Free software is all about use value.
Remember the good old Marxist dialectics of commodities? When a good becomes a commodity, an exchange value is added to the pure use value that the good was originally created to be, and all hell breaks loose. Capital is accumulated. Labor and materials are exploited, and the good is alienated from its original purpose as it is exploited in the market. In many ways this is a good thing, and Marx never forgot the “civilizing qualities” of capitalism over any other mode of production. But the contradiction between use value and exchange value still remains unresolved. The best we can do is deal with it, and in many areas we are successfully doing so. I’m afraid that in the most crucial area in the information age, software, we are struggling.
Even as we can celebrate the liberation of our software as free software users, we must nevertheless take a critical look at the use values we are creating, and how we can do better. I think the solution is to commercialize free software more, not less.
Marx was and still is right, and software is very much a commodity that has tremendous value in modern information capitalism. The contradiction between use value and exchange value is correspondingly huge.
Use value before software
I’m not going to postulate a “state of nature” like Locke or Hobbes did, but i do know for a fact that software was not always a commodity. When UNIVAC and Digital and IBM built their enormously expensive mainframes in the 1950s that only a few companies and research facilities were able to acquire, software was the actual outcome that users wanted. The activity that the computer was purchased for was programming. What an airline or a government wanted was the machine. No talk about software. The IBM customer bought the raw machinery and wrote the software that would do the single task that they needed it to do, like complex calculations or keeping customer databases. The use value was in the hardware, the software was the result of the user’s work. Software as an independent entity did not exist.
Emergence of software as a commodity
Hardware became cheaper and smaller, and more users were able to purchase computers. All universities and every moderately sized business had one. No longer would users be happy with UNIVACs or IBM model so-and-so’s, but we suddenly had portable, general purpose systems like Unix that ran on a wide variety of machines. Operating systems and applications became different entities. Unix was relatively free because of AT&T’s ban on entering the software business, and we soon had two modes of software production: proprietary Unix and free university Unix. Proprietary software was born.
Use value was no longer in the hardware: it was cheap and replaceable. Use value was in the software: this was what actually enabled to do the stuff you wanted to do.
Enter the IBM PC and IBM’s failure to do anything with it. It became a standard and a myriad of clones emerged, producing “IBM compatible” PC machines from off-the-shelf components. None of those companies were powerful enough to maintain a vertical system of hardware, operating system and applications, like IBM and the biggies used to. It was economically much more feasible to get the software from third parties, specialized software companies such as Microsoft and the Unix vendors. Behold the software commodity as an independent entity.
Free software was around all this time of course. I’m not sure why we did not use it all along. Maybe we were unable to make it run on cheap PC’s, maybe we were too proud to acknowledge them. I don’t know.
The commodity reached its perfection. Use value was in the hands of companies producing proprietary software. They would, under terms of a license that they dictate, allow you to reach your goals in limited ways, and express yourself in ways that they deemed appropriate. Their End User License Agreements would allow you to write stuff, make calculations, draw and edit images, and such things, in all the ways that they (not you) could imagine you might want to do for the fee that you pay. You could do more if you paid more, sometimes, if there were many others that wanted to the same thing and it became economically interesting to the company to provide you with the possibility.
The creator of the software owned you.
The free software movement
Not everyone was happy with that, and we got rebels such as the heroes of the Free Software Foundation. I’m not going to preach to the choir and repeat the rise and success of free software, but I’m going to say that the rebellion was all about a world-class hacker such as Richard Stallman being unable to fix the driver software for his brand new Xerox printer because it was proprietary. The use value was greatly diminished.
Free software is all about making software useful again. Software is only useful when you can do what your needs are, not someone else’s. No software vendor is ingenious enough to predict what you might want to do. Free software communities are: they just do what you tell them to do. We’re talking usefulness, use values again.
So now that we have philosophically and economically fixed everything with the free software ideology and open source development models, and we have wonderful systems like Linux-based GNU systems and all the awesome apps that run on them, we’re home free, right? I’m not sure.
Why business is good
Let us see how we have needed companies that exploit our free software commons. Let us see how they have actually added not only capital for themselves, but actual use value for all of us.
In the late 1980s, before the Internet or the Linux project existed, a few guys realized that the GNU C compiler, the GDB debugger and Emacs made a pretty damn good set of developer tools, and decided to sell them to developers and support them. They listened to customers and fixed bugs, added features, and customized the tools for individual companies and users. The GNU project was not interested in doing any of this, so the users were better off paying Cygnus to do it for them. Cygnus was adding real use value to the GNU tools. Soon the company noticed that the GNU project was really slow in integrating their improvements to the official compiler tree, so they were left with no choice other than forking it. Eventually, the FSF realized that Cygnus’ version was far superior to them, and adopted it as official. Cygnus pretty much became the maintainers of the GNU C compiler.
The GNOME project was created in 1997 to create a free desktop for GNU-based systems. It succeeded because Red Hat hired developers to work on it. Red Hat got a nice desktop for themselves, and the GNU project got a free desktop. Red Hat made sure the potential use value was created.
In 2010, we are complaining when Canonical, Red Hat and Novell are leading the evolution of desktop systems, and IBM, Oracle, and others are in charge of the kernel. Why do we complain? What we are witnessing is the reconciliation of use value and exchange value. Everybody wins when commercial free software succeeds.
A couple of questions where conclusions should be
Smart companies will have to adopt free software and standardize. They will then have to compete in some genuine way that makes them special. Offering a stable operating system is not a very good business plan anymore: anyone can take GNU/Linux and offer that. Offering an awesome desktop experience is not going to work for much longer: companies like Red Hat, Novell and Canonical are working to make that point pretty much moot as well.
Looking into the future, we must consider end-users and the use values they are after even more carefully. Think about ultralight computers and mobile devices. Why do we complain if Nokia controls a device such as the N900? I have no idea. Maybe the hardware in the device is important again, and we, the free software movement, have made the software stack pretty much worthless in terms of exchange value? If so, we have more time to concentrate on more important things and place all this in to the basic category of “infrastructure” along with electricity and railroads.
I would like to think so.