Inspired by the thinking of authors such as Andrew Feenberg, Tim Ingold and Richard Sennett, this article sets forth substantial criticism of the ‘social uprooting of technology’ paradigm, which deterministically considers modern technology an autonomous entity, independent and indifferent to the social world (practices, skills, experiences, cultures, etc.). In particular, the authors’ focus on demonstrating that the philosophy,methodology and experience linked to open source technological development represent an emblematic case of re-encapsulation of the technical code within social relations (reskilling practices). Open source is discussed as a practice, albeit not unique, of community empowerment aimed at the participated and shared rehabilitation of technological production ex-ante. Furthermore, the article discusses the application of open source processes in the agro-biotechnological field, showing how they may support a more democratic endogenous development, capable of binding technological innovation to the objectives of social (reducing inequalities) and environmental sustainability to a greater degree.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Price excludes VAT (USA)
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
It was probably Karl Marx’s thinking that lent the most meaningful contribution to this topic. And critical sociological literature, whether of orthodox Marxist kind (for example, Braverman 1974), or that of a post-Marxist line (for example, Gorz 1988), albeit introducing different interpretations and remedies (sometimes also opposing) have focused widely on the tendency of industrial Capitalism to produce the deskillization (Friedmann 1946) of the workforce (some like to define this proletarization). Anthony Giddens (1990) has re-articulated the Marxist theme, presenting modernity in itself as a long process of uprooting social relations from local contexts of space–time interaction. As is known, for Giddens, the main mechanisms of uprooting (disembedding) are the symbolic tokens, as for instance money, and expert systems, namely: “systems of technical accomplishment or professional expertise that organize large areas of the material and social environments in which we live today” (Giddens 1990:27).
Probably the great influence exercised by the Marxist theory of alienation (Marx, 1970) has had a decisive impact in causing this obscuring. In reality, as claimed by Ingold, however much absurd it may seem, also assembly line labourers are workers called upon to develop task-oriented skills. It is precisely thanks to this ability of ‘coping with machines’, that workers are able to resist the attempt to reduce their activity to the mere execution of a command generated by the forces of production and to produce, more than goods for the capitalist, social and personal identity. Ingold was to say: “It is true that the machinery that workers are required to operate may––on account of its noise, heat, vibration or whatever––strain the human body to its limits of tolerance. However, despite Marx’s claim to the contrary, the worker does not cease to dwell in the workplace. He is ‘at home’ there. But home is often a profoundly uncomfortable place to be” (Ingold 2000b, 332).
Simplifying crudely, cases of techno-pessimism are: the thought of Heidegger, some emphasis on theoretical production by the Frankfurt School and, more recently, authors like Postman (1993), Nikolas Kompridis (2006), Bertrand Stiegler (1998), Hardt and Negri (2003), etc. An extreme and violent version of such a formulation has recently generated a social and political phenomenon of a subversive and terrorist nature called Neo-Luddism. The most famous exponent of Neo-Luddism is surely Theodore J. Kaczynski (2010), also notoriously known as “Unabomber”.
With this formula, software programming based on the freedom to execute, study, copy, distribute and improve is indicated (Stallman 2002). Therefore, it is formulated in complete contrast to proprietary software (the most famous is Microsoft) that uses the system of patents to hinder the free circulation of information. Obviously, this refers to the digital information encapsulated in the source code of software, the so-called kernel. The first experiences of information technology in the 60 s were historically characterized precisely by these freedoms. For a history of free software see also Paccagnella (2004).
The term is the outcome of a play on words aimed at overturning the concept of copyright and echoes the idea of an “author’s permission” that formalizes in terms of a license (known as Gnu/Gpl) the protection of free software. In brief, this concerns a legal document in which those using and modifying free software are committed, in a reciprocal spirit, to apply and grant the same freedoms to other potential users. The Gnu/Gpl license (Gnu/General Public License) has been created with the aim of avoiding free-riding phenomena typically associated with public assets: I modify an accessible good and render this new good inaccessible. The first version (1.0) of this license was elaborated by Stallman and Eben Moglen for the earliest versions of Gnu Emacs. The Gnu/Gpl should not be confused with freeware and shareware that do not guarantee any of the freedoms of free software.
In reality, two main currents clashed in the 1990s. One considers free software not only a simple methodology of information technology development, but a genuine ideology aimed at subverting the model of capitalist society in a libertarian vein. The other, instead, envisages a system of licenses that allows greater promiscuity between free and proprietary software and does not refute the market economy, but indeed aims towards using open source as a potential competitive advantage with respect to competitors (Paccagnella, 2010). This contrast, represented also by different associations (Free Software Foundation with Stallman and Open Source Initiative with Raymond) has today been partially superseded and it is preferential to speak of FLOSS (Free/Libre Open Source Software).
It is important to emphasize that the concept of gift elaborated by Mauss does not have any connection with the modern concept of donation. It goes back, on the contrary, to a form of social bond founded on the obligation of reciprocity.
