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the meme hustler

parent cf481e21
While the brightest minds of Silicon Valley are “disrupting” whatever industry
is too crippled to fend off their advances, something odd is happening to our
language. Old, trusted words no longer mean what they used to mean; often, they
don’t mean anything at all. Our language, much like everything these days, has
been hacked. Fuzzy, contentious, and complex ideas have been stripped of their
subversive connotations and replaced by cleaner, shinier, and emptier
alternatives; long-running debates about politics, rights, and freedoms have
been recast in the seemingly natural language of economics, innovation, and
efficiency. Complexity, as it turns out, is not particularly viral.
Mientras las brillantes más mentes de Silicon Valley "desbaratan"[^disrupt]
cualquier industria demasiado débil para pararlas, algo raro está ocurriendo
con nuestro lenguaje. Las viejas, confiables palabras ya no significan lo que
otrora; a menudo no significan nada en absoluto. Nuestro lenguaje, como todo
lo demás en estos días, ha sido hackeado. Las ideas difusas, contenciosas y
complejas han sido despojadas de sus connotaciones subversivas y reemplazadas
por alternativas más limpias, brillantes y vacías; los debates sobre política,
derechos y libertades han sido remoldadeados al lenguaje aparentemente natural
de la economía, la innovación y la eficiencia. La complejidad, al final, no es
particularmente viral.
[^disrupt]: Traducción de _disrupt_ (Nota de la traducción.)
Fortunately, Silicon Valley, that never-drying well of shoddy concepts
and dubious paradigms—from wiki-everything to i-something, from
e-nothing to open-anything—is ready to help. Like a good priest, it’s
always there to console us with the promise of a better future, a
glitzier roadmap, a sleeker vocabulary.This is not to deny that many of
our latest gadgets and apps are fantastic. But to fixate on
technological innovation alone is to miss the more subtle—and more
consequential—ways in which a clique of techno-entrepreneurs has
hijacked our language and, with it, our reason. In the last decade or
so, Silicon Valley has triggered its own wave of linguistic innovation,
a wave so massive that a completely new way to analyze and describe the
world—a silicon mentality of sorts—has emerged in its wake. The old
language has been rendered useless; our pre-Internet vocabulary, we are
told, needs an upgrade.
Afortunadamente silicon Valley, esa fuente que no se seca de conceptos de pacotilla y paradigmas dudosos --de wiki-todo a i-algo, de e-nada a cualquier-cosa-abierta-- esta lista para ayudar. Como un buen cura, está siempre disponible para consolarnos con la promesa de un futuro mejor, un plan más brillante, un vocabulario más pulcro. Esto no niega que muchos de los últimos dispositivos y _apps_ no son fantásticos. Pero fijarse solo en la innovación tecnológica significa perderse de las formas más sutiles --y con más consecuencias-- en las que un grupito de tecnoemprendedores ha asaltado nuestro lenguaje y con él, nuestra razón. En la última decada, Silicon Valley ha disparado su propia ola de innovación lingüística, una ola tan masiva que al romper ha hecho emerger una nueva forma de analizar y describir el mundo --una suerte de mentalidad de silicona. El viejo lenguaje se ha vuelto inútil; nuestro vocabulario pre-Internet, nos dicen, necesita una actualización.
Silicon Valley has always had a thing for priests; Steve Jobs was the
cranky pope it deserved. Today, having mastered the art of four-hour
workweeks and gluten-free lunches in outdoor cafeterias, our digital
ministers are beginning to preach on subjects far beyond the funky world
of drones, 3-D printers, and smart toothbrushes. That we would
eventually be robbed of a meaningful language to discuss technology was
entirely predictable. That the conceptual imperialism of Silicon Valley
would also pollute the rest of our vocabulary wasn’t.
Silicon Valley siempre ha tenido algo por los curas. Steve Jobs fue el irritable Papa que necesitaba. Hoy en día, habiendo dominado el arte de la semana laboral de cuatro horas y los almuerzos sin gluten en cafeterías al aire libre, nuestros ministros digitales están empezando a predicar sobre asuntos que sobrepasan el mundo de los drones, las impresoras 3D y los cepillos de dientes inteligentes. Que eventualmente fueramos robadas de un lenguaje con significado para discutir sobre tecnología era predecible. Que el imperialismo conceptual de Silicon Valley terminaría contaminando el resto de nuestro vocabulario no lo era.
The enduring emptiness of our technology debates has one main cause, and
his name is Tim O’Reilly. The founder and CEO of O’Reilly Media, a
seemingly omnipotent publisher of technology books and a tireless
organizer of trendy conferences, O’Reilly is one of the most influential
thinkers in Silicon Valley. Entire fields of thought—from computing to
management theory to public administration—have already surrendered to
his buzzwordophilia, but O’Reilly keeps pressing on. Over the past
fifteen years, he has given us such gems of analytical precision as
“open source,” “Web 2.0,” “government as a platform,” and “architecture
of participation.” O’Reilly doesn’t coin all of his favorite
expressions, but he promotes them with religious zeal and enviable
perseverance. While Washington prides itself on Frank Luntz, the
Republican strategist who rebranded “global warming” as “climate change”
and turned “estate tax” into “death tax,” Silicon Valley has found its
own Frank Luntz in Tim O’Reilly.
