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English translation of Vala's original essay "Produrre sapere in rete in modo cooperativo - il caso Wikipedia"

The Cooperative Production of Knowledge on the Internet—the Case of Wikipedia, Valentina Paruzzi, 2004

see also it:ws, previously posted on meta.
Marco Polo describes a bridge, stone by stone.
- "But which stone is holding up the bridge?" asks Kublai Khan.
- "The bridge is not held up by this stone or that stone," answers Marco, "but by the line of the arch formed by the stones."
Kublai Khan remains silent, pondering. Then he says, "Why are you talking to me about stones? Only the arch matters."
Polo answers, "Without the stones, there is no arch."
- Italo Calvino, "The Invisible Cities" -


This work concentrates on an in-depth analysis of the process of cooperative production of knowledge on the Web. The approach that is used is meant to give a broad look at one of the most discussed topics in the role of the PC as used by individuals, or, perhaps even more, in a context beyond the "digital" element: the question of the collective production of knowledge.

In the specific case of the following dissertation, the central theoretical point is focused on the dynamics which explain how it is possible to share knowledge and experience on the Web. Here attention is drawn to the specific case of the compilation and maintenance of a free encyclopedia on the Internet, named Wikipedia. We find ourselves before a project to gather and organize knowledge, on a universal level, in cooperation, in which in fact anyone is free to furnish his own contribution to improve the work. The theme of collective production of knowledge has been addressed by following a path that takes us back to the origins of the social construction of the personal computer, which occupied the whole second half of the last century, finding young and fertile ground in the United States for the rapid advancement of technological innovation.

From the key figures of Vannevar Bush and Ted Nelson, to the counterculture revolutionaries who enlivened the 1970s on the American continent, we also focus our attention on a much-discussed subculture, the hacker movement. It has grown substantially in two different directions. The first has taken up the thread of hacker ethics discussion, in its purest and markedly ideological form. Weighing the particular characteristics of hacker actions, from the most deep-rooted orthodoxy to the "Gospel" of hacker philosopher Richard Marshall Stallman, one can outline a picture of the fundamental aspects of the hacker movement. Trying, however, to rise above the rhetoric of the discussion of hacking in its early years, often abusive and certainly now obsolete, we pass to a second part in which is proposed the "moderate" point of view of Eric S. Raymond, one of the most active hackers, definer of the pragmatics of "open-source"--the "adoptive daughter" of many aspects of Stallman's ideology. A more useful vision is dealt with at the end of this treatment, with attention is drawn more to the "praxis" of hacking, leaving out the more extremist theory, powerfully charged with political values, that has been conceived and sustained by Richard Stallman. Raymond, on the other hand, stresses the real context in which hackers are found: a united community founded on shared values, but in which conflicts and particular dynamics of relationships and power are not lacking.

A further reading, beyond that supplied by the analysis of the hacker movement, comes from the fourth chapter. Here, after having abandoned the ideological and ethical apparatus inspired by the ethical discourse, attention is directed to the cooperation in the structure of the "emerging system." Therefore we go beyond an explanation exclusively supplied by the observation of a motivational push, such as that of an origin within the hacker movement, and concentrate on a mainly technical and structural aspect in order to describe the results of the process of cooperation in its evolution, its "fulfillment." Such a dynamic occurs in the so-called phenomenon of "emergence." There has, however, been completed an attempt to explain briefly how in reality the web, in the most generic sense of the term, can support forms of auto-organization such that to be identified as a product of configurations of the same [sic!!!!]. [È stato quindi compiuto un tentativo di spiegare brevemente come in realtà la rete, nel senso più generico del termine, possa supportare forme di auto-organizzazione tali da essere segnalate come un prodotto della configurazione della stessa.] [Pur indicando delle riserve nella possibile lettura di questo approccio, è sicuramente interessante proporre un’interpretazione di questo genere al sorgere di atteggiamenti cooperativi in una struttura di rete.]

We go further with an explanation of the workings and most important characteristics of the structure of complex behavior to which emergence refers. Indicating the reserves of the possible reading of this approach [sic], it is certainly interesting to propose an interpretation of this kind to the surge of cooperative behavior in a structure on the web.

The research is placed within this theoretical picture, an empirical case in which it may be possible to read in a situated way the practice of production of knowledge. It will be shown that many of the theoretical ideas examined in the first section of the thesis can be traced in the Wikipedia encyclopedia, whether from the point of view of the ethics at the base of the still-young community of collaborators on the project, or from that of a possible "natural" auto-organization, which takes up the discussion of emergence.

The Process of Cooperation on the Web[edit]

From the Path of Social Construction of the PC Until Today: the Great Utopia of Collective Production of Knowledge[edit]

The theme of collective production of knowledge on the Web has always been one of the central points of the new conception of the personal computer that was being created from the 1950s up till the most recent 1990s.

