Free software and the revolt against transactionality

John Ohno
John Ohno
Dec 21, 2018 · 4 min read

In 1994, the electronic pop band KLF burned a million pounds — money they had earned by following instructions laid out in a book they wrote called “The Manual”. To this day, they deny having a conscious justification for that powerful act. One possible interpretation is to see The Manual & the Burning as two sides of a single central thesis: a rejection of the connection between labor-value and price-value implied by money, through a violation of expectations of transactionality.

The Manual is a get-rich-quick scheme — one that worked brilliantly for the KLF. Burning a million pounds, on the other hand, was harrowing and difficult, and yet not only decreased their personal wealth but decreased the total amount of money in circulation. Money is expected to be exchanged, and while we accept slack (the term, from The Church of the SubGenius, for ‘getting something for nothing’), we do not accept anti-slack (getting nothing for something). Getting rich quick implies getting poor quick in a system with a relatively-static or slowly-growing store of value, but we accept the idea that we can consitently earn profits while considering the kind of sudden disappearance of price-value that comes with market corrections (bubbles popping) as an anomaly — and so, intentionally destroying price-value comes off as a very radical act.

However, in a gift economy, the destruction of value of any kind is not only not radical but actually fundamental to the creation of norms. Free software was once this kind of gift economy.

Transactionality — the expectation that, under normal circumstances, to recieve an item one must exchange something of equal value — relies upon legibility. Things whose value cannot be verified cannot be exchanged except at a loss — based on the smallest guaranteed value. Popular mechanisms for counteracting the unpleasant side effects of capitalist transactionality — charity, welfare — tend to themselves be transactional: we try to determine who is most in need of our donation (and thus, who would maximize our sense of satisfaction in our own generosity), or we weigh candidates based on preferences (as though they were themselves products). Our society lacks the concepts of jubilee and potlatch (even though the central premise of several major religions is built on jubilee & potlatch).

Jubilee is a kind of anti-slack social release valve: periodically, at unpredictable intervals, creditors forgive all debts, and thus debtors are free from those obligations. (In the United States & elsewhere, some kinds of debts expire if you do not attempt to pay them for long enough, which acts as a kind of jubilee. Knowledge of this kind of debt expiration is not widespread; like jury nullification, it’s a situation that empowers individuals while annoying enforcement.) Potlatch involves the exchange & destruction of elaborate gifts — a sacrifice in the name of cooperation, and a demonstration of the material ability to support a community — an ability limited to the resource-rich, who are expected to deliver on this implied promise.

Writing free software is a politically radical act: while software has low reproduction cost, both the use value and the initial labor value of good software is high, so putting it into the public domain is a kind of perpetual jubilee (those who use it do not owe the author anything in exchange for its use-value) and a potlatch in the sense that the labor is exchanged for nothing at all. Copyleft licenses are even more radical: all derived software remains free from the normal mechanisms that drive labor into a state of transactionality. Although one can sell free software, the cost of reproduction is so low (and the legal mechanisms for preventing reproduction so hamstrung by the license itself) that it makes more sense to treat paying for free software as a gift-in-kind, rather than an exchange.

The idea of “open source” changed this.

Since 2001, whole industries have grown out of the gifts of programmers, and these industries are dependent upon free software, without which they would not be profitable. Many of the programmers thought they were giving gifts to mankind, not to Google. Others had no such illusions: they were competing for positions in an industry where performing free labor of professional quality was an implied prerquisite for being hired. The current state of open source — inevitable from the beginning — is the exploitation of the expectation of free labor for the sake of propping up unprofitable businesses.

What kind of revolt could possibly shake these norms without getting rid of the (now endangered) gift economy of free software?

Software intended for businesses has a need that software intended for individuals does not: scalability. Software intended for individuals can be unstandardized, ad-hoc, quirky, and personal. ‘Enterprise’ software must pretend to scale (even if it cannot), & the centralization necessary for any business to make a profit increases the load on the software that inhabits that bottleneck.

For twenty years, we’ve been making corporations rich by buying into standardization and scale — making it feasible for them to funnel us into silos. We can stop this process, and perhaps even reverse it, by refusing to make un-frivolous software. Personal software should be personal: it should not scale or conform; it should chafe at strictures the same way you do, and burst out of any box that dare enclose it.

John Ohno

Written by

John Ohno

Resident hypertext crank. Author of Big and Small Computing: Trajectories for the Future of Software. http://www.lord-enki.net