La duradera vacuidad de nuestros debates sobre la tecnología tiene una causa principal y su nombre es Tim O'Reilly. Fundador y CEO de O'Reilly Media, editor aparentemente omnipotente de libros de tecnología y organizador incansable de conferencias de moda, O'Reilly es uno de los pensadores más influyentes de Silicon Valley. Areas enteras del pensamiento --desde la informatica a la teoria de administracion y la administracion publica-- ya se han rendido a su palabrademodafilia[^buzzwordophilia], pero O'Reilly sigue avanzando. Durante los ultimos quince años nos ha entregado gemas de la precision analitica como "open source" \[codigo abierto\], "web 2.0", "gobierno como plataforma" y "arquitectura de participacion". O'Reilly no solo acuña sus expresiones favoritas, las promueve con celo religioso y envidiable perseverancia. Mientras Washington se vanagloria de tener a Frank Luntz, el estrategista republicano que cambio "calentamiento global" por "cambio climatico" y convirtio "impuesto a la propiedad" por "impuesto de muerte", Silicon Valley ha encontrado su propio Frank Luntz en Tim O'Reilly.
[^buzzwordophilia]: _Buzzwordophilia_ en el original (Nota de la traduccion.)
Tracing O’Reilly’s intellectual footprint
is no easy task, in part because it’s so vast.<span
id="anchor1">[\[\*\]](http://www.thebaffler.com/salvos/#footnote1)</span>
Through his books, blogs, and conferences, he’s nurtured a whole
generation of technology thinkers, from Clay Shirky to Cory Doctorow. A
prolific blogger and a [compulsive Twitter
user](https://twitter.com/timoreilly) with more than 1.6 million
followers, O’Reilly has a knack for writing articulate essays about
technological change. [His essay on “Web
2.0”](http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1008839)
elucidated a basic philosophy of the Internet in a way accessible to
both academics and venture capitalists; it boasts more than [six
thousand
references](http://www.thebaffler.com/salvos/%20https://www.google.com/webhp?hl=en&authuser=0#hl=en&authuser=0&sclient=psy-ab&q=%22What+is+Web+2.0:+Design+patterns+and+business+models+for+the+next+generation+of+software%22&oq=%22What+is+Web+2.0:+Design+patterns+and+business+models+for+the+next+generation+of+software%22&gs_l=serp.3..0j0i30l4.9871.10733.1.10940.3.3.0.0.0.0.66.170.3.3.0...0.0...1c.1.7.serp.ixWALPE7kd4&psj=1&bav=on.2,or.r_qf.&fp=ed026ff60bd20b9e&biw=1280&bih=620)
on Google Scholar—not bad for a non-academic author. He also [invests in
start-ups](http://oatv.com/portfolio.html)—the very start-ups that he
celebrates in his public advocacy—through a[venture
fund](http://oatv.com/), which, like most things O’Reilly, also bears
his name.
Trazar las huellas intelectuales de O'Reilly no es una tarea facil, en parte porque es muy vasta. A traves de sus libros, blogs y conferencias ha amamantado a una generacion entera de pensadores sobre la tecnologia, desde Clay Shirky a Cory Doctorow. Es un bloguero muy prolifico y un usuario compulsivo de Twitter con mas de 1,6 millones de seguidores y tiene gusto por escribir ensayos sobre el cambio tecnologico. Su ensayo sobre la "web 2.0" elucido una filosofia basica sobre Internet de una forma accesible tanto a academicos como a capitalistas de riesgo y cuenta mas de seis mil referencias en _Google Scholar. Nada mal para un autor no academico. Tambien invierte en _startups_ --las mismas que celebra en su actividad publica-- a traves de un fondo de riesgo que, como todas las cosas de O'Reilly, lleva su propio nombre.
A stylish and smooth-talking self-promoter with a philosophical take on
everything, O’Reilly is the Bernard-Henri Lévy of Route 101, the
favorite court philosopher of the TED elites. His impressive
intellectual stature in the Valley can probably be attributed to the
simple fact that he is much better read than your average tech
entrepreneur. His constant references to the learned men of
yesteryear—from “[Archilochus, the Greek
fabulist](http://radar.oreilly.com/2010/04/handicapping-internet-platform-wars.html)
to [Ezra
Pound](http://radar.oreilly.com/2009/05/google-wave-what-might-email-l.html)—make
him stand out from all those Silicon Valley college dropouts who don’t
know their Plotinus from their Pliny. A onetime recipient of a[National
Endowment for the Arts
grant](http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/13.10/oreilly_pr.html) to
translate Greek fables—“[Socrates is \[one of\] my constant
companions](http://radar.oreilly.com/2009/06/benefits-classical-education.html)”—he
has the air of a man ready to grapple with the Really Big Questions of
the Universe (his Harvard degree in classics certainly comes in handy).
While he recently [told
*Wired*](http://www.wired.com/business/2012/12/mf-tim-oreilly-qa/all/)
that he doesn’t “really give a shit if literary novels go away” because
“they’re an elitist pursuit,” O’Reilly is also quick to acknowledge that
novels have profoundly shaped his own life. In 1981 the young O’Reilly
even [wrote a reputable biography](http://oreilly.com/tim/herbert/) of
the science fiction writer Frank Herbert, the author of the *Dune*
series, in which he waxes lyrical about Martin Heidegger and Karl
Jaspers.
