New Histories of Writing II
2003 MMLA Meeting
Chicago, IL
08 November

Lisette Gonzalez
University of Illinois at Chicago

 Writing the Revolution: Open Source and the Performance of a Radical Democracy

How can the emergence of a computer operating system comment on the history of writing? In an attempt to examine this question, I would like to consider the way both narratives written about the Linux Open Source system and the language of the systems themselves mimic and represent the counter cultural narratives of the 1960's. These narratives, along with the actual operating systems and software, address and enact the democratic political struggles that were at the forefront of counter cultural narratives. Presented as driven primarily by the information revolution, the forces of globalization have become detached from their political dimensions and appear as a fate to which we must submit. The Linux Open Source system (free software downloadable from the web created by bands of programmers around the world collaborating to write programs and fix bugs on a volunteer basis) provides a concrete example of the discursive conditions for the emergence of a collective action, directed towards struggling against inequalities and challenging relations of subordination.

Linux is a world-class operating system that coalesced out of part-time hacking by several thousand developers scattered all over the planet, connected only through the Internet. This community contains a combination of different agendas and approaches out of which a coherent and stable system emerges. Users become co-developers of the system, a collaboration which leads to rapid code improvement and effective debugging. The programs and operating systems produced by the Linux programmers can be read as moments of political activity that threaten the control of such hegemonic corporations as Microsoft. The accretion of activity that creates these systems works to subvert the medium of universal integration by producing a viable alternative to Windows.

Open Source programmers construct online virtual communities which shed light on counter-culture narratives by providing a concrete example of how a counter-culture can reach the otherwise idealist goals of both enforcing a radicalized democracy of truly free enterprise and producing a localized resistance to hegemonic corporate structures. The Linux world behaves as a free market and also operates as a community that converges through interests and attempts to return to the traditional conception of liberty, a conception that characterizes it as non-interference with the right of unlimited appropriation. By producing a free alternative to expensive software, this system allows for a radical disaffiliation from Microsoft. Although each operator works individually, this system becomes collaborative as the isolation and fragmentation of the individual artist is overcome by the virtual community and collaborative effort offered by the web. Like the sixties counter cultures, these communities reject the regime of hegemonic corporate and technological expertise that dominates industrial society. The narratives written by coders, in which programmers identify themselves in these stories as rebellious artists, imitate the counter cultural narratives of the sixties.