Collaborative Futures

Networked Solidarity

“There is no guarantee that networked information technology will lead to the improvements in innovation, freedom, and justice that I suggest are possible. That is a choice we face as a society. The way we develop will, in significant measure, depend on choices we make in the next decade or so.”
—Yochai Benkler, The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom 


Catherine Frost, in her 2006 paper Internet Galaxy Meets Postnational Constellation: Prospects for Political Solidarity After the Internet evaluates the prospects for the emergence of postnational solidarities abetted by Internet communications leading to a change in the political order in which the responsibilities of the nation state are joined by other entities. Frost does not enumerate the possible entities, but surely they include supernational, transnational, international, and global in scope and many different forms, not limited to the familiar democratic and corporate.

The verdict? Characteristics such as anonymity, agnosticism to human fatalities and questionable potential for democratic engagement make it improbable that postnational solidarities with political salience will emerge from the Internet—anytime soon. However, Frost acknowledges that we could be looking in the wrong places, such as the dominant English-language Web. Marginalized groups could find the Internet a more compelling venue for creating new solidarities.

And this: 

“Yet we know that when things change in a digital age, they change fast. The future for political solidarity is not a simple thing to discern, but it will undoubtedly be an outcome of the practices and experiences we are now developing.”

Could the collaboration mechanisms discussed in this book aid the formation of politically salient postnational solidarities? Significant usurpation of responsibilities of the nation state seems unlikely soon. Yet this does not bar the formation of communities that contest with the nation state for intensity of loyalty, in particular when their own collaboration is threatened by a nation state. As an example we can see global responses from free software developers and bloggers to software patents and censorship in single jurisdictions.


If political solidarities could arise out of collaborative work and threats to it, then collaboration might alter the power relations of work. Both globally and between worker and employer—at least incrementally.

Workers are not permitted the freedom granted to traders and capitalists over the last half century, during which barriers to trade and investment were greatly reduced. People in jurisdictions with less opportunity are as locked into politically institutionalized underemployment and poverty as were non-whites in Apartheid South Africa, while the populations of wealthy jurisdiction are as privileged as whites were in the same regime, as explained by Yves Bonnardel and David Olivier’s Manifesto for the Abolition of International Apartheid, <>:

The ethical and political principle of equality of all individuals of the human species is now acknowledged by nearly all. It is almost universally accepted that any discrimination between human individuals based on an arbitrary criterion is unjust and must be abolished.

Since the end of interracial apartheid in South Africa, no longer any state in the world openly practices discrimination between humans based on the arbitrary criterion of skin color. Today, however, another equally arbitrary criterion is still accepted and applied by virtually every state in the world. For a human individual to have been born in some a particular place, from parents of some particular nationality, and thus to possess himself some particular nationality, is a matter of chance, and cannot be taken as a non-arbitrary criterion of discrimination.  

Following this arbitrary criterion of nationality, states either grant or deny human individuals the right to dwell on their territories as well as access to the social benefits that are granted to the natives. Just like interracial apartheid in South Africa, this arbitrary discrimination would be but a relatively harmless absurdity if its consequences were a mere separation. But the reality of the world we live in is marked by the existence of vast areas in which most inhabitants suffer from severe poverty and high rates of mortality; and of other areas in which inhabitants live in conditions that, though not always good, are for the least considerably better than the conditions that prevail in the poor areas. The refusal to allow certain individuals to live in rich countries on the basis of their nationality is de facto, just like interracial apartheid, an arbitrary denial of often vital benefits granted to others.

We therefore recognize as fundamentally contrary to the ethical and political principle of human equality the state laws and regulations, particularly those of the rich states, that deny individuals the right to enter and live on their territories, and access to social benefits, on the basis of their nationalities. We demand the abolition of this international apartheid, and demand that all appropriate measures be taken to render this abolition effective as quickly as possible.  

As a consequence of the ethical and political principle of human equality, we recognize these laws and regulations as illegitimate. We demand that they be abolished, and that every human being, whatever eir nationality, be permitted to live on the territory of any state, and receive equally the social benefits that are granted to the natives.

We declare ourselves under no obligation to respect these illegitimate laws, and ready, should the case arise, to transgress them and to help others to transgress them.

What does this have to do with collaboration? This system of labor is immobilized by politically determined discrimination. It is not likely this system will change without the formation of new postnational orders. However, it is conceivable that as collaboration becomes more economically important—as an increasing share of wealth is created via distributed collaboration—the inequalities of the current system could be mitigated. That is simply because distributed collaboration does not require physical movement across borders.

Put more boldly, distributed collaboration is a means to transgress the system of International apartheid condemned by Bonnardel and Olivier. The effect and effectiveness of transgression is always hotly debated. However, it is also possible that open collaboration could alter relationships between some workers and employers in the workers’ favor both in local and global markets. 

Control of the means of production

Open collaboration changes which activities are more efficient inside or outside of a firm. Could the power of workers relative to firms also be altered?