The path of social construction of the PC winds through various historical and technological stages, which have led to the vision and practice of the use of the personal computer that we possess and are used to today.

First of all, with Vannevar Bush, the idea of a thinking-machine was introduced for the first time; at the end of the 1930s, Bush was concentrating on the problem of the exponential growth of human knowledge. He worked at a time when digital computers were taking their first steps, during the years immediately following the end of the Second World War.

The problem that preoccupied Bush was that of a overload of information, unsustainable for the human mind: the hypothetical solution was that of a machine based on microfilm, which was never produced, called Memex 1 (Memory Extender). Such a machine would be based, by the way, on mechanical and analog technology, where information would be available on microfilm.

However, what is important is that Memex should have been able to work in a way much like that of the human mind: not only knowledge would be archived, but also mental pathways. Already we come to something extremely innovative for the time: a machine that would proceed according to an associative method, recognizing connections and analogies within the information; it was a first attempt to overcome one of the great limits of printing [stampa], linearity. Memex, however, was conceived as an individual machine2 and not as a collective instrument, which the computer was later to become. In this way, information would be difficult to use for those who had not contributed to the constitution of the archive: the non-expert, according to the argument examined, would not be in a position to find the prearranged associative paths of the machine that imitated the brain of a human expert. In 1959, Bush wrote a second paper, Memex II, where he hypothesized a development of the machine: the new Memex would no longer think of so much information, but would also have the capacity to base itself on experience. Thus the machine would not simply imitate the human brain, but would also be able to suggest new cognitive paths to the brain.

Bush therefore has the merit of having come up with the basic theories of what would later be called hypertext, even before the birth of the first real personal computer.

Such challenges then, in the 1960s and 1970s, inspired Ted Nelson3, a true "guru" of the new media, who started work on digital hypertext. Nelson thought of it as an instrument that would be able to think in a new way, capable of imitating the human brain and of supplying new launch-pads toward total freedom from any type of restriction.

Nelson's ideas suddenly took on a strong political and ideological value: hypertext would be able to liberate the human mind from the "cage" of writing and printing. Tired of rigid logical-rational structures, Ted Nelson hypothesized a new network, not pre-existing in its structural bases, where the figure of the ordinary user would be substituted for that of the author-beneficiary.

To make sure that ideas would move freely and without a hierarchy, Nelson talked of a new project, Xanadu4, a docuverse in which everything known to humanity could be gathered and in which everyone would have the possibility of linking to a lessia (or linkable textual sub-unit), according to his own judgment . The ability to create links would represent an enormous form of power: to have this ability would mean feeling free to govern one's own mental paths. Nelson's machine overcame the limitations of Memex, relegated to the dimension of individual use. With Xanadu we encounter a social vision, closer to what the computer would later become: information is not archived simply according to mental pathways, but is channeled into a network of contacts in order for there to be elements of exchange, comparison, correction and amplification5.

Ted Nelson's ideas were thus charged with a strong message of freedom: according to his most fervent utopia, everyone should be able to choose his own cognitive pathway within an infinity of information, free of any type of ready-made hierarchy. The most powerful indictment Ted Nelson threw against the World Wide Web and against those who have committed the error of having "organized" it to their own liking: the webmasters. According to Nelson, the web is nothing other than something now rigidly organized and structured, in which the webmasters are invested with the enormous power of controlling the hierarchy, in other words that of holding in their hands the pathways of thought. The WWW no longer possesses the possibility of reincarnating the rules of Nelson's utopian hypertext project.

Ted Nelson is certainly not the only one to pursue the idea of utopia and liberty within the youthful computer panorama of the time. At that same historical moment, in fact, between the 190s and 1970s, the hacker point of view spread, creating a subculture that was at first rather unknown, but which later was revealed as one of the fundamental bases of the social construction of the computer. In the case of the hacker perspective, the personal computer quickly became a means for enhancing human faculties, especially creativity.

With the overlap between hacker culture, the hippie movement, and student groups, the first experiments in democratization of the medium were born. It was actually two students of the University of California at Berkeley, Felsenstein and Lipkin, who belonged to the hacker community that met in the famous Homebrew Computer Club, who connected two computers in a network for the first time, thus creating the famous system of the so-called BBS6, a collection of virtual bulletin boards on which it was possible to exchange messages and to enter into reciprocal contact in a simple and direct way. Finally it was no longer necessary to have recourse to technicians nor to submit to the hard laws of the digital divide7: no longer was anyone fated to be excluded, and in fact the group began to see a new vital life.

