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<nettime> Free Software as Collaborative Text
(This is the manuscript of a lecture I held on the panel "Minor Media
Operations" at the Interface 5 conference in Hamburg. I hope it's of some
interest to Nettime subscribers. The text is also available in PDF and
html format from my homepage <http://userpage.fu-berlin.de/~cantsin> -FC)
Free Software as Collaborative Text
September 15, 2000 
What is Free Software?
Why discuss Free Software in the context of net arts and net
Since about two years, Free Software--or "Open Source"--has
drawn increasing attention from artistic net cultures. The
Wizards of OS conference, first held in Berlin in 1999, was
the most prolific event to bridge the gap between the arts,
humanities and social sciences on the one hand and Free
Software culture on the other. The politics of copyleft and
free distribution of code and knowledge soon turned out to be
a common ground of discourse. In this paper, I will take a
different aspect into consideration by reading Free Software
as a net culture and its code as a multi-layered,
collaborative text. Seen as a literary practice, Free Software
development is an avant-garde of writing in digital networks,
and even more: Since Free Software is at the heart of the
technical infrastructure of the Internet, it has--to a large
extent--written its own digital network.
Definition of Free Software
In this paper, "Free Software" does not refer to
"Freeware", "Shareware" or other proprietary software
given away at no cost--like Microsoft Internet Explorer,
QuickTime and Real Player--, but is understood in accordance
with the definitions of Free Software Foundation
http://www.fsf.org as software which is "free as free speech,
not as free beer". Among the best-known examples of Free
Software are the Linux kernel, the GNU tools and the Apache
Since 1998, the term "Free Software" competes with "Open
Source", a term launched by a group around the writer and
programmer Eric S. Raymond. According to this group, "Open
Source" is only a different name for the same thing to gain
more mainstream acceptance in the world of computing. The
Open Source Definition [Opeb] therefore draws upon the older
Free Software Guidelines [Deb] of Debian, a non-commercial
GNU/Linux distribution made by volunteers. The guidelines
can be summarized as follows:
1. Free Software may be freely copied.
2. Not only the executable binary code, but also the program
source code are freely available.
3. The source code may be modified and used for other
programs by anyone.
4. There are no restrictions on the use of Free Software.
Even if Free Software is used for commercial purposes, no
license fees have to be paid.
5. There are no restrictions on the distribution of Free
Software. Free Software may be sold for money even without
paying the programmers.
Since the same criteria apply to "Open Source", the two
concepts indeed do not differ in technical terms. Yet each of
both terms has its ambiguities: While "Free Software" tends
to get confused with Freeware and Shareware, "Open Source"
is easy to be mixed up with "open standards"--like the HTML
format and the http protocol--and with software like Sun's Java
whose source code is publicly available, but only under a
restrictive license. It is particularly important to
differentiate "Open Source" and "Free Software" from open
standards. While open standards are unified technical
specifications set up by committees like the Internet
Engineering Taskforce (IETF) and the World Wide Web Consortium
(W3C), "Open Source" or "Free Software" developers code
whatever they like for their own fun, and they are free to
split their projects and develop the code into separate
directions if a consensus can no longer be reached.
Since misconceptions of "Open Source" are so common, I will
stick with the less popular, but somewhat clearer term "Free
Free Software History
It is not accidental that history of Free Software runs
parallel to the history of the Internet. The Internet is built
on Unix networking technology. Unix used to be free for
academic institutions in the 1970s, and it has been either the
base or model of the common Free Software operating systems
BSD and GNU/Linux.
Any ordinary E-Mail message still reveals the affinity of the
Internet and Unix technology: E-Mail itself is nothing but the
Unix mail command. An E-Mail address of the form xy@xxxxx is
made up of what's historically a user name on a multiuser Unix
system and, following the "@", the system's host name. This
host name is resolved via the free Unix software bind
according to the Internet domain name system (DNS); DNS itself
is nothing but a networked extension of the Unix system file
/etc/hosts. Since the Internet has marginalized or even
replaced proprietary computer networks like IBM's EARN/Bitnet,
Compuserve, the German Btx and the French Minitel, Unix
networking technology is standard on all computing platforms.
In the 1970, Unix particularly attracted student hacker
communities at the MIT and at the University of California at
Berkeley. The concepts of open, decentralized computer
networks and free Unix-like operating systems originated in
the computer science labs of these institutions. By
the early 1990s, the "hacker" software written there had
1. the BSD family of operating systems with the free versions
FreeBSD, NetBSD and OpenBSD. All of them use a codebase
that was originally developed in Berkeley under the
project leadership of Bill Joy.
