Academic journal article Capital & Class

Cyberconflict Edge of Chaos: Cryptohierarchies and Self-Organisation in Open-Source Movement

Academic journal article Capital & Class

Cyberconflict Edge of Chaos: Cryptohierarchies and Self-Organisation in Open-Source Movement

Article excerpt


In communities that exist at the interface between order and randomness (at the edge of chaos), conflict and crisis can act as a catalyst or a defence mechanism towards establishing governance structures or, failing that, disintegration. Conflict is a catalyst in the sense of enabling the morphosis of cryptohierarchies, and a defence mechanism in the sense of forcing communities to separate.

Conflict and crisis can result in different outcomes. For example, through negotiation and soft control, communities such as peer-to-peer networks can develop new structures in order to cope with conflict, creating core and periphery groups and cryptohierarchies. In another scenario, due to extreme group polarisation, the community is unable to create new structures, but branches out and uses conflict as a defence mechanism to avoid centralisation. Or in the worst-case scenario, the community separates into two (forking the code), and there is no collaboration between original and fork, in which case conflict can be constructive or destructive depending on the evolution of the communities and groups involved.

From another angle, in this paper we differentiate between different levels of conflict and discuss the role conflict and self-organisation play in the emergence of structures, focusing on leadership emergence, the bifurcation into core and peripheral groups and soft control by cryptohierarchies (intra-communal cyberconflict); different levels of group polarisation and conflict between communities negotiating their identity, strategy, coordination and complexity (inter-communal cyberconflict); and lastly, the dynamic relationships between hierarchies and networks. These dynamics are forcing open-source communities and, more often than not, networked communities to exist at the edge of chaos, and to constantly engage in lines of flight and resistance from the system of global control, while ignoring current capitalist practices and 'growing their own' models of self-organising knowledge creation and exchange (meta-cyberconflict).

The other main purpose of this paper is to suggest, through examining issues of cryptohierarchies and the effects of self-organisation, that the open-source and/or free software movement is mistakenly romanticised as the ultimate democratic, egalitarian and horizontal system of governance, although a version of it might well replace democracy itself in the future, as the worst form of government except for the other ones that have been tried:

People often see in the open source software movement the politics that they would like to see--a libertarian reverie, a perfect meritocracy, a utopian gift culture that celebrates an economics of abundance instead of scarcity, a virtual or electronic existence proof of communitarian ideals, a political movement aimed at replacing obsolete nineteenth-century capitalist structures with 'new relations of production' more suited to the Information Age ... It is almost too easy to criticize some of the more lavish claims ... The hype should be partly forgiven ... Unlike the shooting star that was Napster, the roots of open source go back to the beginning of modern computing; it is a productive movement ultimately linked to the mainstream economy; and its developing and growing an increasingly self-conscious identification as a community that specifies its own norms and values. (Weber, 2004: 7)

Stefan Merten of Oekonux (the name is drawn from a combination of the words oekonomie [economics] and 'Linux'), a German mailing list discussing the revolutionary possibilities of free software, reassures us that 'conflict would no longer be built into the social system as it is today' (Merten, 2004, version 4). Similarly optimistic, Michel Bauwens (2007) of the P2P Foundation talks of peer-to-peer processes as bottom-up processes in which agents in a distributed network can freely and voluntarily engage in common pursuits without external coercion, which anyone can access, anyone can use, and any change to the commons belongs to the commons. …

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