Como estilizado y suave auto-promotor con una vision filosofica sobre todo, O'Reilly es el Bernard-Henri Levy de la Ruta 101 y el filosofo de la corte favorito de las elites de TED. Su impresionante estatura intelectual en el Valley probablemente pueda ser atribuida al simple hecho de que esta mejor leido que el tecnoemprendedor promedio. Sus constantes referencias a los educados hombres del pasado --desde Arquiloco, el fabulista griego a Ezra Pound-- lo hacen resaltar sobre todos esos desertores universitarios de Silicon Valley que no distinguen a Plotino de Plinio. Una vez recibio una beca del _National Endowment for the Arts_ para traducir fabulas griegas --"Socrates es [una de] mis compañias constantes"-- y tiene el aire de un hombre listo para pelearse con las Grandes Preguntas del Universo (su titulo de Harvard en los clasicos le viene muy bien.) Aunque haya dicho en _Wired_ que "no me importa una mierda que las novelas literarias desaparezcan" porque "son un interes elitista", O'Reilly rapidamente reconoce que las novelas han formado profundamente su vida. Incluso en 1981 el joven O'Reilly escribia una respetable biografia del escritor de ciencia ficcion Frank Herbert, autor de la serie _Dune_, en la que habla de Martin Heidegger y Karl Jaspers.
Alas, O’Reilly and the dead Germans parted ways long ago. These days,
he’s busy changing the world; any list of unelected technocrats who are
shaping the future of American politics would have his name at the very
top. A Zelig-like presence on both sides of the Atlantic, he hobnobs
with government officials in Washington and London, advising them on the
Next Big Thing. [O’Reilly’s thinking on “Government
2.0”](http://oreilly.com/tim/gov2/) has influenced many bureaucrats in
the Obama administration, particularly those tasked with promoting the
amorphous ideal of “open government”—not an easy thing to do in an
administration bent on prosecuting whistle-blowers and dispatching
drones to “we-can’t-tell-you-where-exactly” destinations. O’Reilly is
also active in discussions about the [future of health
care](http://oreilly.com/tim/healthcare/), having strong views on what
“health 2.0” should be like.
No obstante O'Reilly y los alemanes muertos se han separado hace ya tiempo. En estos días está ocupado cambiando el mundo. Cualquier lista de tecnócratas inelectos que estén dándole forma al futuro de la política norteamericana debería tener su nombre en el primer lugar. Con una presencia a la Zelig en ambos lados del Atlántico, O'Reilly se codea con oficiales gubernamentales de Washington y Londres, dándoles consejo sobre la Próxima Gran Cosa. [El pensamiento de O'Reilly sobre el "Gobierno 2.0"](http://oreilly.com/tim/gov2/) ha influenciado a muchos burócratas de la administración Obama, particularmente aquellos cuya tarea es la promoción del ideal amorfo del "gobierno abierto", algo no tan fácil de hacer dentro de un gobierno inclinado a judicializar a soplonas y enviar _dones_ hacia "no-te-podemos-decir-exactamente-dónde". O'Reilly también está activo en discusiones sobre el [futuro de la salud](http://oreilly.com/tim/healthcare/), con fuertes visiones sobre cómo debería ser la "Salud 2.0".
> A stylish and smooth-talking self-promoter, Tim O’Reilly is the
> Bernard-Henri Lévy of Route 101, the favorite court philosopher of the
> TED elites.
> Como auto-promotor con estilo y labia, Tim O'Reilly es el Bernard-Henri Lévy de _Route 101_, el filósofo de la corte favorito de las élites TED.
None of this is necessarily bad. On first impression, O’Reilly seems
like a much-needed voice of reason—even of civic spirit—in the shallow
and ruthless paradise-ghetto that is Silicon Valley. Compared to
ultra-libertarian technology mavens like Peter Thiel and Kevin Kelly,
O’Reilly might even be mistaken for a bleeding-heart liberal. He has
publicly [endorsed
Obama](http://radar.oreilly.com/2008/10/why-i-support-barack-obama.html)
and supported many of his key reforms. He has called on young software
developers—the galley slaves of Silicon Valley—to work on “[stuff that
matters](http://radar.oreilly.com/2009/01/work-on-stuff-that-matters-fir.html)
(albeit preferably in the private sector). He has written favorably
about the work of little-known local officials transforming American
cities. [O’Reilly once
said](http://www.forbes.com/sites/jonbruner/2011/03/25/tim-oreilly-on-piracy-tinkering-and-the-future-of-the-book/)
that his company’s vision is to “change the world by spreading the
knowledge of innovators,” while his own [personal
credo](http://ecorner.stanford.edu/authorMaterialInfo.html?mid=3103) is
to “create more value than you capture.” (And he has certainly captured
a lot of it: his publishing empire, once in the humble business of
producing technical manuals, is now [worth \$100
million](https://plus.google.com/+TimOReilly/posts/Sy8Z2uWy655?hl=en).)
Helping like-minded people find each other, sharpen their message, form
a social movement, and change the world: this is what O’Reilly’s empire
is all about. [Its website even boasts](http://oreilly.com/) of its
“long history of advocacy, meme-making, and evangelism.” Who says that
spiritual gurus can’t have their own venture funds?
