Monday Jul 30, 2007

Cognitive Capitalism

After visiting the Louvre on Saturday, I wandered into a bookshop and picked up a book called "Le Capitalisme Cognitif, La Nouvelle Grande Transfromation", by Yann Moulier Boutang, which would translate in English into "Cognitive Capitalism, The Next Great Transformation". The book has a good section on the GNU/Linux free software movement, which must be unusual for a book on economics and so cought my interest. Better still it claimed to put forward a theory that would explain the emergence of such a phenonmenon. I was sold, and spent the rest of the weekend reading it, proving the point that the cognitive economy knows no 35 hour boundaries. When you find something interesting how can you let go?

According to this book we need nothing less than to postulate a third stage of capitalism, starting 1975, following the two previous stages which were the mercantilist stage which led to slave trade, followed by the industrial stage of which the car and Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times are the symbols. The transformation of the economy by the Just in Time production Techniques (The Machine that Changed the World), the advent of computers and then the internet, moved industrial capitalism to a position of having to value knownlege more and more heavily. Whereas the industrial revolution fed off the movements of illiterate peasants into towns, and so emphasized the simplicity of repetitive tasks (Ford was proud that it would take a week to at most a month and a half to teach someone the ways on the assembly lines), so the cognitive revolution spurred by diminishing returns of mass produced goods, the breaking up of markets into ever narrower micromarkets and pulled by the power of computing and the network, is requiring people more and more to make decisions depending on knowledge accumulated in networks.

With a lot of very interesting references back to literature I am only superficially aware of, quoting the economic thinkers from Adam Smith, Marx, Keynes, Adorno, building on commentaries by Lawrence Lessig and Eric Raymond, there is no doubt that the authors are serious about their subject. Placing Open Source and the Free Software movement at the center of this revolution plays well to my prejudices. The French was at times hard to read for me, who am not used to the economics language, and the point of view definitively a bit local at times.

But there is something oddly missing in the book that reaches sometimes right up to some recent news (such as a couple of gaffes made by Sarcozy during the election campaign), and that is that there is absolutely no mention of Open Solaris or for that matter of Apple's open sourcing of their OS a few years ago (with some recent worries it is true) . The only thing that is taken from the Open Source movement is the free source movement, and the lesson taken from it is that open exchange of knowledge produces better goods than closed proprietary ones, and most of all that they are free. But detailed analysis of these ecosystems would be useful. How did they emerge? What is the interest in Standard Operating Systems (Unix), to start off with? How did the crowd of GNU/Linux developers finance their work? Why is there work at all in this space? These are real questions, and I have heard many interesting ideas and views on their answers. The answers will be complex, just as the explanation of why ants build their nests the way they do, and how that relates to the ecology of the forrest surrounding them. In the OpenSolaris case we know Jonathan Schwartz's answers: "There are two types of people, those that must pay and those that won't pay". Those that must pay are those that need liability coverage. They have other businesses to run, and they pay Sun for the guarantee that things will work well. It is just the continuation of the logic of outsourcing. Those that don't pay are researchers and other institutions that increase the value of the platform by using it, providing feedback and enthusiasm.

So the conclusion of the book which makes the jump from the power of free to the unsustainability of free without revolutionary government intervention, which certainly feels like a very French idea, is not at all convincing. The last chapters of the book are thus very dissapointing. As I read them I suddenly had the feeling that the whole previous thesis was built up later in order to defend the pre-established conclusion, increase and further the minimum salary to every branch of french society. An interesting idea, but that is a hell of a jump to make. Where did it go wrong?

Well for one I think it is clear that Open Source has found a way to sustain itself in a capitalistic economy, and it can only do this if those contributing are getting rewarded in some way for what they are doing. That one should find ways to improove the incentives of developers and contributors will clearly be in the interest of the firms that are building their reputation on top of them. So the question is how can firms develop on top of something free? Ask that to the bottled water salespeople. The amount of knowledge we can accumulate is it is true, as opposed to petrol for example, clearly limitless. But the amount of live knowledge and organisational knowledge humans can have is limited to the amount of brains in existence, complimented by computers of course. Now brains take time to grow, and thought take time to emerge. You cannot build a kernel engineer in a couple of weeks, a couple of months or even a couple of years. Neither is this a skill that comes as naturally as say going to the cinema, so there is not a large pool of such people around. Furthermore the world is constantly changing, and code is dead knowledge. There is always a need to adapt the kernel to some new device, add some improovemeents, or make some other changes. Finding the people that make the right changes is not going to be easy. Finally there are only 24 hours in a day, and even hackers can't be working all the time. The attention economy does no apply only to consumers. Developers themselves only have limited attentions. Paying them helps alleviate other problems they may have, such as finding food. In the end therefore demand for their services should create a sustainable ecological space for their work. And so for the rest of Open Source. If governments have a need for it, such as because they want the computers running their armies to be run by software understood by their own engineers, and that they can only get those if those courses are studied at Universities in a free and open way, then governements will and should contribute, as indeed they do. Indeed it could be argued that this is one of the largest forces behind the birth of Unix.

So it is not because software is free that nobody will pay for it, and so the argument in the last part of this book collapses pretty badly. But that we have entered a new world, very distinct from the Fordist era, that I am in no doubt.

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