2. the GNU/Linux operating system. All major Linux-based
operating system distributions--RedHat Linux, SuSE Linux,
Turbo Linux, Debian GNU/Linux, Mandrake Linux, Corel Linux
OS and Caldera OpenLinux, to name only a few--build on the
GNU software written since 1984 by the Free Software
Foundation (FSF) and on the Linux kernel written since
1991 under the project leadership of Linus Torvalds.
The FSF was founded and is still being led by former MIT
hacker Richard M. Stallman.
Open technology has been a key factor for the acceptance of
computers and networking: The open architecture of the IBM
Personal Computer made computers cheap and popular since the
1980s, and with the open architecture of the Internet,
networking became popular in the early 1990s. Lately, Free
Software has made high-end Unix server computing available to
anyone willing to learn the technical details. Whether Free
Software can become as popular on mainstream desktop computers
and eventually de-commoditize all computer software, remains
to be seen, but is not the question I want to investigate
Free Software as a Net Culture
In the middle of the 1990s, "net culture" became the keyword
for artistic, art-critical and political discourse in the
Internet. The term was closely identified with mailing lists
like Nettime http://www.nettime.org and Rhizome
http://www.rhizome.org, conferences like the one where I
present this paper and print publications like the Nettime
anthology [BMBB^+99]. "Net culture" used to be pronounced as
a singular noun in these forums and media referring only to
the discourse they created.
Free Software is an outstanding example that there is not one,
but many net cultures. It predates artistic net cultures in
the Internet by roughly twenty years. The Free Software
copyleft can be seen as the quintessential reflection of this
long experience. Invented to preserve the traditional
academic-artistic freedom of speech and citation in the
digital realm, the copyleft has radically rewritten it
nevertheless. The concept that code, i.e. text, may not only
be freely copied, but even modified ("patched"), willfully
recycled and commercially redistributed by anyone without the
author's permit is foreign to the post-medieval Western arts
and sciences. In print culture, such practices are considered
plagiarism and theft.
Even for the digital net arts, the copyleft remains an
unresolved challenge. Many, if not most net artworks depend on
proprietary authoring and display software, and the
distribution terms of their code are rarely clarified. Yet
Free Software has as subtly as significantly influenced the
digitally networked arts. Without free E-mail server software
like Majordomo http://www.greatcircle.com/majordomo/ and
Sendmail http://www.sendmail.org--and the overall possibility
to set up inexpensive servers using the GNU/Linux and BSD
operating systems on stock PC hardware--, the artistic net
cultures of Nettime et.al. hardly could have operated
non-commercially and with free participation. Friedrich
Kittler's observation that artistic tools conceptually shape
what is made with them [Kit85] also applies to the net arts.
The fact that Majordomo and Sendmail became major tools of
artistic net activity is an important--but of course not the
sole--explanation why contemporary Net.art tends towards
conceptual, discursive and text-heavy work instead of the
immersive "virtual reality" environments many critics had
expected them to deliver. The latter would have required
expensive proprietary software for design and display, closed
high-speed networks and, as a result, dependence on highly
funded institutional infrastructures, limited community
participation and top-down instead of bottom-up organization
of this particular net culture.
Free Software as Writing
The relevance of Free Software for other net cultures is not
limited to the tools it has created and the infrastructures it
has made possible, simply because those tools themselves are
the very object of Free Software culture: they are text,
results of complex textual processing. Moreover, this text is
being produced with tools which themselves are free code.
While the phenomenon that text is being built with tools which
are source text themselves applies to the proprietary software
as well, there is an important difference: Free Software
source text is not withdrawn from the public. It cannot be
abandoned by company management and does not disappear when
development has ceased. All Free Software builds up to a
public repository of text-coded, free-to-use knowledge. It
accumulates to an archive. Instead of being written from
scratch, new Free Software can be built from whatsoever is in
that archive. Free Software therefore is highly intertextual.
Free Software development is the earliest and still most
successful practice of collaborative writing in computer
networks. With its system of textual production and politics
of code, Free Software is by far the more advanced net
literature than what is commonly understood as net poetry and
net fiction. Free Software may be seen simultaneously as
* a freely accessible, ever-growing body of code--a text
* recursive (i.e. self-applied) text processing, since
available text is used both as a source and as a building
tool to create new code;
* text processing even through the medium of text, because
Free Software development infrastructures mostly depend on
mailing lists and command-based version control systems.
* a "hacker" culture which advocates freedom of
information and codes its politics into the legal texts of
The coded copyleft might be the clearest interstice between
Free Software as a net culture and Free Software as net text.