For an interesting development of the idea behind the collective use of computers, we may refer to Pierre Levy. As the author8 points out in his text on cyberculture and on the social uses of the new technology, even rapid technological change could be better absorbed to make up a collective intelligence [anche il rapido cambiamento tecnologico può essere meglio assorbito dal costituirsi di un’intelligenza collettiva], which Levy recognizes as one of the main engines of development of cyberculture. In fact, according to the author: "The more that processes of collective intelligence are developed, […] the more and better individuals and groups can take possession of the technical changes, the less the acceleration of the technosocial movement will be exclusive or humanly destructive9."

Coming to observe the question applied to the process of production of knowledge, in particular on the Web, the theories which are mentioned here find an immediate positive confirmation. Beyond the appropriation of technical means, in fact, it is above all in the process of production of knowledge that the collective intelligence best expresses its force.

The new way of sharing competence and knowledge brings about the birth of a more solid and complete product, which does not come from something "above," but from the "collective," where the components of the multitude each have equal power. To continue with Levy, the chaotic interconnection, already efficient in its sharing of ideas and knowledge, is surpassed in favor of an organic multiplicity, to which we can in all justice give the name of intelligence10.

History and Ethics of the "Hacker" Culture[edit]

A new idea of computer programming[edit]

An appropriate place to begin to understand the process of knowledge production on the internet could be furnished from an analysis of the guidelines of the hacker movement, observing how the sharing of knowledge was born, originally purely about computers, [da intendersi prettamente informatica] on the Internet. It is indispensable to give particular attention to the origins and development of this movement, on both a historical and ethical level. Hackers have the merit of having invented their own real "practice": a particular, precise way of benefiting from the computer.

The history of the movement begins in the 1950s, in the United States, at two universities: the already mentioned University of Berkeley and that of Stanford, both in California. Another neuralgic point [sic!] is to be found at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology). As said before, the particularly lively moment from the ideological point of view, along with the diffusion of ideas of a libertarian character, the flowering of acute intelligences interested in the realm of computers, and the constant technological change, were all crucial elements in preparing the way for the birth of a new movement: young, a little rebellious, technologically accomplished.

We may attempt a definition drawing on the studies of Manuel Castells. The term "hacker", as the author points out, is often confused wrongly with that of "cracker", or computer pirate: "Hackers are not what the media tell us. They are not neurotic computer experts anxious to crack codes, break into systems or bring chaos to computer traffic. Those who behave in such ways are called 'crackers'. 11"

In reality, the hacker is fundamentally someone who tries to resolve a computer problem he has encountered through his personal "exploration", a bug which he has been fighting, for example. It is someone who tends to constantly increase his own technological knowledge to have a better mastery of techniques and languages, in order to be able, later, to amplify or modify software at his own discretion.

The history of hackers began in those universities and in particular among the first groups of students who gathered around the Homebrew Computer Club of Berkeley, founded in 1973.

Their dream, perhaps more their utopia, was to render computer knowledge free and open to all: on a purely technical level, they were characterized by their lack of interest in high-level programming languages, already too distant from basic functioning. This showed how much their ideology was strongly rooted in libertarian and communitarian values, in that it was aimed toward information that would be free and shared by whomever wanted, without obstacles or technical difficulties. With the birth and diffusion of ARPANET, in the second half of the 1960s, the Internet became a main vehicle for the diffusion of hacker ideas and perspectives, and not only theirs.

This was, within a short time, the creation of a real community on the web, a tribe linked by ideals and common objectives, able to communicate through the new technology of BBS, just as the Homebrew Computer Club had hoped.

But carefully observing the hacker movement, one notes that in reality it has lived through two great fundamental moments: a first phase, of the "ethical" type, and a second phase, more "pragmatic." For the first step the work of R.M. Stallman was essential, while for the second, attention will be concentrated on Eric Raymond. Beyond the more generic wish to share information and knowledge, the hacker movement set itself apart through its "free software" project, in other words software whose new code was freely distributed, so that anyone could change or improve it and in turn redistribute it.

In tracing the guidelines of the "ethical" profile of this new idea of computer information diffusion, the figure of Richard Marshall Stallman, as has been said, was fundamental.

The Philosophy of Richard M. Stallman[edit]

Richard M. Stallman defined the concept of free software, every time that he was asked what it meant: "'Free software' is a matter of liberty, not price. To understand the concept, you should think of 'free' as in 'free speech,' not as in 'free beer'. 12" This meant that the software could be used, copied, modified and distributed by anyone, free or for payment, at the discretion of the person who spread it.

The biography of Stallman reflects not only his main traits but also how much his work experience influenced and conditioned the hacker in the defining of the main tenets of his ideology.