Nada de esto es necesariamente malo. A primera vista, O'Reilly parece ser una muy necesaria voz de la razón --incluso de espíritu cívico-- en el paraíso-gueto superficial e implacable que es _Sillicon Valley_. Comparado a expertos de la tecnología ultra-libertarian como Peter Thiel y Kevin Kelly, O'Reilly podría pasar por un liberal de corazón. Incluso ha apoyado públicamente a Obama y apoyado muchas de sus reformas clave. Ha llamado a las programadoras jóvenes --las remeras de la galera _Sillicon Valley_-- a trabajar en "cosas que importen", aunque preferentemente en el sector privado. Ha escrito favorablemente sobre el trabajo de oficiales locales poco conocidos que están transformando las ciudades estadounidenses. O'Reilly alguna vez dijo que la visión de su compañía es "cambiar el mundo mediante la difusión del conocimiento de los innovadores" mientras que en su credo personal se trata de "crear más valor del que capturas". (Y ciertamente ha capturado un montón: su imperio editorial, otrora dedicado al humilde negocio de los manuales técnicos, ahora vale unos $ 100 millones de dólares.) Ayudar a personas con ideas similares encontrarse entre sí, afilar su mensaje, formar un movimiento social y cambiar el mundo: esto es de lo que se trata el imperio de O'Reilly. Su sitio web incluso alardea de su "larga historia de militancia, creación de memes y evangelismo". ¿Quién dice que los gurúes espirituales no pueden tener su propio capital de riesgo?
O’Reilly’s personal journey was not atypical for Silicon Valley. In a
2004 essay about his favorite books (published in *[Tim O’Reilly in a
Nutshell](http://shop.oreilly.com/product/0636920020080.do)*, brought
out by O’Reilly Media), O’Reilly confessed that, as a young man, he had
[hopes of writing deep
books](http://www.thebaffler.com/salvos/%20http://oreilly.com/tim/articles/favebooks_0705.html)
that would change the world.” O’Reilly credits a book of science fiction
documenting the struggles of a young girl against a corporate-dominated
plutocracy (*[Rissa
Kerguelen](http://www.amazon.com/Rissa-Kerguelen-Book-one-saga/dp/0399117911)*
by F. M. Busby) with helping him abandon his earlier dream of
revolutionary writing and enter the “fundamentally trivial business
\[of\] technical writing.” The book depicted entrepreneurship as a
“subversive force,” convincing O’Reilly that “in a world dominated by
large companies, it is the smaller companies that keep freedom alive,
with economics at least one of the battlegrounds.” This tendency to view
questions of freedom primarily through the lens of economic competition,
to focus on the producer and the entrepreneur at the expense of everyone
else, shaped O’Reilly’s thinking about technology.
La trayectoria personal de O'Reilly no fue atípica para _Sillicon Valley_. En un ensayo del 2004 sobre sus libros favoritos (publicado en _Tim O'Reilly para principiantes_), confesaba que de joven tenía "esperanzas de escribir libros profundos que cambiarían el mundo". O'Reilly
[![b22\_fisher1\_joe2.0\_308](The%20Meme%20Hustler%20-%20The%20Baffler_files/b22_fisher1_joe2.png)](http://www.marksfisher.com/)However,
it’s not his politics that makes O’Reilly the most dangerous man in
Silicon Valley; a burgeoning enclave of Randian thought, it brims with
far nuttier cases. O’Reilly’s mastery of public relations, on the other
hand, is unrivaled and would put many of Washington’s top spin doctors
to shame. No one has done more to turn important debates about
technology—debates that used to be about rights, ethics, and
politics—into kumbaya celebrations of the entrepreneurial spirit while
making it seem as if the language of economics was, in fact, the only
reasonable way to talk about the subject. As O’Reilly discovered a long
time ago, memes are for losers; the real money is in epistemes.The
Randian undertones in O’Reilly’s thinking are hard to miss, even as he
flaunts his liberal credentials. “There’s a way in which the O’Reilly
brand essence is ultimately a story about the hacker as hero, the kid
who is playing with technology because he loves it, but one day falls
into a situation where he or she is called on to go forth and change the
world,” [he wrote in
2012](https://plus.google.com/+TimOReilly/posts/CLJmemTBMgf). But it’s
not just the hacker as hero that O’Reilly is so keen to celebrate. His
true hero is the hacker-cum-entrepreneur, someone who overcomes the
insurmountable obstacles erected by giant corporations and lazy
bureaucrats in order to fulfill the American Dream 2.0: start a company,
disrupt an industry, coin a buzzword. Hiding beneath this glossy veneer
of disruption-talk is the same old gospel of individualism, small
government, and market fundamentalism that we associate with Randian
characters. For Silicon Valley and its idols, innovation is the new
selfishness.
<span class="dropcap">O</span>’Reilly got his start in business in 1978
when he launched a consulting firm that specialized in technical
writing. Six years later, it began retaining rights to some of the
manuals it was producing for individual clients and gradually branched
out into more mainstream publishing. By the mid-1990s, O’Reilly had
achieved some moderate success in Silicon Valley. He was well-off,
having found a bestseller in *The Whole Internet User’s Guide and
Catalog* and having sold the Global Network Navigator—possibly the first
Internet portal to feature paid banner advertising (“[the first
commercial website](http://oreilly.com/gnn/)” as O’Reilly describes it
today)—to AOL.
