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Previously in Digital Culture:

"With Liberty and Justice for Me," by Mark Dery (July 22, 1999)
Is the Internet giving ordinary people more control over their lives? An e-mail exchange with Andrew L. Shapiro, the author of The Control Revolution.

"Bits of Beauty," by Harvey Blume (June 3, 1999)
Yes, it's art. Now what is there to say about it? An assessment of the first-ever Cyberarts Festival in Boston, where art criticism is forced to play catch-up with technology.

"The MP3 Revolution," by Charles C. Mann (April 8, 1999)
The recording industry may indeed have something to worry about. If the much-talked-about digital format (or something like it) catches on, we could be carried back into our musical and cultural past.

See the complete Digital Culture index.


More on Technology and Digital Culture in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.


Join the conversation in the Technology & Digital Culture conference of Post & Riposte.
Exquisite Source

Heads turned in June when Linus Torvalds's Linux operating system was awarded first prize by the judges of an international art festival. How far, one wonders, can the open source model go?

by Harvey Blume

August 12, 1999

Where open source is concerned, no hyperbole seems too hyper. The distribution of Linux source code by Linus Torvalds, in 1991, has been compared to Martin Luther's translating the Bible into the vernacular. Larry Wall, the inventor of Perl, declares that open source programming is the expression in software of a fundamental Christian message: creation is not fixed in advance; free will is included and collaboration is encouraged. Even the Chinese Communist Party smiles on open source. China Youth Daily reports that open source programming has met with resistance from "software companies" trying to impose the norms of a "traditional market-economy age upon the new 'age of the information economy.'" Closer to home, but in no less political a vein, FEED's Steven Johnson compares Eric Raymond's open source manifesto, "The Cathedral and the Bazaar," to the Port Huron Statement, Tom Hayden's white paper for 1960s student radicalism.

The Kwakiutl Indians of the Pacific Northwest once flourished with their potlatch (or gift) economy, but other Americans have had little experience with the idea of prospering by giving wealth away instead of hoarding it. No wonder, then, that we're uncertain about how to label open source: whether as animal or vegetable, politics or theology. Open source pits the virtues of collaboration and participation against the habits of consolidation and control -- and, as far as the development of software infrastructure goes, it works. Still, how much cultural significance can be bundled into a software package?

This past June the jury of the Prix Ars Electronica added yet another dimension to open source by awarding Linux a Golden Nica for first prize in the ".net" category. (The 1999 awards will be presented on September 6 as part of the Ars Electronica Festival in Linz, Austria.) For twenty years, Ars Electronica has held festivals on the theme of "cultural transformation from the analog to the digital era." Its jurors are unimpressed by "recycling conventional art forms on the Net (e.g. Web galleries)" and unmoved by brilliant home pages. In Linux they found an alternative form, one that contributes to global networking even as it foments discussion about whether "code itself can be an artwork." At first blush this discussion doesn't seem all that promising. Why shouldn't code be art? From Chartres to the Brooklyn Bridge, feats of engineering have been appreciated for their aesthetic properties. Why should software engineering be any different?

But the Prix Ars Electronica went not only to the content of Linux (those efficient, bug-free lines of C) but also to the process of producing them -- in other words, to open source itself. As Eric Raymond observes in "The Cathedral and the Bazaar," "Linus's cleverest and most consequential hack was not the construction of the Linux kernel itself, but rather his invention of the Linux development model." The Golden Nica invites us to detach the code from the process for the moment and to ask, If open source can lead to computer code worthy of being called art, can it serve as a foundation for other kinds of art as well?

Of course, art has been made along open source lines in the past. In the 1920s, for example, the Surrealists explored a form they called the "exquisite corpse," in which a drawing or poem in progress was circulated to a number of artists for elaboration. (Examples are on display in the Surrealist exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum.) Participants in the project did not get to see the entire work (unlike in open source software development), only the section or line to which they would add -- but that shouldn't prevent us from viewing the exquisite corpse as a way of applying open source to poetry. It's our notion of open source that should be opened up and made flexible. The very market success of open source demands this; as it continues to prove its viability, open source enters into any number of partnerships with traditional forms, without necessarily abandoning its original inspiration. More generally, the open source phenomenon ought to be understood as an electronically networked and rapidly evolving expression of a long-standing collaborationist dream. As the Surrealists put it: "Poetry must be made by all and not by one."

Next Page: The Linus Torvalds of the Dark Side?


Harvey Blume, a writer living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is a frequent contributor to Atlantic Unbound.

Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
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