The "great philosopher," thus defined by Linus Torvalds13, entered the hacker community in 1971 when he arrived at MIT's Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. Stallman and his colleagues were working on a new operating system , and wondered about how everyone could access it freely, without any kind of password or restriction. When MIT began to put pressure on him because access keys were being introduced, Stallman started a subversive action on the computer front. He discovered the passwords that were being inserted and asked those who were supposed to use them to stop using them. [Egli scoprì le password che erano state inserite e chiese a coloro che erano stati indotti a utilizzarle di smettere di farne uso.]

One-fifth of the total number of people who worked there shared the proposition of Stallman: a victory for the newborn hacker ideology. But the unconditional glory lasted only briefly. Even in the 1970s, more precisely on January 31, 1976, Bill Gates, founder of the rising star of the software industry, Microsoft, wrote an open letter where he asked the question which no one at Homebrew had yet dared to ask: "Who can afford to do professional work for nothing?" In brief, with the birth and very rapid development of Microsoft, the new software house, the free market in software, which the programmers had become used to, now vanished, making way for the controlled exchange of proprietary software.

Stallman found himself faced with a big ethical problem: proprietary software was at that time indispensable to the system workers at MIT's Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, but that meant ceding to market laws that he wanted to disregard in the sharing of software, and more generally, of creative ideas that could have been freely exchanged and improved. Thus Stallman started researching an alternative to software as intellectual property. He conducted this research by throwing himself totally into it, treating it as a "mission," as he still likes to remember.

In 1984, Stallman, not wishing to submit to the changes he was running into with his philosophy, said goodbye to MIT and dedicated himself to developing a new operating system15 compatible with Unix, the most widespread at the time. He called his system GNU16:: it was completely free. The newly made code was made available, in other words those single units, the programs similar to those that made up Unix.

Richard Stallman's philosophy has always been maintained without compromise by its originator, thanks also to its notably extremist and radically ideological tone. Stallman's extreme vision of cooperation as the only possible and desirable way to create software has led him to various initiatives, among others the foundation of the FSF (Free Software Foundation), and the conception of a new form of authorial rights, called "Copyleft."

The “Free Software Foundation”[edit]

At the base of GNU and of its most important application, Emacs17, Stallman decided to put a non-profit organization based on voluntary contributions, either in the form of actual work, or financially in money. This organization has had the merit of reuniting, around the GNU and its creator, a permanent group of professionals who can guarantee constant development and aid for the project.

Beyond the job of reuniting developers for a specific project, the Free Software Foundation has made itself the spokesman and point of reference for the "ethical" project which Stallman created, with free software as its base.

The FSF, for Stallman, has incarnated a new possibility of recreating the work conditions which existed at MIT in the first years he was there, when he watched and contributed to a process of constant new creation around a product that could be modified at any moment. As the authors Berra and Meo say, "The basic reasons for Stallman's project reclaim the importance of building and maintaining a social bond within the community of software producers and users, since the main value of the product is represented by the value of its use by the community and not by the purely economic link to earnings. 18" Stallman's dream was therefore one of a free, constructive cooperation, a sort of working, but above all social, revolution.

The Idea of "Copyleft"[edit]

The other fundamental result of Stallman's theoretical work was the concept of copyleft. As he himself asserts, copyleft is a term that aims to "overturn copyright". Copyleft, given out freely by its own creator with "the permission of the author", is what sanctions the public domain of free software and the right/duty of sharing it. Copyleft makes reference to the license that is associated with free software, the GNU GPL19 (GNU General Public License), which allows that anyone can do anything with the product, except limiting the same freedom for other users.

The GNU GPL is the first license that does not answer to the demands of a government or of the business that released the program, but only to that of the community which created it. Copyleft and the GNU GPL license were an attempt to give a legal basis to both the free market and the products on which it is based. Like the whole ideology of Richard Stallman, an alternative to the dominant commercial system is sought, where software is not necessarily the object of appropriation on the part of the distributing company, but can remain the fruit of a free creative cooperation, the only way tolerated by the Free Software Foundation.

The nucleus of the concept of copyleft is the source code. At the base of hacker ethics is the idea that the source code of any application should remain free and shareable, as well as modifiable by any programmer in the world who decides to do so. It is on this philosophy that, for example, the Linux operating system is based, and the entire hacker and open-source movement: the most important aspect is that the software work, to the detriment of intellectual property, which is serenely sacrificed in favor of the principles of cooperation and continuous development.

Fundamental Principles of the Ethical Aspect of the Hacker Community[edit]

Survival, Social Life, and Entertainment: Linus's Law[edit]

At the base of the hacker "ethic", according to a treatment that is revealed by its contents to be directly indebted to Stallman's theories, we can place the three fundamental concepts of Linus Torvalds.

