Graham Seaman’s “The Two Economies”

Last week, I met Graham Seaman while in London and we talked about Oekonux, Hipatia, and lots of ideas about extending principles of Free Software beyond the IP sphere. I finally got around to reading the transcript of Graham Seaman’s talk from last year’s Oekonux conference — of which I’d heard a lot of hype.

The talk covers a lot of ground but, in large part, it is a response to a number of the conversations within Oekonux about the production of material goods under models of free software in major society-changing sort of way. My personal interest (of course) is in the production of non-software knowledge based products but I still find the question interesting.

Like a lot of work in Oekonux, Graham’s piece looks into the future — way into the future. It not only looks at Free Software’s effect on the economics of a particular industry — say, the recording industry — but at major changes to the way that our world’s economic system works. These sorts of questions are intriguing — and certainly fun to think about — but I think they tend to focus so much on some much on the major points that they ignore some of the steps along the way that will shape the way that the everything works.

Personally, I tend to prefer focusing on the more immediate questions like "how do we go from the current situation of highly proprietized production of, say, fiction to free production of fiction." That said, I think this talk is of the best treatments and I think Graham’s analysis goes into depth about the way that Free Software actually works. I think it includes observation, analysis, and critique in a way that — if nothing else — can teach us a good deal about the nature of Free Software production.

So Graham’s talk is all about how the world could be reshaped by the principles of sharing and cooperation that are in a germ form in Free Software. HE first goes through two proposed alternatives (I assume from the Oekonux list before I joined it) and talks about what he thinks can work, what he likes and why. He covers:

  • The idea of using "fabbers" or all purpose production machines.
  • The idea that material goods will become so cheap and easy to produce that nobody really cares about them and all the important issues in society will be about producing immaterial goods.

Graham thought that the idea of fabbers was more science fiction than anything else — and I tend to agree. I’ve read a couple papers that are all about the philosophical and economic consequences of a world when fabbers and nanotechnology turn material goods into information and I, like Graham, just find it implausible. I think Graham does a pretty good job of deflating this idea.

In terms of the second proposal, Graham found the idea believable in a very long-term (hundreds of years) sort of way but still found it unpleasant. He ties that sort of change to mass-poverty, migration and worse and doesn’t feel comfortable going down this path.

Graham’s talk is about a third social solution based on some serious observation of Free Software practice and some deep thinking about the way that the economy of the future will look. Graham says:

It’s becoming increasingly hard for the old system to produce software products. There are many products – especially ones that require cooperation of some kind, that require some kind of sharing, even commercially, that simply can’t be produced under commercial constraints.

Basically, Graham describes a system where Free Software is created and fostered by a system that will undose itself. I’m not totally convinced of his conclusions but I definitely think there is something there.

Even if you have no interest in his conclusions or discussion of the way that Free Software can or will reshape the world. As just one example, Graham talks a connection he saw between Free Software and the business cycle:

Free software is not totally independent of the business cycle. I thought it might be. I went to Freshmeat and got all the stats for Freshmeat of the projects that were added over the life of Freshmeat, to see whether it reflected the current downturn in the economy and in IT and commercial IT in particular, hoping that it would show a line like that. But it didn’t … Now this is very odd for me, because the FLOSS survey said unemployment plays no part in free software. Basically, people in free software don’t get out of work; and my guess, especially for people I’ve noticed, is that people who are out of work treat it as temporary. And the first thing they do is to put more time into writing free software anyway. But it appears that that’s not the case, that free software is still, somehow, dependent on the business cycle.

It’s not totally clear to me — or to Graham — whether or not his data is representative. I think the issue deserves a good hard look.

There’s a lot of good stuff in the article. It’s definitely worth checking out in the Oekonux archives:

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