It was the growing popularity of “open source software” that turned
O’Reilly into a national (and, at least in geek circles, international)
figure. “Open source software” was also the first major rebranding
exercise overseen by Team O’Reilly. This is where he tested all his
trademark discursive interventions: hosting a summit to define the
concept, penning provocative essays to refine it, producing a host of
books and events to popularize it, and cultivating a network of thinkers
to proselytize it.
[![b22\_fisher2\_internetgod\_308](The%20Meme%20Hustler%20-%20The%20Baffler_files/b22_fisher2_internetgod_308.png)](http://www.marksfisher.com/)Software
that ensured the aforementioned four rights was dubbed “free software.”
It was “free” thanks to its association with “freedom” rather than “free
beer”; there was no theoretical opposition to charging money for
building and maintaining such software. To provide legal cover, Stallman
invented an ingenious license that relied on copyright law to suspend
its own most draconian provisions—a legal trick that came to be known as
“copyleft.” GPL (short for “General Public License”) has become the most
famous and widely used of such “copyleft” licenses.It’s easy to forget
this today, but there was no such idea as open source software before
1998; the concept’s seeming contemporary coherence is the result of
clever manipulation and marketing. Open source software was born out of
an ideological cleavage between two groups that, at least before 1998,
had been traditionally lumped together. In one corner stood a group of
passionate and principled geeks, led by Richard Stallman of the Free
Software Foundation, preoccupied with ensuring that users had rights
with respect to their computer programs. Those rights weren’t many—users
should be able to run the program for any purpose, to study how it
works, to redistribute copies of it, and to release their improved
version (if there was one) to the public—but even this seemed
revolutionary compared to what one could do with most proprietary
software sold at the time.
From its very beginning in the early 1980s, Stallman’s movement aimed to
produce a free software alternative to proprietary operating systems
like Unix and Microsoft Windows and proprietary software like Microsoft
Office. Stallman’s may not have been the best software on offer, but
some sacrifice of technological efficiency was a price worth paying for
emancipation. Some discomfort might even be desirable, for [Stallman’s
goal](http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/free-software-for-freedom.html), as
he put it in his 1998 essay “Why ‘Free Software’ is Better Than ‘Open
Source,’” was to ask “people to think about things they might rather
ignore.”
> As O’Reilly discovered a long time ago, memes are for losers; the real
> money is in epistemes.
Underpinning Stallman’s project was a profound critique of the role that
patent law had come to play in stifling innovation and creativity.
Perhaps inadvertently, Stallman also made a prescient argument for
treating code, and technological infrastructure more broadly, as
something that ought to be subject to public scrutiny. He sought to open
up the very technological black boxes that corporations conspired to
keep shut. Had his efforts succeeded, we might already be living in a
world where the intricacies of software used for high-frequency trading
or biometric identification presented no major mysteries.
Stallman is highly idiosyncratic, to put it mildly, and there are many
geeks who don’t share his agenda. Plenty of developers contributed to
“free software” projects for reasons that had nothing to do with
politics. Some, like Linus Torvalds, the Finnish creator of the
much-celebrated Linux operating system, did so for fun; some because
they wanted to build more convenient software; some because they wanted
to learn new and much-demanded skills.
Once the corporate world began expressing interest in free software,
many nonpolitical geeks sensed a lucrative business opportunity. As
technology entrepreneur [Michael Tiemann put it in
1999](http://oreilly.com/openbook/opensources/book/tiemans.html), while
Stallman’s manifesto “read like a socialist polemic . . . I saw
something different. I saw a business plan in disguise.” Stallman’s
rights-talk, however, risked alienating the corporate types. Stallman
didn’t care about offending the suits, as his goal was to convince
ordinary users to choose free software on ethical grounds, not to sell
it to business types as a cheaper or more efficient alternative to
proprietary software. After all, he was trying to launch a radical
social movement, not a complacent business association.
By early 1998 several business-minded members of the free software
community were ready to split from Stallman, so they masterminded a
coup, formed their own advocacy outlet—the Open Source Initiative—and
brought in O’Reilly to help them rebrand. The timing was right. Netscape
had just marked its capitulation to Microsoft in the so-called Browser
Wars and promised both that all future versions of Netscape Communicator
would be released free of charge and that its code would also be made
publicly available. A few months later, O’Reilly organized
a[much-publicized
summit](http://oreilly.com/oreilly/press/freeware.html), where a number
of handpicked loyalists—Silicon democracy in action!—voted for “open
source” as their preferred label. Stallman was not invited.
The label “open source” may have been new, but the ideas behind it had
been in the air for some time. In 1997, even before the coup, Eric
Raymond—a close associate of O’Reilly, a passionate libertarian, and the
founder of a group with the self-explanatory title “Geeks with
Guns”—delivered a brainy talk called “[The Cathedral and the
Bazaar](http://www.catb.org/esr/writings/homesteading/cathedral-bazaar/),”
which foresaw the emergence of a new, radically collaborative way to
make software. (In 1999, O’Reilly turned it into a successful book.)
Emphasizing its highly distributed nature, Raymond captured the essence
of open source software in a big-paradigm kind of way that could
spellbind McKinsey consultants and leftist academics alike.