In the prologue to the text of Pekka Himanen, The Hacker Ethic and the Spirit of the Information Age, Torvalds, the creator of Linux mentioned above, takes up three crucial aspects that are at the origin of hacking: survival, social life, and entertainment20. As discussed a little earlier, it is surely complicated to try to assign a name to every recognizable practice within the hacker movement. Torvalds reminds us that the hacker is someone who has stopped using the computer to "survive" and is concentrating on the other two aspects. The hacker sees the PC as an instrument that allows him to weave social ties, through e-mail for example, in order to build a community in a more or less short time. Still, for the hacker, the computer incarnates above all the practice of "entertainment": everything that can be done with it is ipso facto good and stimulating21.

Beyond the "frivolous" image of the work that has just been given by Torvalds, it is interesting to take a closer look at the ethical discourse that is at the base of hacker culture. With the assumption that the hacker programs and uses the computer because he finds it intrinsically fun and pleasurable, we can observe more broadly how the hacker considers his own work in general.

Pekka Himanen, in his work, guides the reader in a parallel between the hacker ethic of the work and the much more noted and historically placed Protestant work ethic22 of Max Weber. Weber, in his essay, concentrates on the idea of "professional duty" and indicates how: "the work becomes absolutely an end in itself—a 'vocation'." The Protestant religion was dominated by the idea that by sweating and toiling to complete one's work in the best way possible, beyond the economic and monetary return, one would also obtain the certainty of a "privileged" position in heaven.

Weber traces in the Protestant ethic a structure similar to the monastery: within the Benedictine order was the duty to work. He continues, however, to affirm that the spirit of capitalism soon transformed it into a true "iron cage"23 , having made its own values into rigid fetters to be respected. Another fundamental aspect of the Protestant ethic is that of considering work as the most important aspect of a person's life, thus leading to a neglect and refutation of the [importance of] the relations with other people24.

The hacker ethic completely revolutionized what had been said up till then, or better, attached itself [si riaggancia] to the Protestant ethic, as Himanen himself maintains, although not in the strictest sense, as the do-nothing model was certainly not assumed. Work, for the hacker, is something substantially satisfying, that is more like a pastime or amusement than a unavoidable grind. And, as Raymond maintains, a profound moment of "passion" with what he is doing. It is not bothersome and difficult to spend time in front of the computer because at that moment the hacker is fine.

Still on the subject, Himanen talks to us of the optimization of time26: the hacker does not follow the frenetic rhythms of a normal employee's workday, for example. Instead he can manage his own time as he wishes, working basically alone when he wants to: in this sense he optimizes his time. In substance, the hacker does not manage his own day according to the rigid rules required and defined by the Protestant ethic and by the habitual and ordinary labor market, but has at his disposition flexible time which he can decide to use for working or for fun (and these two aspects merge into each other), as he well believes. Academia, actually the model that has been taken to be associated with the hacker ethic, has among its principles that of managing one's own time for oneself. A hacker's time is therefore substantially the same as that defined as the engine of productivity within this ethic: creativity. In substance, as Himanen confirms, a reassessment of everyday life. The hacker ethic does not say that work is a heavy burden, nose to the grindstone, but that it is one of many moments in life in which there is a chance to enjoy what one is doing and to feel satisfied by the product of one's own toil: work does not have to rob time from the other side of life. The hacker is before anything else a human being, not a worker.

The Advantages of Working With a "Networked" Structure[edit]

One of the fundamental characteristics at the base of the hacker's work is the structure of communication according to a modality definable as "horizontal," with a so-called "networked" organization: the members manage themselves by subdividing the basic activities into projects, in which each one has the ability to finish his own specific part, without "vertical" control, but through an auto-organization which is based fundamentally on communication among equals. The networked structure is facilitated through the weaving of relationships: Stallman, as he himself says, wanted to replicate through the FSF the ambience that was created in the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at MIT in the beginning of the 1970s. The web, as we will shortly see, at a structural level, permits the activation of so-called "weak links"27, as Barabási observes, taking up the theory of Granovetter, not anchored in tradition or ancient knowledge, but often more efficient for the purposes of work. Furthermore the network structure permits a communication that is notably more quick and direct, which allows the work of the complex to proceed faster. Speed is also a fundamental aspect of any type of innovation, in particular in the sphere of technology: to stay up-to-date allows one to take advantage of a technology adequate for the discovery and development of new ideas.

Moreover, the hacker works concentrating often on a "portion" of the entire project. Work of this kind allows one to verify in real time the quality of the work up till the particular moment. In this way the time that has been lost in correcting errors in the finished product (operations are often left undone, or done later as in the case of slow "updates" or "releases"28, once a year, but necessary to correct a bug) can be saved.