Both these aspects already come into play when Free Software
is being written. Free Software development is typically
achieved by self-organized volunteer projects whose members
communicate and collaborate via the Internet. The development
work consists of:
1. Writing program source text
This involves evaluting of available Free Software source
code for possible inclusion and adaption. It also involves
picking--and compiling--the coding tools which themselves
are Free Software source text.
To accomodate its own needs, Free Software has developed
the arguably most sophisticated writing tools for the
distributed authoring of text. Particularly outstanding is
the Concurrent Versioning System (CVS) [Ced99] which
allows authors to take portions of text--regardless whether
it is written in programming language or in natural
language--over the Internet, work on them at home, and
synchronize the changes with the revisions of other
collaborators any time. CVS-based writing might be the
technically most radical departure from the
typewriter-and-mail paradigm in text editing to date.
2. Writing documentation text
Documentation is both internal and external to the program
source text when the latter contains annotations and
separate reference documentation is being written.
Free manuals remain a political issue within Free Software
development. A number of companies base their business
model on giving away the software under free licenses and
charging for documentation and support. In the ideal
case however, a second textual recursion occurs within in
Free Software which is common in all modern knowledge
systems since Diderot's and d'Alembert's Encyclopédie:
The text teaches the reader all steps which were necessary
for its creation so that all the information it contains
may be re-applied to itself.
3. Communication over mailing lists, bugtracking systems and
Free Software development teams almost exclusively
constitute themselves and communicate over the Internet,
in mailing lists and on IRC servers. Interpersonal
communication therefore is a third layer of text which
regulates the design of both program and documentation
source text. It operates as a cybernetic feedback loop for
the development process.
4. Writing legal text
Free Software is legally defined. It is software under
certain licenses, i.e. legal documents. The most common
types of copyleft include the GNU General Public License
http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/gpl.html, the BSD License and
the Perl Artistic License. Whether program source text is
free solely depends on whether it is copylefted. Legal
text therefore is the fourth layer of text regulating the
entire flow of text generated in Free Software projects.
Free Software is thus a highly sophisticated system of
recursive text generation for a public pool of knowledge. It
is text code created from text code with text-coded tools and
textual communication over networks. The types of texts
processed in Free Software are extremely diverse: They include
executable binaries, text written in programming languages,
text written in natural languages for documentation, text
written in natural languages for communicating and steering
development, and legal texts defining the fair-play rules of
the recursive textual processing.
Both the Free Software engineering and the net artistic camps
are traditionally skeptical about attempts to read Free
Software in terms of the net arts. The objections were
particularly voiced when the Linux kernel was awarded the
Golden Nica in the "net" category of Ars Electronica 1999.
At the Wizards of OS conference in the same year, the net
artist Alexej Shulgin argued that Free Software is
"functional" while Net.art is "non-functional",
I do not find this point viable from an analytical
perspective, since the division between "functional" and
"non-functional" is purely arbitrary and subjective. I/O/D's
Web Stalker [I/O97], an experimental Web browser and
well-known Net.art work, is arguably more "functional" than
the teddy bear desktop emblem xteddy which is contained in all
major GNU/Linux distributions. Moreover, the dinstiction
between "functional" Free Software and "non-functional"
Net.art falls back into late-romanticist notions of the
absolute artwork versus lower craftsmanship. It also neglects
that with its multiple self-applications of text, the
development and use of Free Software is to a large extent its
own purpose. No other operating system is as open and
seductive to be used as an end to itself as GNU/Linux.
Just as arbitrary as the distinction between "functional"
and "non-functional" software is that between program source
code and poetry. To date, all attempts to formally define
poetry and poetic language have failed. The decision whether a
text is poetry will always be up to the reader. The notion of
"program code" versus "poetry" was first put into question
by the French poet and mathematician François le Lionnais, who
co-founded the Oulipo group with Raymond Queneau. In 1973, le
Lionnais released a volume of poetry written in the
programming language Algol. The practice has been revived in
the 1990s by people who write poems in the Perl scripting
Read as a net literature and a net culture, Free Software is a
highly sophisticated system of self-applied text and social
interactions. No other net culture has invented its computer
code as thoroughly, and no other net culture has acquired a
similar awareness of the culture and politics of the digital
Much Net.art, net literature and critical discourse about them
has focused on the aesthetics and politics of desktop user
interfaces. In its focus on code, Free Software shows that net
cultures are about more than just what is between people and
the network. To date, it remains a rare example of electronic
literature which does not confuse the Internet with web
(Acknowledgement: This paper was written using the Free
Software programs LyX, LaTeX, bibtex, bibtools, pdflatex,
latex2html, lynx, XEmacs and GNU Ghostscript on an office and
a home PC running Debian GNU/Linux with reiserfs, XFree86 and
Josephine Bosma, Pauline van Mourik Broekman, Ted
Byfield, Matthew Fuller, Geert Lovink, Diana McCarthy,
Pit Schultz, Felix Stalder, McKenzie Wark, and Faith
Wilding, editors. Readme! Filtered by Nettime.