[![b22\_fisher3\_bssurvayer\_308](The%20Meme%20Hustler%20-%20The%20Baffler_files/b22_fisher3_bssurvayer_308.png)](http://www.marksfisher.com/)Even
before the coup, O’Reilly occupied an ambiguous—and commercially
pivotal—place in the free software community. On the one hand, he
published manuals that helped to train new converts to the cause. On the
other hand, those manuals were pricey. They were also of excellent
quality, which, as Stallman once complained, discouraged the community
from producing inexpensive alternatives. Ultimately, however, the
disagreement between Stallman and O’Reilly—and the latter soon became
the most visible cheerleader of the open source paradigm—probably had to
do with their very different roles and aspirations. Stallman the social
reformer could wait for decades until his ethical argument for free
software prevailed in the public debate. O’Reilly the savvy businessman
had a much shorter timeline: a quick embrace of open source software by
the business community guaranteed steady demand for O’Reilly books and
events, especially at a time when some analysts were beginning to
worry—and for good reason, as it turned out—that the tech industry was
about to collapse.In those early days, the messaging around open source
occasionally bordered on propaganda. [As Raymond himself put it in
1999](http://oreilly.com/openbook/opensources/book/raymond2.html), “what
we needed to mount was in effect a *marketing campaign*,” one that
“would require marketing techniques (spin, image-building, and
re-branding) to make it work.” This budding movement prided itself on
not wanting to talk about the ends it was pursuing; except for improving
efficiency and decreasing costs, those were left very much undefined.
Instead, it put all the emphasis on *how* it was pursuing those ends—in
an extremely decentralized manner, using Internet platforms, with little
central coordination. In contrast to free software, then, open source
had no obvious moral component. [According to
Raymond](http://www.opendemocracy.net/media-copyrightlaw/article_246.jsp),
“open source is not particularly a moral or a legal issue. It’s an
engineering issue. I advocate open source, because . . . it leads to
better engineering results and better economic results.” O’Reilly
concurred. “I don’t think it’s a religious issue. It’s really about how
do we actually encourage and spark innovation,” he [announced a decade
later](http://news.cnet.com/8301-13505_3-10264471-16.html). While free
software was meant to force developers to lose sleep over ethical
dilemmas, open source software was meant to end their insomnia.
The coup succeeded. Stallman’s project was marginalized. But O’Reilly
and his acolytes didn’t win with better arguments; they won with better
PR. To make his narrative about open source software credible to a
public increasingly fascinated by the Internet, O’Reilly produced a
highly particularized account of the Internet that subsequently took on
a life of its own. In just a few years, that narrative became the
standard way to talk about Internet history, giving it the kind of neat
intellectual coherence that it never actually had. A decade after
producing a singular vision of the Internet to justify his ideas about
the supremacy of the open source paradigm, O’Reilly is close to pulling
a similar trick on how we talk about government reform.
<span class="dropcap">T</span>o understand how O’Reilly’s idea of the
Internet helped legitimize the open source paradigm, it’s important to
remember that much of Stallman’s efforts centered on software licenses.
O’Reilly’s bet was that as software migrated from desktops to
servers—what, in another fit of buzzwordophilia, we later called the
“cloud”—licenses would cease to matter. Since no code changed hands when
we used Google or Amazon, it was counterproductive to fixate on
licenses. “Let’s stop thinking about licenses for a little bit. Let’s
stop thinking that that’s the core of what matters about open source,”
O’Reilly urged in an[interview with
*InfoWorld*](http://www.infoworld.com/d/developer-world/tim-oreilly-software-licenses-dont-work-261)
in 2003.
So what did matter about open source? Not “freedom”—at least not in
Stallman’s sense of the word. O’Reilly cared for only one type of
freedom: the freedom of developers to distribute software on whatever
terms they fancied. This was the freedom of the producer, the Randian
entrepreneur, who must be left to innovate, undisturbed by laws and
ethics. The most important freedom, as O’Reilly put it in a[2001
exchange with
Stallman](http://www.linuxdevcenter.com/pub/a/linux/2001/08/15/oreilly_response.html),
is that which protects “my choice as a creator to give, or not to give,
the fruits of my work to you, as a ‘user’ of that work, and for you, as
a user, to accept or reject the terms I place on that gift.”
This stood in stark contrast to Stallman’s plan of curtailing—by appeals
to ethics and, one day, perhaps, law—the freedom of developers in order
to promote the freedom of users. O’Reilly [opposed this
agenda](http://www.oreillynet.com/pub/wlg/900): “I completely support
the right of Richard \[Stallman\] or any individual author to make his
or her work available under the terms of the GPL; I balk when they say
that others who do not do so are doing something wrong.” The right thing
to do, according to O’Reilly, was to leave developers alone. “I am
willing to accept any argument that says that there are advantages and
disadvantages to any particular licensing method. . . . My moral
position is that people should be free to find out what works for them,”
[he wrote in 2001](http://www.oreillynet.com/pub/wlg/900). That “what
works” for developers might eventually hurt everyone else—which was
essentially Stallman’s argument—did not bother O’Reilly. For all his
economistic outlook, he was not one to talk externalities.