In a situation that appears disordered, the links that contribute most to effective work activity are stimulated. But one cannot speak of anarchy. As we shall try to demonstrate, we observe how in reality we find ourselves before a model of spontaneous organization, or rather auto-organization, which joins the community together "starting at the bottom", based on shared goals and values. Anarchy is prevented by a coordinator, a fundamental role, but which is not always taken by the same person. Such a structure has been defined, as we shall see, by Raymond29, as a "bazaar." It is certainly a model of organization that is difficult to systematize and to fit into a rigid universal scheme: each case has its own peculiarities and variation of functions.

The Real Salary of a Hacker: Reputation[edit]

One of the bases of the hacker's work is, at the same time, a product whose networked structure has been discussed, and the mechanism of a "peer-group reputation." Through cooperation and the consequent creation of social relations, we see a phenomenon that can be defined as the "fuel" in the hacker's work: the input of useful modifications, the discovery of fundamental innovations, simply collaborating together on a project, all feed the reputation. This has two fundamental results: first of all, a given person is recognizable from now on and there is a memory of what his contribution has been. Secondly, there is a sort of pact of trust, which ends by guaranteeing his future work.

From the point of view of someone who has carried out a specific task, having the reputation of excellence will give him more vigor and force, even charisma, in continuing his work. The growth of ego is a fundamental aspect of the hacker community: the sense of belonging and of being gratified by the opinions, presumably good, which others hold, is something the hacker needs and at the same time is an incentive for him to adhere to the values of the community and to support its aims.

Recognition among peers, here as defined by Raymond, is an observable practice within the hacker culture, and more generally, in any cooperative auto-organized system. But what about money? What role does it play within the hacker community? As Castells30 maintains, it is often believed wrongly that the hacker lives in a sort of golden limbo, where no one needs to provide his own sustenance. But that would not justify the development of formidable intelligences in Third-World or underdeveloped countries. In reality it is in fact in an economy of scarcity that it is indispensable to have, as Castells shows, a strong creative thrust and a notable capacity to put oneself in play. Many hackers, in any case, those who are substantially less radical and less anchored to ideology (in other words, not Stallman's disciples, in the strict sense of the definition), find nothing wrong with making money. Himanen speaks of capitalistic hackers31. Here we see an almost ontological opposition between the concepts of hackerdom and capitalism. The first speaks of passion and freedom, the second of toil and the growth of capital as the supreme goal. A hacker finds himself wavering between his ideals and the economic situation which surrounds him and which, fundamentally, allows him to survive. Obviously, when money is what determines every instant of someone's activity, it is no longer a safe thing to find oneself facing someone who can be defined as a hacker.

A more "pragmatic" part of the hacker movement, which we will discuss at more length in the next chapter, is definable as an "open-source" movement that is part of a more moderate vision of the problem, and it is explained how hacking and industry can co-exist. But already Stallman, again, tells us that it is not a problem to make money, but to make it by walling off information32.

One of the most frequent errors is to associate this organization with Communism. As Himanen affirms, and as Raymond rages, every time he meets with such a provocation, Communism is a model of centralized authority, a structure which obliges its members to put everything in common. Hackers are free to do so and auto-manage themselves, within their own community: the difference could not be more marked. The hacker community simply presents an open structure which recalls that of academia. From this comparison, the model of learning and acculturation is also treated: "A fundamental forceful point of the learning model is the fact that what one person learns is then taught to the others 33." We are confronted with what Pekka Himanen calls "the academy of the net." This lack of boundaries can lead, however, effectively to a dispersion: still referring to Himanen's writings34, we concentrate on one of the possible consequences that come from the logic in force in the network; the lack of pre-stabilized limits can often lead to a sort of "frivolity," attributable to the lack, in the worst of cases, of responsibility for one's own actions and for the content which is introduced into the web itself. The hacker community avoids this phenomenon, consenting to a sort of anchorage and recognition of certain values which are linked to the necessity of being responsible. The movement calls its members to order, as explained, thanks to the process that feeds reputations: at base, one is recognized as one wishes to appear; if one wants to be appreciated, he must behave correctly.

In conclusion, the work of Pekka Himanen makes us reflect on seven characteristics associated with the hacker ethic: passion, freedom, openness, social value, activity, responsibility, creativity; the first two are directly linked with the work sphere in the strict sense, or more precisely they are what necessarily guides a hacker in his activity. Responsibility comes back into the "nethics" or net ethics defined by Himanen as the behavioral characteristic that dominates network logic. Lastly, the total and lively re-elaboration of one's own capacities, or rather creativity, is the indispensable element for the definite "consecration" on the part of the community.

