Monday, September 03, 2007

Plus ça change...

One of the explanations frequently given for the emergence and success of the free software movement is that it is simply one particular expression of a pre-existing tendency to share code.

In an effort to get started on an embryonic project concerning the social history of The User, I just finished reading Atsushi Akera's meticulously researched 2001 paper, "Voluntarism and the Fruits of Collaboration: The IBM User Group, Share." (As far as I can tell, it's only available online if you have access to a Project MUSE subscription.) While Akera seems primarily interested in the roots of professionalism in the computing industry, I was struck by a number of his observations that speak to FOSS.

Share was founded as a group of corporate users of the IBM 704 mainframe, generally composed on the individual level by directors of computing installations. The group did ground-breaking work to develop notions such as "systems programming" and "operating systems," -- Akera notes that
during this period the terms themselves were being defined in specific relation to the emerging labor structure of computing installations
-- and developed a compiler for a mathematics-intensive language, PACT, that ended up being eclipsed by FORTRAN.

Among the interesting moments in the paper:
[The focus on systems programming] followed from the computer center directors' commitment to operating efficiency. . . . As if to reinforce this orientation, Share forbade the exchange of applications programs. . . . Share used this distinction to mark the boundaries of proprietary interest.
which certainly foreshadows the logic of differentiating and non-differentiating technology deployed by Bruce Perens in his First Monday piece on "The emerging economic paradigm of Open Source." Also,
Share was established with an eye towards productive collaboration. . . . The unsatisfactory quality of IBM's programming tools and particular dispersion of knowledge provided a technical rational for collaboration.
which is a (probably unnecessary) bit of support for Raymond's principle about programmers and their itches.

One of the most interesting points Akera makes has to do with corporate voluntarism and anti-trust law:
[T]he group arguably transgressed a legal boundary by coordinating development work. By asking each installation to take on specific "assignments," Share entered a gray area that could have brought on costly litigation. Share representatives therefore began to stress the voluntary character of the work . . . . the rhetoric of voluntarism began to pervade Share's letters and proceedings.
So one implicit function of FOSS projects is in fact to provide legal cover for corporate contributors.

Finally, a note about the early connections between collaboration and reputation:
[S]ince all of Share's programs were attributed to their authors, the very distribution of programs served as a mechanism for credit. During the mid-1950s, when programmers could lay claim to no professional society, Share provided many programmers with the single most important forum in which to develop and demonstrate their skills. . . . The group also made it easier to identify . . . talent by establishing common measures of skills and abilities.
Certainly an article worth seeking out.


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