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Networks for technical/scientific knowledge exchange

"If people think you're primitive, be technical ; if they think you're technical, be primitive. I am of hypertechnical kind. Then i had decided to be as primitive as posible. Although on those days you have to be a hell of a technician, just to play the primitive". Johnny Mnemonic, in a William Gibson's short novel.

Digital communication is intimately linked to computer technology, so much so that the histories of networks and hard/software intermingle. The Internet is the product of the Unix and the microcomputers revolution ; so are the projections of softawre know-how, especially on free sotware, connected to the cooperation potentialities of the network of networks (1).

In this very process, multiple collective subjects constituted themselves, the famous Howard Rheingold's "virtual communities" (2), getting and/or developping peculiar and specific skills. From the simple use of communication software tools via the Internet to the development of software code ; from the invention of use (example: the use of newsgroups by NGOs) to the invention of new programming languages (Perl, Python, PHP being the most famous) and the creation of free operating systems (BSD, Linux an many others).

Today, with the "mass-access" to the Internet, and the increasing interest in such a system as GNU/Linux, it seems to me that one of the major stakes --for both Internet and free software-- lies in the question of the transmission of skill, in the diffusion of know-how, and the broadening of cooperative processes.

"The technical act implements tacit know-how and knowledge, set in the body of the operator as incarnate memories, such as gestures and attitudes" (3). The individual process of skills appropriation via community structures proved itself, and remains rather operational. In the same time, the identitarian enclosing, some fuzzy elitism, as much as the massive influx of absolute beginners, involve the risk of the development of dualism between the indistinct bulk of users and restricted circles of initiates, even if these are hybrid subjects in between technical cultures and social use.

To the individualized initiation path, inevitably highly selective, must be opposed another model of knowledge circulation, an open process of know-how acquisition and experience circulation. The extended possibilities of exchange provided by networks, and the ressources of cooperative work tools provided by free software, make such hypothesis not only possible, but practicable.

I would then like to start from a set general remarks, a fast scanning of the collective intelligence cristalization process around cyberspace, to support the necessity of technical/scientific knowledge exchange networks.

A basin of social intelligence

1- The multitudes of hacking (4) practices that developped those last twenty or thirty years following the growth of the Internet and the explosion of micro-computers, in both their extension and diversity, form an effective basin of social intelligence, free software being its most successful production.

Still would it be wrong to limitate the phenomenon to the only coming out on the market of "finished products" --better software, more "user friendly" or easier to costumize for experienced users--, or to see in it the simple emergence of a new economic paradigm (the so-called "new economy"), pecularly expansive.

Both hacker culture, in the empiric way of a customary right, and free software movement, as a direct political statement, by establishing as central the necessary freedom of circulation and use of source code, and by practicing effectively productive cooperation in software innovation, both produced more than lines of code : they contributed to a large diffusion of technical/scientific knowledge beyond experts circles ; they seriously blurred the distinction between producer (of code) and user (of software, i.e. compiled code)

So we are, for the first time maybe in such clear way, in front of a cycle of production of community collective/cooperative social innovation, that invests a multitude of subjects outside all classical schemes --capitalist firm or public commission-- of the division of labour, beyond the overdeterminations of the only market, and restores the value of use, the social use, not only of the "product", but also of the kowledge, innovation, process and affect it involves.

The revolution of "free" sanctions then a model where innovation and production are not based anymore on hierarchical company logics, but on the real intelligence basin that constitute developpers' teams, users, projects initiators and those they reach.

The connecting structure

2- The computer revolution (from the birth of the Unix to "Linux", through the GNU project) would certainly not have taken place without the simultaneous development of networks, and then their convergence into the Internet. Newsgroups and mailing list in particuliar, played a determining part in circulation, and also in widening the possibilities of connection and co-development, for the production of a multitude of software components.

Better, the Internet made it possible this process --which first was hackers virtual communities' own-- to extend to reach a mass of different subjects : common "users" willing to become "actors", students willing to improve their research means despite the under-equipment of universities, teenagers excited by technical challenges, activists needing costless computer solutions, etc. Software innovation then got out of hi-tech research laboratories, where all happened in the 50s and 60s, and even out of companies' teams, to cover a much wider social field.

In fact, the Internet as a connecting structure, is today the very molecular organisation form of this formidable cycle of immaterial production. The LUGs --famous Linux Users Groups--, the Perl or PHP coders communities, various hacklab or medialab teams, free software projects or the fantastic impulsion to put on line documentations, translations and tutorials find on the Web the most appropriate visibility for their future development.

This visibility is not a simple show, or a pure spectacular representation, but a breakthrough leading to effective possibilities of cooperation and mutual benefits, not only between development teams and users, but also between users themselves. So are forums of the Web (webBBS), or software users mailing lists rich of that productive circulation of knowledge, of that exchange of experience and inventiveness between users, indeed contributing to code improvement. They espacially make possible the constitution and webroadcasting of know-how, and also the innovation in the use of any script or software.