Autonomedia, Brooklyn, 1999.
Josephine Bosma. Is It a Commercial? Nooo... Is It
Spam? ... Nooo - It's Net Art. Mute, 10:73-74, 1998.
Per Cederqvist. Version Management with CVS. Signum
Support AB, Link oping, 1992-1999.
Florian Cramer. Warum es zuwenig interessante
Netzdichtung gibt: Neun Thesen, 2000.
Debian Project. The Debian Free Software Guidelines.
Jeanette Hofmann. Der Erfolg offener Standards und
seine Nebenwirkungen. Telepolis, 7 1999.
I/O/D. I/O/D 4: The Web Stalker, 1997.
Friedrich Kittler. Aufschreibesysteme 1800 1900. Fink,
The Open Source Initiative. Frequently asked questions
about open source. http://www.opensource.org/faq.html.
The Open Source Initiative. Open Source Definition.
1 This paper was presented at the conference Interface 5 on the
panel Minor Media Operations, Hamburg, Warburg-Haus, September
2 To quote from Raymond's Frequently Asked Questions about Open
Source: "The Open Source Initiative is a marketing program
for free software. It's a pitch for free software on solid
pragmatic grounds rather than ideological tub-thumping. The
winning substance has not changed, the losing attitude and
symbolism have." [Opea]
3 Both the Debian Free Software Guidelines and the Open Source
Definition were originally drafted by Bruce Perens, a Free
Software developer and editor of the website technocrat.net
4 I.e. binary-only software which can be downloaded freely and
used without licenses fees (Freeware) or by paying
comparatively small licenses fees (Shareware).
5 A prominent example is the XEmacs http://www.xemacs.orgtext
editor which "forked" its codebase from GNU Emacs
http://www.gnu.org/software/emacs/emacs.htm. The same would be
impossible in open standards development. The social dynamics
and institutional control of open standards development is
excellently described in Jeanette Hofmanns (German) essay Der
Erfolg offener Standards und seine Nebenwirkungen [Hof99].
6 There is an ongoing debate in Free Software culture whether
operating systems based on the Linux kernel should be called
"Linux" or rather "GNU/Linux". In order to be functional
at all, a "Linux" setup relies upon the GNU C Compiler (gcc)
to translate all program sourcecode into machine-executable
binary software, the GNU C Library (glibc) as the interface
between the Linux kernel and userspace applications, and the
GNU tools for the basic user commands. Although it is possible
to replace at least the GNU tools and the glibc with non-GNU
workalikes, all common "Linux" distributions use the Linux +
GNU software setup. I will therefore stick with the name
"GNU/Linux" where I refer not only to the kernel, but to the
whole operating system.
7 Such as Macromedia's Shockwave and Flash in "Net.art",
Opcode's MAX in electronic music and Eastgate's Storyspace in
8 The artist group 0100101110101101.ORG
http://www.0100101110101101.org put this issue up front when
it mirrored and partially modified well-known Net.art web
sites on its own web site.
9 Early artistic computer networks like the Thing BBS
http://www.thing.net charged their subscribers (at least in
Berlin) before they migrated into the Internet.
10 How net literature--"hyperfiction" and "new media
poetry"--relates to poetic practices rooted in programmer's
cultures is discussed in more detail in my (German) paper
11 Among those companies are O'Reilly publishers, Sendmail
Inc., VA Linux, Scriptics, Helix Code and Eazel. All of them
are involved in the development or documentation of critical
components of GNU/Linux operating systems.
12 I thank Wau Holland for pointing this out to me in a
prepatory meeting for the first Wizards of OS conference.
13 Which can be read as "text" if text is linguistically and
semiotically defined as a finite number of discrete signs
chosen from a finite set of signs. In computing, "text" is
rather colloquially understood as code from natural-language
alphabets as opposed to binary code. Being a philologist, I
refer to the prior concept of "text".
14 According to [Bos98], the label "Net.art" was coined in 1996
by the net artist Vuk Cosic. It has been associated with a
particular generation of net artists since (involving, among
others, Cosic himself, Heath Bunting, Olia Lialina, Alexej
Shulgin, jodi and I/O/D).
c/o Freie Universität Berlin, Seminar für Allgemeine und
Vergleichende Literaturwissenschaft, Hüttenweg 9, 14195 Berlin
Florian Cramer, PGP public key ID 6440BA05
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