[![b22\_fisher4\_crush\_308](The%20Meme%20Hustler%20-%20The%20Baffler_files/b22_fisher4_crush_308.png)](http://www.marksfisher.com/)That
such an argument could be mounted reveals just how much political
baggage was smuggled into policy debates once “open source software”
replaced “free software” as the idiom of choice. Governments are
constantly pushed to do things someone in the private sector may not
like; why should the software industry be special? Promoting
accountability or improving network security might indeed disrupt
someone’s business model—but so what? Once a term like “open source”
entered our vocabulary, one could recast the whole public policy
calculus in very different terms, so that instead of discussing the
public interest, we are discussing the interests of individual software
developers, while claiming that this is a discussion about “innovation”
and “progress,” not “accountability” or “security.”According to this
Randian interpretation of open source, the goal of regulation and public
advocacy should be to ensure that absolutely nothing—no laws or petty
moral considerations—stood in the way of the open source revolution. Any
move to subject the fruits of developers’ labor to public regulation,
even if its goal was to promote a greater uptake of open source
software, must be opposed, since it would taint the reputation of open
source as technologically and economically superior to proprietary
software. Occasionally this stance led to paradoxes, as, for example,
during a [heated 2002
debate](http://www.thebaffler.com/salvos/%20http://news.slashdot.org/story/02/08/16/1621244/tim-oreilly-bashes-open-source-efforts-in-govt)
on whether governments should be required to ditch Microsoft and switch
to open source software. O’Reilly expressed his vehement opposition to
such calls. “No one should be forced to choose open source, any more
than they should be forced to choose proprietary software. And any
victory for open source achieved through deprivation of the user’s right
to choose would indeed be a betrayal of the principles that free
software and open source have stood for,” O’Reilly wrote in a [widely
discussed blog post](http://www.oreillynet.com/pub/wlg/1840).
To weaken Stallman’s position, O’Reilly had to show that the free
software movement was fighting a pointless, stupid war: the advent of
the Internet made Stallman’s obsession with licenses obsolete. There was
a fair amount of semantic manipulation at play here. For Stallman,
licenses were never an end in themselves; they mattered only as much as
they codified a set of practices deriving from his vision of a
technologically mediated good life. Licenses, in other words, were just
the means to enable the one and only end that mattered to free software
advocates: freedom. A different set of technological practices—e.g., the
move from desktop-run software to the cloud—could have easily
accommodated a different means of ensuring that freedom.
In fact, Stallman’s philosophy, however rudimentary, had all the right
conceptual tools to let us think about the desirability of moving
everything to the cloud. The ensuing assault on privacy, the
centralization of data in the hands of just a handful of companies, the
growing accessibility of user data to law enforcement agencies who don’t
even bother getting a warrant: all those consequences of cloud computing
could have been predicted and analyzed, even if fighting those
consequences would have required tools other than licenses. O’Reilly’s
PR genius lay in having almost everyone confuse the means and the ends
of the free software movement. Since licenses were obsolete, the
argument went, software developers could pretty much disregard the ends
of Stallman’s project (i.e., its focus on user rights and freedoms) as
well. Many developers did stop thinking about licenses, and, having
stopped thinking about licenses, they also stopped thinking about
broader moral issues that would have remained central to the debates had
“open source” not displaced “free software” as the paradigm du jour.
Sure, there were exceptions—like the highly political and legalistic
community that worked on Debian, yet another operating system—but they
were the exceptions that proved the rule.
To maximize the appeal and legitimacy of this new paradigm, O’Reilly had
to establish that open source both predated free software and was well
on its way to conquering the world—that it had a rich history and a rich
future. The first objective he accomplished, in part, by exploiting the
ambiguities of the term “open”; the second by framing debate about the
Internet around its complex causal connections to open source software.
[![b22\_fisher5\_globalbrain\_308](The%20Meme%20Hustler%20-%20The%20Baffler_files/b22_fisher5_globalbrain_308.png)](http://www.marksfisher.com/)“Open”
allowed O’Reilly to build the largest possible tent for the movement.
The language of economics was less alienating than Stallman’s language
of ethics; “openness” was the kind of multipurpose term that allowed one
to look political while advancing an agenda that had very little to do
with politics. [As O’Reilly put it in
2010](http://radar.oreilly.com/2010/04/handicapping-internet-platform-wars.html),
“the art of promoting openness is not to make it a moral crusade, but
rather to highlight the competitive advantages of openness.” Replace
“openness” with any other loaded term—say “human rights”—in this
sentence, and it becomes clear that this quest for “openness” was
politically toothless from the very outset. What, after all, if your
interlocutor doesn’t give a damn about competitive advantages?The term
“open source” was not invented by O’Reilly. Christine Peterson, the
cofounder of Foresight Institute (a nanotechnology think tank), coined
it in a February 1998 brainstorm session convened to react to Netscape’s
release of Navigator’s source code. Few words in the English language
pack as much ambiguity and sexiness as “open.” And after O’Reilly’s
bombastic interventions—“Open allows experimentation. Open encourages
competition. Open wins,” [he once
proclaimed](http://www.forbes.com/2009/02/22/kindle-oreilly-ebooks-technology-breakthroughs_oreilly.html)
in an essay—its luster has only intensified. Profiting from the term’s
ambiguity, O’Reilly and his collaborators likened the “openness” of open
source software to the “openness” of the academic enterprise, markets,
and free speech. “Open” thus could mean virtually anything, from “open
to intellectual exchange” ([O’Reilly in
1999](http://web.archive.org/web/20000119094723/http://sunworld.com/sunworldonline/swol-01-1999/swol-01-regex-2.html):
“Once you start thinking of computer source code as a human language,
you see open source as a variety of ‘free speech’”) to “open to
competition” ([O’Reilly in
2000](http://www.oreillynet.com/pub/wlg/4179): “For me, ‘open source’ in
the broader sense means any system in which open access to code lowers
the barriers to entry into the market”).