The definition of cyberspace today is this very unprimitive territory where deploys this fantastic collective intelligence

Autonomy and cooperation

3. In the meantime there is no prophetic advent of collective intelligence (5). The mass development of the use of Internet and the fantastic growth of free or opensource software, although essentially based on creation and social production of "virtual communities", indicate certains of its limits.

If the communitarian paradigm remains broadly operative at the level of software development --still much more operative than the taylorian model describing an innovation separated from production and use, locked in laboratories of code under copyright-- happens to be unappropriate facing multiplication and diversification of social forms acting on the territories of communication.

Apart from the qualified user-actor, symbolized by the hacker, apart from auto-organized communities aboundinf in the cyberspace, also appear the multiple declinations of the mass-internaut, a proteiform set of subjects, who at most use the Internet as a service provider, eventually diverting it in a personnal or collective way.

If this "internautariat" is able to produce intelligent uses of networks, like in the teachers movement in France (winter 1999-2000), it finds itself fast locked in the beaconned space of commercial Web offers. Some significant example : the massive presence of NGOs mailing lists on commercial portals like eGroup, Listbot (Microsoft), Voila (France Telecom), Topica, etc.

We must not delude ourselves : if the use of free software, and of the communication ressources based on it, has passed from restricted coders circles to large, open and numerous communities, it still is obviously minority. The model of the consumer-internaut, passive user and potential customer of Web's portals, still is broadly dominant, and will more and more be as accessing the internet will spread to those who do not know about the history of networks, about the long walk of free software and the subjective insurgences that made internet, as much as the military commission for the Arpa (6).

Technical/scientific knowledge networks

4. Richard M. Stallman today peculiarly insists on the strategic importance of documentation for free software, more precisely on the development of a free documentation. What bitterly fails to appear is not "good quality code" --as the productive cycle of free software produces loads at a frantic rate--, but free manuals giving users the possibility to get, share and co-produce knowledge and skills, training actors-users, to a conscious, creative and innovative use of software tools.

The social intelligence of these last years' social subjects must somehow overstep the bounds of a micro-communities environment --a sort of affinity lock-in-- to circulate and diffuse, to invest mass levels, to break through and reach the bulk of users that still are prisonners of products under copyright (7), not for "convenience", but because the mastery of "technique" still seems out of reach.

In concrete terms, this means that the productive cooperation practices, well tried in software, can and must be extended to other cognitive fields, and to other social subjects. Beyond the slogan, it is about inventing now social and material structures making possible an effective circulation of technical knowledge, of peculiar uses and practical innovations. It is about creating structures of public access to skills involved in a full use of the potentialities of free software and Internet, to give every user the possibility to access the "source code" of communication's technosciences.

This project is first about potentializing existing ressources. First of all, the accumulated experience of alternative servers, of specialized sites and users groups, forming a real lode of cognitive riches. Second, the actual possibilities provided by the articulation between databases and the Web (peculiarly with script languages as Perl or PHP) to build open, flexible, decentralized communicative systems of circulation and data exchange.

We now can envisage, in a very short term, to conceive an arrangement of means and wills that would make possible a productive circulation of technical/scientific knowledge --as tutorials, manuals, config files or accounts-- out of the academic circuits of teaching, or of the individualized initiation paths, as a contribution (even minimal) to the effective construction of this collective intelligence, that the Internet and the free software inebriated us with.

Aris Papathéodorou

(1) Marshall McKusick, "Deux décennies d'Unix Berkeley", and Eric S. Raymond, "Une brève histoire des hackers", in Tribune libre. Ténors de l'informatique libre, O'Reilly, 1999. Also Laurent Moineau, Aris Papathéodorou, " Coopération et production immatérielle dans le logiciel libre", in Multitudes, n° 1, Exils, march 2000.

(2) Howard Rheingold, Les communautés virtuelles, Addison-Wesley, 1995.

(3) Nicolas Auray, "L1apprentissage de l'informatique par les démos et l'épanouissement des singularités des êtres humains. Souci de soi, arrogance, autodérision", PhD essay.

(4) The word being here used in its historical and original meaning of "code manipulation" and not in its vulgar acception of "piracy".

(5) Pierre Levy, World Philosophy, Collection "Le champs médiologique", Odile Jacob, 2000. Unlike what P. Lévy affirms in his last book, collective intelligence still is a project, or a fuzzy potentiality, whose realization collides with private stakes, such as great software companies or corporative lobbies like the french musicians society, or institutionnal initiatives like the one aiming to institute a "software copyright" in Europe, for example.

(6) On the history of the Internet : Howard Rheingold, Les communautés virtuelles, op.cit.

(7) We are talking about proprietary sofware.

Copyright (C) 2000 Aris Papthéodorou - Les copies conformes et versions intégrales de cet article sont autorisées sur tout support pour peu que cette notice soit préservée.



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