For this reason, Hess and Ostrom (2007, 2005), suggest that “the unifying thread in all commons resources is that they are jointly used, managed by groups of varying sizes and interests. Self-organized commons require strong collective-action and self-governing mechanisms, as well as a high degree of social capital on the part of the stakeholders.”
In economics, a good is defined public when for a series of natural and/or cultural circumstances (which can also change in time) it is characterized by a low degree of ‘rivalry’ and for a low degree of excludability (that is difficult to prevent its use). For the notion of “public good” and its specificity within the theory of commons, see Ostrom (1990).
This issue of the highly important potential of development will in the next few years require in-depth theoretical and practical reflection on the commons (Hess and Ostrom 2007).
The French philosopher Michel Serres, in an interview in France-Info, has recently spoken on the revolutionary potential of this aspect in highly significant terms: http://www.fabriquedesens.net/A-propos-de-Wikipedia-Michel-Serre.
An ideal world in which all the players have a perfect knowledge of all the variables at play and in which there are no associated impediments or costs to negotiation.
He cites as example the blocking power of multiple owners controlling different segments of a river.
Epstein believes that patents do not necessarily create economic blockades and that the fear for anticommons is based on a faulty imagination. People imagine that each patent operates alone. At the contrary, he says:”in most instances, an aggressive program of patent pooling changes the overall landscape”.
According to the International Center for Agriculture Research (ICARDA), today approximately 50 % of the world market of seeds is monopolized by four large biotechnological multinationals: Monsanto (USA), DuPont (USA), Syngenta (CH), Groupe Limagrain (f). A similar statement can be made with reference to pesticide production: Bayer (d), Syngenta (CH), BASF (d), Dow Agrosciences (USA), Monsanto (USA), DuPont (USA).
That is « the dramatic expansion in the scope of government, featuring an increase in the number and size of the governmental calculation mechanisms » (Hunt and Wickham 1994, 76).
If this choice is supported by political and ethical awareness.
Feenberg gives the example of assembly line machinery of the textile industry that in the 18th century was built with such ‘technical’ features as to make it usable by children. Namely, it incorporated a specific social and ethical code and considered self-evident.
We like to recall that one of the prominent exponents of this School, Stuart Hall (1973), applying a Gramscian Marxist perspective and a semiological paradigm of a pragmatic kind to the analysis of communication processes, suggests a theoretical model of communication media, defined encoding/decoding, which has much influenced the theoretical and empirical production of the Birmingham School. For Stuart Hall, the encoding of a message governs its reception, but does so in an non-transparent and foregone way. Indeed, every meaning and every speech, once codified, in order to be completed and effective must be translated into social practices. Encoding, therefore, tends to propose a particular vision of the world, tendentially conservative and favouring the position of dominant classes, but whose result is also always the outcome of a negotiation process in which different contextual and social variables play their part. The code must be decoded and this process is open to the local social conditions of interpretation. In this process, the struggle of subordinate classes also has room to assert their own identity. In particular, Stuart Hall singles out three possible ways of reading the codes. The ‘dominant-hegemonic’ reading (passive acceptance of the hegemonic code of the sender by the receiver); the ‘negotiated’ reading (introduction of partially autonomous interpretations); the ‘oppositional’ reading (antagonist interpretation). These different interpretative patterns are closely linked to the economic-social conditions of the receivers, but Stuart Hall does not speak of interpretative pluralism but rather polysemy. This to say that the relationships between sender and recipient are asymmetric. The encoded meanings, indeed, are dominant (but not determinist) because there are patterns of ‘preferential readings’ that bear the political/ideological/institutional order imprinted within. For this reason, we define these preferential readings in Gramscian terms as hegemonic. They represent an order of ‘common sense’ to which we often also trace back new possible interpretations to lend them meaning. This does not diminish the fact, however, that particular social conditions may favour the emergence of antagonistic and autonomous polysemy.
Feenberg’s studies have been applied to the medical (AIDS) and information technology world (MINITEL in France).
For further exploration, see Nicolosi, 2012.
Obviously, this refers to a potential. Indeed, Sennett, showing the opportunities furnished by new digital technologies emphasizes how they can also induce an “incorrect” usage (repetitive, static, alienated), that is oriented to a separation between reality and simulation.
Sennett uses the term hand to refer to the body in its entirety and to the relationship that it establishes with the surrounding context. The head, obviously, represents a synecdoche standing for ‘thought’, ‘reasoning’, ‘abstraction’ and ‘planning’, namely intellectual task.
According to the Greeks, Pandora, Goddess of invention, was sent to Earth by Zeus as a punishment for Prometheus’ transgression.
Arendt, for example, was convinced that there should have been a public debate on the atomic bomb when this was created by scientists and technologists.
The adopted principle is that of ‘diversity managed in the field’. The choice is to leave behind the paradigm of genetic fundamentalism that considers solely the information contained in the genome as the only thing able to bring about potential innovation and to accept the principle that it is, on the contrary, the genotype/environment interaction as having maximum importance.
