A Tale of Two Articles: On Socialism, Libertarianism and Open Source

open_source_communismAn interesting pair of complementary articles have today sprung to my attention from my unfiltered and rapidly growing twitstorms.

First, Readwriteweb carries a story about the research of Viktor Mayer-Schönberger. Mayer-Schönberger has synthesized research into open source communities, arguing that radical ideas suffer in networks where there is a greater abundance of interconnections. Well-connected networks suffer, he claims, from groupthink and are characterized by incremental (rather than radical) change. In contrast, networks with “structural holes” tend to have other dynamics at play (notably, modular competition, as in some corporate or institutional innovation scenarios, which encourage participants to take greater risks).

To my mind, the analogy holds in consideration of projects like Linux or the Firefox communities, and perhaps Wikipedia – I’m not one to criticize a data set I don’t have the time nor skepticism to vet. But (as I commented on the post) the nature of the Web has enabled likeminded radical (or queer, or kinky, or just bizarre) people to locate each other, form communities and make themselves (and their ideas) much more visible in the wider society (see Jenkins and Benkler for accounts of how this works). Surely these demonstrated network effects preclude the application of this hypothesis to different realms of human activity? Aren’t we becoming more radical and less risk-averse on the web?

The second article was written by Lawrence Lessig, in response to Kevin Kelley’s “The New Socialism“. Herein Lessig reduces socialism to “coercion by the state”, which struck me greatly about the face and neck. Surely a scholar of this stature wouldn’t fall victim to such a terrible misconception? He writes “At the core of socialism is coercion (justified or not is a separate question)” and “socialism is using the power of the state to force a result that otherwise would not have been chosen voluntarily by the people.” Ouch. Surely you’ve read some critical political theory, Larry? It’s clear that you are sympathetic toward those who have been branded as commies, but why should we deny the branding, anyway? Is the “socialism” label really so inflammatory? I suppose if you mis-read “socialism” as “coercion by the state”, it might be. At any rate, Lessig’s commenters have done much more with less effort than I can do to counterargue here.

I think both of these articles are indicative of how American intellectual culture bears the hallmarks of a system of political indoctrination (nothing new to readers of Chomsky, McChesney, and other Americans – not to mention nonAmerican critics). In both of these instances we can see where evidence is ignored to justify a critique of forms of collective action (the Mayer-Schönberger article), and where an idea is reduced and distorted to disavow it any attributive value to various impugned folks (Lessig).

Just saying, Open Source and Free Software gurus: We peace-loving socialists have noticed your Libertarian (e.g., small government, gun-in-every-nursery) streaks. Why are you afraid to bunk with us?

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