Open Source Projects as Voluntary Hierarchies

by Felix Stalder, published in: Global Media and Communication, Vol 2(2) Summer, 2006

Review of Weber, Steven (2004) The Success of Open Source. Cambridge, MA, Harvard UP
ISBN: 0-674-01292-5, pp. 311

Over the last half-decade, free and open source software (FOSS) has moved from the hacker margins to the mainstream. Corporations, large and small, have invested in it, some governments are actively supporting it and it is becoming an increasingly important tool for the building of an international civil society. In the social sciences, the field is receiving a growing share of attention, evidenced by a widening stream of research output. The central repository for relevant papers,, lists some 250 researchers with a self-declared interest in all things FOSS and almost as many scholarly papers, contributed in just five years. Additionally, there are several volumes written by activists, book-length treatments by journalists, plus biographies of the two most prominent figures, Richard Stallman and Linus Torvalds.

To this burgeoning literature, the most ambitious contribution is Steven Weber’s The Success of Open Source. Weber, a political scientist from University of California, Berkeley, focuses on a political economy approach which he understands as ‘a system of sustainable value creation and a set of governance mechanisms’ (p.1). His main interest lies in the social formations built around FOSS’s particular mode of production. What differentiates this mode from other systems of immaterial production is its approach to property. Whereas the conventional notions of property are based on unambiguous ownership and the associated right of excluding others, in the context of FOSS, property is organized around the right to distribute. Its key concerns are not how to ascribe ownership and manage exclusion, but to develop the best strategies to maximize access and collaboration. This is a profound change, and Weber puts it rightly at the beginning of his analysis. In this perspective FOSS is a public good, a resource that, once produced, everyone can use, akin to a street light. Standard political theory assumes there are no incentives for private entities to produce public goods, because the non-excludability invites free-riding, impeding markets built on scarcity. Thus, the provision of such goods is usually in the hands of governments who invest in them for the benefit of society as a whole.

FOSS is a counter-intuitive example where a large number of entities, individuals as well as organizations, produce highly complex products as public goods with no, or very little, involvement of the state. Early analysts recognized that, given mainstream theoretical assumptions, FOSS is an ‘impossible public good’ (p.1). Clearly, however, it is not a fluke. Many of the core projects  - such as the Linux kernel, the Apache webserver, the GNU software  - are by now more than a decade old and are still growing, so it is no longer in doubt as to whether FOSS represents a ‘system of sustainable value creation’. But what kind of system? The two core chapters of the book (which also contains a thorough history of FOSS and somewhat less thorough sections on business and law) focus on the ‘microfoundations’, the individual motivations to contribute to FOSS projects, and on the ‘macro-organizations’ involved. Weber aims to show that contributors are not altruistic, but guided by range of incentives, from seeking aesthetic pleasures to reputation and identity building. The question of incentives is probably the best researched of all aspects of the conundrum that FOSS poses to conventional political and economic theory and Weber does a very good job of systematizing and summarizing the state of the discussion, even if he adds little new.

More interesting and original is the chapter on the macro-organization of FOSS projects. Here, Weber shows that these projects are not chaotic at all, but tend to have explicit formal structures (release schedules, project leaders, official repositories, etc) and that notions of self-organization do not really clarify much. To bring together the two basic observations that all contributions are voluntary, and that projects are hierarchically structured, Weber develops the notion of a voluntary hierarchy (though, he never quite calls it that). In such a governance system, individuals voluntarily accept their position in a hierarchy, because they realize that doing so is beneficial to them. Their own contributions get recognized and the overall project develops into a direction that they like. In such as system, contrary to what we usually think of hierarchies, power flows from the bottom to the top ‘because the leader depends on the followers more than the other way around[…]Asymmetrical interdependencies favor the potential followers, who will make a free and voluntary choice where to invest their work’ (p.160).

The freedom of choice if and where to contribute is not just based on the fact that all contributions are voluntary, but also, perhaps even more importantly, on the ability to fork the project, to reorganize the project under a different leadership. This happens if contributors believe that the current leader no longer supports their own individual goals. If a significant number of contributors share this sense of disaffection, the project splits, or routs around the unpopular leader. Given the free access to the source code, all the resources to form a new project are there. The only thing that is needed is the credible claim of another leader to be more responsive to the community. The hurdle for forking is, as Weber argues, simultaneously very low and very high. It is so low that it forces the leader to stay attentive and responsive to the community. The Utopian vision that ‘authority follows and derives from responsibility’ (p.163) comes to be realized to a reasonable degree. The fact that forks happen quite rarely shows that the hurdle, in practice, is nevertheless high enough to allow for a high degree of project continuity. As projects mature and grow in complexity, governance structures are becoming more explicit (foundations, board of directors, etc) without replacing the essentially voluntary nature of the hierarchy.

For Weber, the reason why the political economy of FOSS works is because the main task of such production processes is no longer to organize the division of labor (as it was with industrialism) but distributed innovation. The latter cannot be divided into a linear sequence of steps, but is better modularized and flexibly networked. For such a task, the open source way of flexible, voluntary self-assignment is (more) efficient and attracts rational individuals who want to optimize the returns they receive on their time invested. The difficulty with this analysis is that the efficiency criterion runs the danger of becoming tautological since it is not clear in relation to what efficiency is supposed to be assessed. Successful project are efficient, because efficiency leads to success. While Weber acknowledges that the FOSS mode of development can be ‘expensive and messy’ and lead to ‘wasted resources’ (p.158) he sees the efficiency of FOSS embodied in ‘a powerful sense that it is not merely inefficient, but downright stupid, almost criminal, for people to have solve the same problem twice’ (p.138). Yet, in fact, FOSS is so full of duplications that it is impossible to count the number of Linux distributions or text processing programs or music players. Here, clearly, something different than economic efficiency and resource maximization is driving development as well. Perhaps the beauty of FOSS is that it is not only about efficiency, but also about freedom and idiosyncrasies, which makes it hard to tell in advance what is a brilliant innovation or a tremendous waste of time.

Weber’s book serves both as a solid introduction to the social and political issues raised by FOSS and as an advanced analysis of some of its aspects, particularly the novel governance mechanism and the productive concept of the voluntary hierarchy.