Peace, Love and Linux, photo: David Tames, flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license

L as in Linux

BY Mirek Filiciak / Alek Tarkowski

What does Linux have to do with culture?

1 minute reading left

On August 25, 1991, Linus Torvalds, a 21 year old computer science student at the University of Helsinki posted a message to comp.os.minix, a Usenet group frequented by users of the Minix operating system. In his post, Torvalds announced that he had been working on his own free operating system for half a year, and asked fellow Usenet users for feedback. (Young Linus belonged to an esoteric cabal of computer geeks who eschewed the popular Windows OS, preferring instead to use Apple’s Mac OS or creating their own operating systems.)

So begins the history of Linux, a free and open operating system written by a distributed community of computer scientists united by their common work on the system’s source code. Their work has proved to be efficient enough to make Linux today’s most popular server OS. The system is also estimated to run over 10% of home computers. Linus never expected the project to reach such great proportions. In his post, he modestly described the system as a hobby, failing to grasp the revolutionary role that the internet could play in the collaborative effort.

The question is, what does Linux have to do with culture?

In 2002, Yochai Benkler, then a lawyer at the New York University School of Law, published a paper titled “Coase’s Penguin, or, Linux and The Nature of the Firm”. In it, Benkler references a famous 1937 article by Nobel Prize winner Ronald Coase which analyzes why planned economies fail to perform as well as corporations. Coase boiled it down to the latter’s ability to reduce the transaction costs that arise when two separate entities do business.

Several decades later in the internet era, the situation is a bit different: the use of information to create more information usually costs nothing. Similarly, communication costs nothing — or next to nothing, allowing a growing number of people to take part in the process without decreasing their productivity.

In other words, the internet reduces transaction costs to nearly zero, making the corporation unnecessary, Benkler concludes, referencing Coase. Or, to put it differently: people collaborating without the coordination of market mechanisms or hierarchical institutions can be just as efficient as corporations.

Linux is a prime example of what Benkler describes as socially productive behavior — an operating system created via peer production, where a group of people spontaneously gather around some common goal, acting outside the market (and thus with no exchange of money) and without hierarchy (a fundamental part of any professional company).

Let’s reiterate the question: what does this have to do with culture? Quite a bit, actually.

Culture depends on communication and the creation of symbols. It thus closely resembles, at a certain level, computer programming. Culture also contains an intangible dimension and is the product of a collaborative effort (it’s time we dispensed with the romantic myth). What makes Linux relevant to culture isn’t that it’s a particular type of computer program — it’s that it proves that knowledge and culture can now be created in a completely new way.

So claims Steven Weber, another social scientist who, surprisingly enough, studies the coordination of open IT projects. According to Weber, the system of coordinating and managing the collaborative efforts of Linux’s co-creators will matter more in the long run than the OS itself. Nearly 20 years after the birth of Linux, the model is being used to create all sorts of unrelated projects — even if, for every successfully run encyclopedia, there is a complete failure such as a novel written by a horde of authors.

Linux and other similar IT projects have given culture something more than a new model for collaborative work: they’ve produced hackers and their characteristic ethic. The stereotypical hacker is imagined to be this Machiavellian figure who employs computers and the internet for illegal purposes, combining megalomania with a desire for material gain. Real-life hackers actually have very little in common with the stereotype, and are usually exceptionally bright programmers who treat their work partly as fun and partly as a mission. Openness and sharing is the pinnacle of the hacker ethic, along with decentralization, free access to computers and other tools, and the desire to change the world for the better. Hackers distrust authority, preferring instead to judge others by the quality of their work; they believe in beauty created with the help of computers and doing things for fun, not obligation. These ideals would be shared by many intellectuals and members of the creative milieu if they weren’t created by a largely anti-social community of computer geeks strongly focused on writing code. The hacker ethic has nevertheless seeped into society, despite the relative (self) isolation of its creators, because the tools they write have these values inscribed in them. Creative people who work for pleasure or intellectual satisfaction probably regard themselves as members of the intelligentsia, but what they really are is hackers.

Let us add one final observation to justify the inclusion of Linux in the “Alphabet of New Culture”. In her book Travelling Concepts in Humanities, the Dutch artist and cultural theorist Mieke Bal proposes that we take note of the concepts used in discussions on contemporary culture. Concepts have a way of traveling between cultural periods, places, contexts, and academic fields, she observes. It is common to use terms and analyses originally created to describe computer phenomena when analyzing the cultural transformations underway today (the above article is no different). This fact alone speaks volumes about the shifts that culture and its participants are going through, as does the recent trend of numbering cultural phenomena as if they were software versions.

translated by Arthur Barys