home page about us documents miscellaneous sitemap
home page about us documents miscellaneous sitemap

Linux: Cooperative Software Development and Internet
  Proceedings of the First Dutch International Symposium on Linux - December 1994 at Amsterdam, Pages 56-59, State University of Gronigen, 1995

Sabine Helmers, Kai Seidler , 1/95

  jump-off point
1  Intro: Internet Culture
2  Cooperative Linux Development
3  Linux and Internet
4  Outlook


1 Intro: Internet Culture
  Internet is more than just the network's technology, it is also the people who are shaping and using the network. The Net consists of human and machine communication and links a global computer community. Net insiders themselves as well as external ethnographers are aware of the existence of a specific culture within the realm of the Internet (Steele et al.; Hauben and Hauben; Hardy 1993; Helmers 1994). In spite of recent dramatic changes in the Net population, the traditions of the First Nation in Cyberspace, who established and designed the Net since its early beginnings, are largely still valid and influencing the Internet life of today. Among the values and characteristics of their cultural heritage are: a favour for free flow of information and information sharing, cooperativeness, liberality, self- regulation, and technical expertise. On the grounds of this culture and supported by a large, fast, communicative network, cooperative projects are a widespread phenomenon in the networld. They encompass various kinds of joint work: texts (e.g. the now legendary Hacker's Dictionary), standards (RFC) and software development - like in the case of Linux.
2 Cooperative Linux Development
  Linux is an offspring of Internet's cultural tradition: It is Unix. And it is free and comes with all the sources. The Linux kernel copyright has been placed under GNU general public licence (policy described by Stallman) by Linus Torvalds. In summer 1991 he gave a first Linux version to the Net. With version 0.12 of january 1992 cooperative development started. The speed of development has accelerated and the number of Linux users has today increased up to an estimated amount of several hundreds of thousands. In an interview, Linus Torvalds describes the advantages of a
"... "free" development that results from a lot of unconnected persons having access to sources and doing lots of modifications. ... Linux development has never had any real well- defined goals. Problems have been solved as they come up, and features have been added when somebody has been interested enough to write the code (and I've felt the result was "worthy")." (Meta Magazine. See also Walsh 1994).

Development speed in free software projects on Internet can be faster than in commercial developments because developers are working on something that is interesting to them, they don't have to programme according to any marketing requirements for commercial distribution, and the numbers of people testing programmes are usually much larger than in business development projects. Internet's big free software projects are of high quality. "Programming has an irresistable fascination for some people, usually the people who are best at it", writes Richard Stallman.

3 Linux and Internet
  Studying Linux and other projects like FreeBSD or GNU which are, besides all the actual differences, quite similar in their "spirit", reveals a picture of how software design looks like whendevelopers create something for themselves, which fits their needs, purposes and tastes. These projects show subjects or tasks that are considered important or interesting enough to spend some time and energy on. And in turn it shows subjects that are not considered important or interesting and are consequently neglected by the Net public.

"While Linux has a very reasonable development environment and a lot of programmers that would potentially be able to write a good word processor or spreadsheet or whatever, there are some problems which make me me doubtful that it will happen soon. ... A program like a word proceessor has no "glamour": it may be the program that most users would want to and most programmers would agree that it's not a simple thing to write, but I also think they find it a bit boring." (Linus Torvalds, Meta Magazine)

Linux is Unix and Unix is Internet - at least Unix and Internet are close relatives. So, if one wishes to gain an understanding of the huge Internet, then a close look at Unices should reveal some insights of the principles and characteristics that are true for the whole Internet. Cooperative software development is part of the Unix traditions ("Devil Book", Leffler et al. 1989; Hauben).

An interesting question is what motivates people to contribute to a free software project. Individual and social motivations may be found:

  • intellectual challenge and game
  • creativity and pride of something self-made
  • realizing something which fulfills one's demands on taste and quality
  • socializing with people who share common ideas and interests
  • fame
  • fostering collective identity
The motivation mentioned last in the above list may be a very subtle or vage one within an individual set of concious and non- concious motivations for contributing to a free software project, but is nonetheless important for a view on collective identity in the Internet and on how such identities are established and enhanced. Cooperating in a project which is regarded as "good" and "important" by certain other people will provide a feeling of belonging to an in-group. Coming to a distinct notion of "We" necessarily means that there are "Others". Typical examples of the importance of creating distinct identities by the We-and-The- Others-mechanisms are the large amounts of "XY-Unix is the best" or "the only serious editor is XY" or "the stupid newbies on the Net" or similar topics in private and public communication that are discussed with much more emphasize and dogmatism than any alien observer would understand as being necessary for putting a matter further.
4 Outlook
  Within the last 1-2 years, large numbers of Internet users who are regarded as "Others" are entering the common playground. More and more non-technical people are now on Internet and there is a growing impact of commercialism. These "Others" are not believed to be potential supporters for projects of cooperative software development like Linux. Today, no-one is able to predict how the future of Internet will look like. And what will happen to the Internet's traditions which still radiate a positive climate for cooperative software projects as well as the resources and facilities that have supported such efforts until today. E.g. the charging structures and price policies for net traffic and net access are currently debated by governmental and business organizations in several countries. Existing self-regulatory practices are discussed. The "Clipper Chip War" is a hot topic. Business users complain about the state of security and reliability.

It is highly likely that the Internet's design will be much reshaped in the near future in order to adapt it to the needs of the rapid changing net population. That doesn't mean necessarily that the moment "The Real World" has finally taken over the Net, all of the traditions of "The good old days" - as some Netizens sigh - will disappear like dinosaurs or can only kept alive in reservations or museums. Cooperative software development as practiced in Internet will continue and may well serve as a general model which can be applied to contexts different from "The good old days" of the Net.

  Hardy, Henry Edward, 1993, The History of the net. Master's Thesis, School of Communications, Grand Valley State University, Allendale/MI.

Hauben, Ronda and Michael Hauben, The netizens and the Wonderful World of the net.

Hauben, Ronda, The Role of Unix in the Development of the net and in the Automation of Telephone Support Operations. (In Hauben and Hauben: The netizens...)

Helmers, Sabine, 1994, Internet im Auge der Ethnographin. WZB discussion paper FS II 1994-102. Berlin.

Leffler, Samuel J. et al, 1989, The Design and Implementation of the 4.3BSD UNIX Operating System. Reading, Addison-Wesley.

Meta Magazine, The Choice of a GNU Generation, Interview with Linus Torvalds.

Stallman, Richard, The GNU Manifesto.

Steele, Guy L. et al. (Eds.), The Hacker's Dictionary.

Walsh, Matt, 1994, The Design and Philosophy of Linux. Chapter 2.6 of Linux Installation and Getting Started. Version 2.0.


home page about us documents miscellaneous sitemap
home page about us documents miscellaneous sitemap

Projektgruppe "Kulturraum Internet". c/o Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin für Sozialforschung (WZB)
Reichpietschufer 50, 10785 Berlin. Telefon: (030) 254 91 - 207; Fax: (030) 254 91 - 209;
; http://duplox.wzb.eu.