The cycle of reputation-gratification closes with an individual who is satisfied with himself and is also valued in a satisfying and gratifying way by others.

The Culture of Donation in the Model of Cooperative Production[edit]

Observing "free software" from an economic point of view, the market at the base of free software reminds us a great deal of the archaic donation model. As Berra and Meo35 point out in their text, taking up the propositions in the essay written in 1924 by Marcel Mauss, where donation is shown to be the social basis of every archaic organization.

The donation would not assume, in this context, an intrinsic value in its nature and in, we might say, its economic value. The donated object is charged with a series of values that are above all of a social and collective nature: this is shown, as Berra and Meo, repeating Goudbout36, point out: "The economic aspect of relations is deeply inserted into a social bond." The donation certainly ends by being considered of greater value through the exchange, especially from being an expression of cohesion and social bonding.

This is what happens within the free software market. The program created and distributed within the hacker community certainly has an intrinsic value, but it is above all a concrete object charged with values of the symbolic type, more precisely the expression of the pact of trust between hackers, which we mentioned before. Here, as in an economy definable as "of donation", there are no laws of competition and the market in the traditional sense of dominating the mechanism of exchange: we are facing a moral, ethical obligation, to use a terminology that is already noted and consolidated. As Berra and Meo say, this type of economic rapport is in reality more binding than normal commerce: one ends in a sort of perennial indebtment; the personal relations that are created limit the freedom to benefit in the opportunistic sense from the social links created. In my opinion, this is considered an applied and validated rule only [ciò è da considerarsi regola applicabile e valida solo nel caso in cui] because the people37 who take part are guided by a profound ethical sense and a fervid moral orthodoxy: otherwise, it is possible to encounter a sudden breakdown, which sees the negation of all the values that have been accumulated.

Donation is placed, however, within the historical memory of social relations, which sees it as an object of personalized exchange for the person who receives it: to this sense is opposed the diffuse economic market which denies, as Goudbout38 maintains, the "unique," seeing it as a leak, an imperfection within the chain of production of an "identical good" adapted to commercialization.

The economy of the donation would seem to be distantly linked to the economy of scarcity already cited above: however, donation is not linked to the idea of costlessness. Often the donation comes to be used in the primitive community to diminish the gap between rich and poor39: it was a sort of social obligation to redistribute the wealth, a sort of social contract of the equitable type, a la Rousseau, where individual will, or requirements, are sacrificed for the collective will or good. As far as the hacker culture is concerned, this discourse is necessarily different. Among hackers, the software donation is not something that is produced solely in favor of the community to which they refer, whether by the need of demonstrating that they belong to it, or by a question of cultural "enrichment" (or not) of that community. The hacker usually develops, modifies and creates a program out of personal necessity: a need springing from the encounter with a problem, an improvement after discovering an error, and so on.

Here we face a diverse discourse, in which we are no longer speaking of "individual will" sacrificed in favor or that "collective", but of the satisfaction of a personal need which, at the same time, will be shared with those who, like me, have or will have need for it. Cordonnier, quoted in Berra and Meo, affirms by the way: "…The reason is that at one point or another the economic exchange is an obstacle to the interest of individuals. Even if the motive of the exchange is the interest or desire for gain, one needs to know how to give in or lose something to obtain what one wants….The dilemma …is played out through interest, gain, or the individual usefulness which make up the engine (of the commercial exchange), and the obligation to cooperate which constitutes the process." 40 Donation requires, however, a return of some kind: but then how much is the donation process spontaneous, and how much is it on the other hand governed by obligations, even the most moral? As Berra and Meo maintain, certainly at the base of the mechanism which triggers the exchange of donations may be a free act for us [sicuramente alla base del meccanismo che innesca lo scambio di doni ci dev’essere un atto gratuito], that stabilizes the relation of cooperation. Obviously the maintenance of this relation must be dictated by free will, in other words by the desire to continue either the social relation or the cooperation.

Within free software, cooperation presupposes a relationship of trust, which I have called a pact of trust between members. If we believe in cooperation as a effective and successful method of production, and if we think that everyone shares this vision, it is possible not to facilitate collaborative relationships. Obviously if there is uncertainty about other people's behavior, the choice to cooperate will at least be more difficult and dominated by doubt: one would run the risk of meeting "free riders" on one's own property, those who benefit from other people's work without adhering to the cooperative contract. Still it must be observed that in the exchange between hackers, software comes into play, something that does not deteriorate in passing from one person to another, but can be amplified and can diffuse knowledge, which is, then, the primary material at the base of production41. So the market for free software, going directly back to the exchange of donations, leads, as we read in Berra-Meo, to a series of decentralizing activities, which lead to a general saving of time and money and also to a better optimization of everyone's work capacity.