Unsurprisingly, the availability of source code for universal
examination soon became the one and only benchmark of openness. What the
code did was of little importance—the market knows best!—as long as
anyone could check it for bugs. The new paradigm was presented as
something that went beyond ideology and could attract corporate
executives without losing its appeal to the hacker crowd. “The
implication of \[the open source\] label is that we intend to convince
the corporate world to adopt our way for economic, self-interested,
non-ideological reasons,” [Eric Raymond noted in
1998](http://www.linuxjournal.com/article/2918). What Raymond and
O’Reilly failed to grasp, or decided to overlook, is that their effort
to present open source as non-ideological was underpinned by a powerful
ideology of its own—an ideology that worshiped innovation and efficiency
at the expense of everything else.
It took a lot of creative work to make the new paradigm stick. One
common tactic was to present open source as having a much longer history
that even predates 1998. Thus, writing shortly after O’Reilly’s historic
open source summit, [Raymond noted
that](http://www.linuxjournal.com/article/2918) “the summit was hosted
by O’Reilly & Associates, a company that has been symbiotic with the
Open Source movement for many years.” That the term “open source” was
just a few months old by the time Raymond wrote this didn’t much matter.
History was something that clever PR could easily fix. “As we thought
about it, we said, gosh, this is also a great PR opportunity—we’re a
company that has learned to work the PR angles on things,” [O’Reilly
said in
1999](http://books.google.com/books?id=kIU1scm4w6QC&lpg=PA169&ots=XymvERLdeY&dq=%22So%20part%20of%20the%20agenda%20for%20the%20summit%20was%20hey%2C%20just%20to%20meet%20and%20find%20out%20what%20we%20had%20in%20common.%22&pg=PA169#v=onepage&q&f=false).
“So part of the agenda for the summit was hey, just to meet and find out
what we had in common. And the second agenda was really to make a
statement of some kind \[that\] this was a movement, that all these
different programs had something in common.”
What they had in common was disdain for Stallman’s moralizing—barely
enough to justify their revolutionary agenda, especially among the
hacker crowds who were traditionally suspicious of anyone eager to suck
up to the big corporations that aspired to dominate the open source
scene.
By linking this new movement to both the history of the Internet and its
future, O’Reilly avoided most of those concerns. One didn’t have to
choose open source, because the choice had already been made. As long as
everyone believed that “open source” implied “the Internet” and that
“the Internet” implied “open source,” it would be very hard to resist
the new paradigm. As O’Reilly—always the PR man—[wrote in a 2004
essay](http://oreilly.com/pub/a/oreilly/tim/articles/architecture_of_participation.html),
“It has always baffled and disappointed me that the open source
community has not claimed the web as one of its greatest success
stories. . . . That’s a PR failure!” To make up for that failure,
O’Reilly had to establish some causal relationship between the two—the
details could be worked out later on.
> “Openness” was the kind of multipurpose term that allowed one to look
> political while advancing an agenda that had very little to do with
> politics.
“I think there’s a paradigm shift going on right now, and it’s really
around both open source and the Internet, and it’s not entirely clear
which one is the driver and which one is the passenger, but at least
they are fellow travellers,” he announced in his [*InfoWorld*
interview](http://www.infoworld.com/d/developer-world/tim-oreilly-software-licenses-dont-work-261).
Compared to the kind of universal excitement generated by the Internet,
Stallman’s license-talk was about as exciting as performing Mahler at a
Jay-Z concert. [As O’Reilly himself
acknowledged](http://www.oreillynet.com/network/2000/06/09/java_keynote.html),
his “emphasis in talking about open source has never been on the details
of licenses, but on open source as a foundation and expression of the
Internet.” When something is touted as both a foundation and an
expression of something else, the underlying logic could probably
benefit from more rigor.
Telling a coherent story about open source required finding some inner
logic to the history of the Internet. O’Reilly was up to the task. “If
you believe me that open source is about Internet-enabled collaboration,
rather than just about a particular style of software license,” [he said
in 2000](http://oreilly.com/tim/articles/paradigmshift_0504.html),
“you’ll see the threads that tie together not just traditional open
source projects, but also collaborative ‘computing grid’ projects like
SETIAtHome, user reviews on Amazon.com, technologies like collaborative
filtering, new ideas about marketing such as those expressed in *The
Cluetrain Manifesto*, weblogs, and the way that Internet message boards
can now move the stock market.” In other words, everything on the
Internet was connected to everything else—via open source.
The way O’Reilly saw it, many of the key developments of Internet
culture were already driven by what he called “open source behavior,”
even if such behavior was not codified in licenses. For example, the
fact that one could view the source code of a webpage right in one’s
browser has little to do with open source software, but it was part of
the same “openness” spirit that O’Reilly saw at work in the Internet. No
moralizing (let alone legislation) was needed; the Internet already
lived and breathed open source. What O’Reilly didn’t say is that, of
course, it didn’t have to be this way forever. Now that apps might be
displacing the browser, the openness once taken for granted is no more—a
contingency that licenses and morals could have easily prevented.
Openness as a happenstance of market conditions is a very different
beast from openness as a guaranteed product of laws.
One of the key consequences of linking the Internet to the world of open
source was to establish the primacy of the Internet as the new,
reinvented desktop—as the greatest, and perhaps ultimate, platform—for