First we had media art. In the early days of electronic and digital culture, media art was an important way of considering relationships between society and technology, and suggesting new practices and cultural techniques. It served as an outlet for the critique of the dark side of computer culture’s roots in the military-industrial complex; and it suggested numerous utopian ways of engagement with technology, new types of interactivity, sensuous interfaces and participative media practices. However, the more critical, egalitarian and participative branches of media art tended to be overshadowed by the advocacy of a high-tech and high-art version of it. This high-media art conceptually merged postmodern media theories with the techno-imaginary from computer sciences and new wave cybernetics. Uncritical towards capitalisms embrace of technology as provider of economic growth and a weirdly paradoxical notion of progress, high-media art was successful in institutionalising itself and finding the support of the elites but drew a lot of criticism from other quarters of society. It stuck to the notion of the artist as a solitary genius who creates works of art which exist in an economy of scarcity and for which intellectual ownership rights are declared.

In the course of the 1990’s media art was superseded by what I call The Next Layer or, for help of better words, Open Source Culture. I am not claiming that the hackers who are the key protagonists of Open Source Culture are the new media artists. Such a claim would be rubbish as their work; their ways of working and how it is referenced is distinct from media art. I simply believe that media art has become much less relevant through the emergence of The Next Layer. In The Next Layer many more protagonists come together than in the more narrowly defined field of media art. It is much less elitist and it is not based on exclusivity but on inclusion and collaboration. Instead of relying on ownership of ideas and control of intellectual property, Open Source Culture is testing the limits if a new egalitarian and collaborative culture.

Open Source Culture has been made possible by the rise of Free, Libre and Open Source Software and like any real culture it is based on shared values and a community of people. It is about creating new things; software, artefacts or social platforms, it embraces the values inherent to any craft and cherishes the understanding and mastery of the materials and the production processes involved. Beyond craftsmanship, it advocates free access to the means of production rather than just “ownership” of them.

Open Source Culture is not a tired version of enforced collectivism and old-fashioned speculations about the ‘death of authorship’. It is a culture where the individual remains visible and is credited as a contributor to a production process, which can encompass one or thousands of contributors.

Fundamental to Open Source Culture’s value system is the belief that knowledge should be in the public domain , so society as a whole can prospers. Generally this culture is based on a gift economy; one gets richer by donating their work to a growing pool of publicly available resources. Open Source Culture is a culture of conversation and as such, based on multiple dialogues on different layers of language, code and artefacts. A key factor is that it is based on the self-motivated activity of many individuals and not on managerial hierarchies and ‘shareholder value’.

Open Source Culture moved forward with the emergence of Linux and the Internet but we shouldn’t forget that its roots, which could be seen as going back to the free and independent minded revolutionary artists and artisans in the 19th century. More recently, it is based on post-World-War-II grassroots anti-imperialist liberation movements; on bottom-up self-organised culture of the new political movements of the 1960’s and 1970’s such as the African American civil rights movements, feminism, lesbian, gay, queer and transgender movements; on the first and second wave of hacker culture, punk and the DIY culture, squatter movements and the left-wing of critical art and media art practices.

In terms of the political economy, Open Source Culture could mark an important point of departure, by liberating the development of new technologies from the dictatorship of capital. The decision of what should be developed for which social goals is taken by the developers themselves, and by deep intrinsic motivations to create things and to be recognized for one’s contribution.

Open Source Culture needs to be constantly aware of capitalism’s propensity to adapt, adopt, co-opt and subjugate progressive movements and ideas to its own goals. The ‘digital revolution’ was already stolen once by the right-wing libertarians from Wired and their republican allies such as Newt Gingrich and the posse of American cyber-gurus from George Gilder to Nicholas Negroponte. More recently adept Open Source Capitalists have used terms such as ‘Web 2.0’ and ‘social software’ to disguise the fact that what those terms are said to describe has emerged from open source culture and the net culture of the 1990’s and the early 2000’s. Once more the creativity of the digital masses is exploited by alliances between new and old tycoons. The Next Layer emerges at a time when capitalism is stronger than ever before and it emerges at the very heart of it. This is the beauty of it. It cannot be described in a language of mainstream and underground; Open Source Culture is the new mainstream.

The Next Layer contains not only a promise but also a threat. It emerges at a time when the means of suppression and control have been increased by rightwing leaders who try to scare us into believing we were engaged in an endless ‘war on terror’. With their tactics they have managed to speed up the creation of a technological infrastructure into a society of control where the general thrust of technological development is coming from inside a paranoiac mindset. Scary new nano- and bio-technologies are created in secret laboratories by Big Science and yet the bourgeioise intelligentsia has stood still and does not recognize the world any more but still controls theatres, publishing and universities. In this situation it is better if Open Source Culture is not recognized as a political movement. The Next Layer will find ways of growing and expanding stealthily by filling the niches, nooks and crannies of a structurally militant and imperialist repressive regime from which, given time, it will emerge like a clear spring at the bottom of a murky glacier.

‘The Next Layer’,is a book project by Armin Medosch about Open Source Culture. It has been supported by Franz Xaver and the Medienkunstlabor Graz in 2006. Passages of this text are informed by an extensive study into free software hackers and open source activists.

Published under the Creative Commons Licence Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Austria.

Armin Medosch
Armin Medosch is a writer, artist and curator. He is co-founder of the online magazine Telepolis – The Magazine of Netculture – which he co-edited from 1996 to 2002. With Telepolis he was awarded the European Online Journalism Award and the Grimme Online Award. Together with Janko Röttgers he edited ‘Netzpiraten’, a collection of essays which portray the Internet’s underworld. In 2001/02 he co-curated the online art exhibition ‘Kingdom of Piracy’. In 2004 he investigated climate change and social mapping with the Ports project as a part of the Ninepin residency by Scan. Armin Medosch worked with other curators on the exhibition and festival ‘Waves’ for New Media Cultural Center RIXC (Riga) in 2006, and with Ina Zwerger Medosch will co-curate the 2007 Ars Electronica Symposium – Goodbye Privacy.

Read More

Both comments and pings are currently closed.

Comments are closed.