Speaking of this last aspect, it is not meant that work time will be optimized in the ordinary sense, which would be in opposition with the hacker philosophy. It is rather meant that the hacker has at his disposition the entire arc of the day which he can subdivide at his liking into various activities. In this sense, time is optimized, or complies best with the needs of the person who disposes of it. Furthermore, the prospective hacker also has another characteristic: the close interaction between producer and consumer permits the hacker to fully understand the needs and desires of his client. In the case of the hacker, the figures sometimes coincide, constituting the so-called prosumer of Alvin Toffler42. We will have almost arrived at a model of production perfectly integrated on the level of time, true "just in time" production. We face here a new model of production, something that overcomes the questions of intellectual property and of the chain of production of goods in series. In the next chapter we will give a more in-depth look to what we are facing.

The Dialogic Tension Between the Concepts of "Free" and "Proprietary"[edit]

In this chapter we discuss, in a very rapid way, the phenomenon of cooperation within the hacker movement. Here we concentrate above all on the radical ideology of Richard Marshall Stallman, one of the founders of the hacker ethical culture, as well as of its major frameworks, certainly the most famous and rhetorically exploited.

Stallman's suggestive visions and values of a pure ideological stamp, legacy of a "hippie technology", have certainly accompanied the first phase of diffusion of the internet and its vertiginous development up till our own time, doubtless contributing, especially in the initial phases, to defining its characteristics and social values. Today a further step is called for, compatible with the current situation, where the hacker ethic can still dominate the imagination of those who work on the Internet, but which needs a development which will not appear excessively utopian and "dated." We see the obligation to look at the entire apparatus in a new light.


1: Cfr. V. Bush 1945
2: Cfr. Bettetini-Gasparini-Vittadini 1999, pp. 19-21
3: Cfr. Nelson 1974
4: Cfr. Nelson 1982
5: Cfr. Bettetini-Gasparini-Vittadini 1999, pp. 21-22
6: Bulletin Board System
7: Here we refer to the particular phenomenon of distribution of technological infrastructure in a non-homogeneous fashion, in that not everyone has access to computers.
8: Cfr. Lévy 2001, p. 31
9: Cfr. ibidem
10: Cfr. ibidem, pp. 162-163
11: Cfr. Castells 2001, p. 49
12: Cfr. the film Revolution OS (2002) by J.T.S. Moore, Ed. Apogeo
13: Linus Torvalds is the creator of the kernel or nucleus of the operating system called "Linux." Linux is an operating system for personal computers, that is, an application which allows the other programs to function. It is characterized by about 12 million users and is developed by about a hundred operators who collaborate on the Internet.
14: ITS, Incompatible Timesharing System. As Stallman indicates, in the documentary Revolution OS, the name was meant to bring out the playful spirit of the lively intelligence that characterizes hackers.
15: An operating system is a combination of computer applications that give access to the resources needed for programs to function, even at the same time, without conflicting. 16: GNU is an acronym—a linguistic trick very common in the hacker community—that means "Gnu is not Unix" (and therefore is not proprietary software).
17: Emacs is an editing program with open architecture.
18: Cfr. Berra-Meo 2001, p. 88
19: Version 2 is dated June 1991
20: Cfr. Himanen 2001, p. 10
21: Cfr. ibidem, pp. 11-12
22: Cfr. Weber 2001
23: Cfr. ibidem
24: Cfr. Himanen, ibidem, p. 20
25: Cfr. ibidem, p. 24
26: Cfr. ibidem, pp. 27-39
27: Cfr. Barabási 2004, p. 46
28: These terms mean in substance the updating of a program.
29: Cfr. Raymond 1998:
30: Cfr. Castells, ibidem.
31: Cfr. Himanen, ibidem, p. 50
32: Cfr. Stallman, cited in Himanen 2001, p. 53
33: Cfr. Himanen, ibidem, p. 63
34: Cfr. ibidem, p. 103
35: Cfr. Berra-Meo, ibidem, p. 148
36: Cfr. Goudbout 1993 (ed or. L’esprit du don, La Découverte, Paris 1992), cited in Berra-Meo 2001
37: Reference to the dramaturgical metaphor of Erving Goffman, for whom the individual is an actor who directs his own behavior and a certain mask, created and prepared "backstage," in the sphere of a social "scene" that foresees interaction with one or another other social actors.
38: Cfr. Goudbout in Berra-Meo 2001, p. 151
39: Cfr. ibidem, p. 152
40: Cfr. ibidem, p. 157, cited by Cordonnier, Cooperation et réciprocité, pp. 8-9
41: Cfr. ibidem, p. 162
42: As cited in Berra-Meo 2001, p.171
43: Cfr. ibidem, pp.168-174