“Intellectual property rights prevent mobility of employees in so far as their knowledge is locked in in a proprietary standard that is owned by the employer. This factor is all the more important since most of the tools that programmers are working with are available as cheap consumer goods (computers, etc.). The company holds no advantage over the worker in providing these facilities (in comparison to the blue-collar operator referred to above whose knowledge is bound to the Fordist machine park). When the source code is closed behind copyrights and patents, however, large sums of money is required to access the software tools. In this way, the owner/firm gains the edge back over the labourer/programmer.

This is were GPL comes in. The free license levels the playing field by ensuring that everyone has equal access to the source code. Or, putting it in Marxist-sounding terms, through free licenses the means of production are handed back to labour. […] By publishing software under free licences, the individual hacker is not merely improving his own reputation and employment prospects, as has been pointed out by Lerner and Tirole. He also contributes in establishing a labour market where the rules of the game are completely different, for him and for everyone else in his trade. It remains to be seen if this translates into better working conditions,higher salaries and other benefits associated with trade unions. At least theoretically the case is strong that this is the case. I got the idea from reading Glyn Moody’s study of the FOSS development model, where he states: “Because the ‘product’ is open source, and freely available, businesses must necessarily be based around a different kind of scarcity: the skills of the people who write and service that software.” (Moody, 2001, p.248) In other words, when the source code is made available to everyone under the GPL, the only thing that remains scarce is the skills needed to employ the software tools productively. Hence, the programmer gets an edge over the employer when they are bargaining over salary and working conditions.

It bears to be stressed that my reasoning needs to be substantiated with empirical data. Comparative research between employed free software programmers and those who work with proprietary software is required. Such a comparison must not focus exclusively on monetary aspects. As important is the subjective side of programming, for instance that hackers report that they are having more fun when participating in free software projects than they work with proprietary software (Lakhani & Wolf, 2005). Neither do I believe that this is the only explanation to why hackers use GPL. No less important are the concerns about civil liberties and the anti-authoritarian ethos within the hacker subculture. In sum, hackers are a much too heterogeneous bunch for them all to be included under a single explanation. But I dare to say that the labour perspective deserves more attention than it has been given by popular and scholarly critics of intellectual property till now. Both hackers and academic writers tend to formulate their critique against intellectual property law from a consumer rights horizon and borrow arguments from a liberal, political tradition. There are, of course, noteworthy exceptions. People like Eben Moglen, Slavoj Zizek and Richard Barbrook have reacted against the liberal ideology implicit in much talk about the Internet by courting the revolutionary rhetoric of the Second International instead. Their ideas are original and eye-catching and often full of insight. Nevertheless, their rhetoric sounds oddly out of place when applied to pragmatic hackers. Perhaps advocates of free sotftware would do better to look for a counter-weight to liberalism in the reformist branch of the labour movement, i.e. in trade unionism. The ideals of free software is congruent with the vision laid down in the “Technology Bill of Rights”, written in 1981 by the International Association of Machinists:

”The new automation technologies and the sciences that underlie them are the product of a world-wide, centuries-long accumulation of knowledge. Accordingly, working people and their communities have a right to share in the decisions about, and the gains from, new technology” (Shaiken, 1986, p.272).”

—Johan Söderberg, Hackers GNUnited!, CC BY-SA, <>

Perhaps open collaboration can only be expected to slightly tip the balance of power between workers and employers and change measured wages and working conditions very little. However, it is conceivable, if fanciful, that control of the means of production could nurture a feeling of autonomy that empowers further action outside of the market.

Autonomous individuals and communities   


Autonomy is a concept found in moral, political, and bioethical philosophy. Within these contexts it refers to the capacity of a rational individual to make an informed, un-coerced decision. In moral and political philosophy, autonomy is often used as the basis for determining moral responsibility for one's actions. <> The work of late twentieth-century thinkers and feminist scholars problematizes the notion that an individual subject could either precede all social formations or could possibly make rational decisions. Instead the body is seen as a site in which all manner of social forces are made manifest, articulated in physiological, psychological and biological ways. Body, mind, consciousness are sites of domination and subjection through modulation (Foucault). We enact power and power runs through us. Subjectivity is not an issue of an individual self but an agglomeration and enactment of social and political forces.

In short, do we always know whose will we are choosing? It is worthwhile to be suspicious of those people and projects who claim to be autonomous.

Free Software and related methodologies can give individuals autonomy in their technology environments. It might also give individuals a measure of additional autonomy in the market (or increased ability to stand outside it). This is how Free and Open Source Software is almost always characterized, when it is described in terms of freedom or autonomy—giving individual users freedom, or allowing organizations to not be held ransom to proprietary licenses.

However, communities that exist outside of the market and state obtain a much greater autonomy. These communities have no need for the freedoms discussed above, even if individual community members do. There have always been such communities, but they did not possess the ability to use open collaboration to produce wealth that significantly competes, even supplants, market production. This ability makes these autonomous organizations newly salient.

Furthermore, these autonomous communities (Debian and Wikipedia are the most obvious examples) are pushing new frontiers of governance necessary to scale their collaborative production. Knowledge gained in this process could inform and inspire other communities that could become reinvigorated and more effective through the implementation of open collaboration, including community governance. Such communities could even produce postnational solidarities, especially when attacked.

Do we know how to get from here to there? No. But only through experimentation will we find out. If a more collaborative future is possible, obtaining it depends on the choices we make today.