where I come down to on the revolutionary economic potential of software development. Which is that really, it’s about educating people in the concepts and skills that allow them to make use of this incredible pool of openly available technical capital that gives people the “class consciousness” to act with it. Since late modern software development depends for its very existence on the great open wealth of collectivized logic already crystallized into free code, the “consciousness” is really just the habitus of the developer. I suppose I occasionally meet somebody who says they’ve been coding in .NET for their whole careers, but they are rare and I think are not doing well in the greater information economy.

It no coincidence that technical education and skills diffusion are, for Thomas Picketty, the way to counteract the inequality the results from disparate returns on wealth versus labor. This is a position one simply converges on if one studies it for long enough. Kindly, it stabilizes the role of the education system as one that is necessary for correcting other forms of societal destabilization and excess.

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