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The Generation of the Free/Open Source Community and the Conditions for Creativity: Social and Cultural Research Agenda
James Leach, Social Anthropology, University of Cambridge, UK.
jgl20@cam.ac.uk

Summary. Research should focus on three inter-related areas: 1. Research relating to the ongoing generation of the ‘community of developers’, and to understanding the conditions fostering creativity. 2. The effects of the legislative environment and issues of ownership. 3. The public understanding of technology, and the expansion of OSS including attention to unintended or unanticipated social consequences

Introduction. Free software (FS) and Open Source software (OSS) have a number of advantages over proprietary software. Instrumental in facilitating these advantages is a support and innovation network (the community of developers) who are also the engine for development. This community does not exist in a vacuum but in a specific socio-cultural context. In order to facilitate the ongoing development of this community, and to foster the expansion of FS/OSS, this context must be understood, particularly by legislators and policy makers. If we agree that OSS is a good thing, there are a number of routes for research which should be prioritised. Many of these are technical. Some, perhaps more than one might imagine, are social. It is to these that I attend.

1. Research relating to the programming/hacker community, and the conditions fostering creativity.
Research should be extended in the area of how the communal and community based nature of the OS/FS movement has developed. What is the context in which developers (self-description ‘hackers’) work effectively? What models/expectations of relationships, ownership, reward, and satisfaction do they entertain? There is a fair amount of self-description available from those involved with OSS (e.g., Di Bona, Ockman & Stone 1999), and auto-narration of its history (e.g., Raymond 1999 etc). Ethnographic research methods have so far been under represented in understanding the movement. Social science researchers should work with the community of hackers to generate knowledge about the enabling conditions, and generating principles, which constitute the creative social environment for OSS.

Informed discussion is also required of the social and conceptual mechanisms by which schisms and divergences within the community come about in order that the social factors behind technological divergence are properly understood.

1.a. The ongoing generation of the social entity known as the ‘hacker community’. The opposition between profit/market based modes of economic activity and not-for-profit based modes seems obvious. Yet the diverse developers of Free/OSS have shown, through their economic success, and their community-building success, that these elements need not be opposed. In fact, anthropological analysis would tell us that both models of economic behaviour are aspects of the same socio-cultural context. Detailed ethnographic research related to OSS provides the opportunity to step back and investigate how oppositions which characterise software development as a whole are generated within a pervasive series of assumptions about individuals, society, value creation, and economic rationality. Social scientific models for analysing the emergence of new kinds of social relations, and new kinds of community, provide a set of tools with which to understand how people themselves change as they participate in changing the social environment. These disciplines also have a wealth of comparative materials which should be brought into analytic relation with OSS to gain perspective on its creativity, and its economics. The differences between proprietary and open source models are ideological and political, matters of individual motivation, even of morality (Stallman 1999). Innovation and creativity are simultaneously aspects of the social world in which technological advances are made, and of the technologies themselves.

The ground for the success of OSS lies as much in the way a community and ethos has developed as it does in the brilliance of its prime movers. Individual brilliance and motivation may not be easy to foster out of context. Research should address the questions: What is that context? How do different development environments and different socio-cultural contexts effect participation in, or use of, OSS?

2. Legislative environment and ownership. In particular, regimes of ownership and the management of reward should be a focus for research. Into this comes the legislative environment, and particularly proposed changes to IP laws. Is licensing a good thing? What alternatives are there? What assumptions about economic behaviour are embedded in IP law, and how might they be challenged? How do the successful OS based businesses organise their reward structures? How are the needs of publishers, developers, users (individual/corporate/government) to be reconciled? While it seems unlikely to many that this reconciliation will be achieved through IP law, IP law has a momentum of its own, and is often cited as part of the enabling environment for innovation. If it is the province of lawyers to analyse changes in the law and their effects on law, it is the province of social scientists to comment on the effects upon communities, on systems of ownership, and on the diverse ethical and cultural effects of legislative change.

Long-term ethnographic research methods provide data which is a resource for both present concerns, and for future, unanticipated concerns. It is essential to have such data to be able to analyse effectively what developments in ownership will do. This is important not because property runs against the grain of OSS - OSS developers after all still own their labour power and their skills - but because changes in legislation may have negative impacts on developers, and therefore on the generation of objects and tools of value to society.

3. The public understanding of technology and the expansion of OSS. Unintended or unanticipated social consequences. Proprietary regimes in software are not the only obstacles to liberty. While many of these obstacles are straightforward political issues, it would be valuable to see what the drive for open-source coding, in the model of scientific method and progress, and citing economic rationality or social values, is also hiding behind its rhetoric of liberty. Differences in participation between the genders, and the generations (Floss Rpt.) have characterised the phenomenon so far. Why should this be, and can, or should, it be overcome?
OSS is a phenomenon which has developed in a particular social and cultural context. How might its ideas and benefits be translated into other areas of the world; how, in other words, is the community to grow, if its basis in social and cultural assumptions about motivations, reward and hierarchy, are not made explicit as assumptions which need to be taken into account as the technology spreads? Anthropological work (in particular) into the different social conditions of creativity itself, as well as the social context of object production, technological use, and alternative modes of ownership is well developed. It will be useful to draw upon this expertise and bring the existing literature into comparison with new ethnographic data on OSS communities and their products.