In a sense, we could say ‘nothing new under the sun’, since the first modern economist, Adam Smith, described the phenomenon in 1776 referring to a great part of the machines used in the nascent manufacturing industry. Actually, those machines were originally the inventions of common workmen, who employed in some very simple operation, naturally turned their thoughts towards finding out easier and readier methods of performing it. Long before Smith, farmers were solving biological problems without thought of monetary award, and sharing their inventions with their peers. Open source agriculture is more a restoration than a revolution.
The objective of the large biotech corporations is that of creating products able to ‘function’ in artificially standardized environments by means of the massive use of technologies and chemicals (with prohibitive costs for many farmers). Biodiversity, in this context, is neither contemplated nor valorised.
Whose aim consists in creating a web interface to share data and computer resources in order to access databases distributed throughout the world that contain the traces of the samples of germplasm produced by local agricultural know-how. Often, access to these data and tools may prove fundamental to develop useful innovations.
BIOS is an initiative of CAMBIA (Center for the Application of Molecular Biology to International Agriculture), an Australian research institute founded by Richard Jefferson, a pioneer in the field of biotechnological research. The BIOS Initiative is based on a strong information technology component and on the application to the tools used by a very similar license model to Copy left. An historic example of how CAMBIA acts is given by the TransBacter system, in which alternative bacteria to Agrobacterium tumefaciens (generally used to transfer DNA into the genome of the plants) are produced. CAMBIA freely supplies Sinorhizobium meliloti, Mesorhizobium loti and Rhizobium sp. NGR234 to non-profit and for-profit research, but on the condition that eventual genetic improvements are in turn made freely accessible (Broothaearts et al. 2005).
For an overview of these legal difficulties, see Rai and Boyle 2007.
This licensing model can be used by different players: individual cultivators, communities, indigenous peoples, scientists, universities, NGO, private firms, etc. Michaels emphasises that the proposal is an adaptation of the GPL software licensing model by means of a ‘materials transfer agreement’ (MTA). As recently claimed by Jack Kloppenburg (2010), this licensing model proves highly useful both from the ‘resistance’ as well as creative points of view. Indeed, it has the advantage of developing a legal frame for the recognition of the collective sovereignty of farmers, and to allow these to exchange, improve, conserve and sell seeds.
Arendt, H. (1994). Vita activa. La condizione umana. Milano: Bompiani.
Bauman, Z. (2005). Globalizzazione e glocalizzazione. Roma: Armando Editore.
Benkler, Y. (2006a). Commons-based peer production and virtue. The Journal of Political Philosophy, Vol 14, n° 4, 394–419.
Benkler, Y. (2006b). The wealth of networks how social production transforms markets and freedom. New Haven, London: Yale University Press.
Berra, M., & Meo, A. R. (2001). Informatica solidale Storie e prospettive del software libero. Torino: Bollati Boringhieri.
Bijker, W.E. (1995). Of bicycles, bakelites and bulbs: Towards a theory of sociotechnical change. Cambridge (MA), MIT Press.
Bloor, D. (1991). Knowledge and social imagery. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Boettiger, S., & Wright, B. (2006). Open source in biotechnology: Open questions (pp. 43–55). Fall: Innovations.
Bourdieu, P. (1980). Le sens pratique. Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit.
Braman, S. (1989). Defining information: An approach for policymakers. In D. M. Lamberton (Ed.), The economics of communication and information (pp. 233–242). Brookfield, VT: Edward Elgar.
Braverman, H. (1974). Labor and monopoly capital: The degradation of work in the twentieth century. New York: Monthly Review Press.
Broothaearts, H., et al. (2005). Gene transfer to plants by diverse species of bacteria. Nature, 433, 629–633.
Castells, M. (1996). The rise of the network society. Oxford: Blackwell.
Ceccarelli, S. (2009). Evoluzione, miglioramento genetico e biodiversità. In C. Modonesi e G. Tamino (Eds), Biodiversità e beni comuni (pp. 109–128). Milano: Jaca Book.
Ceccarelli, S. et al. (2007). Barley breeding for sustainable production. In M. S. Kang e P. M. Priyadarshan, Breeding major food staples (pp. 193–226). Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.
De Certau, M. (1980). L’invention du quotidien. Paris: UGE.
Dewey, J. (1927). The public and its problems. New York: Holt.
Dreyfuss, R. C. (2003). Varying the course in patenting genetic material: A counter-proposal to Richard Epstein’s steady course. Advances in Genetics, 50, 195–208.
Epstein, R. A., & Kuhlik, B. N. (2004). Navigating the anticommons for pharmaceutical patents: steady the course on Hatch-Waxman. Chicago Working Paper Series, www.law.uchicago.edu/Lawecon/index
Feenberg, A. (2001). Questioning technology. London: Routledge.
Feenberg, A. (2003). Pragmatism and critical theory of technology. Techné, 7(1), 42–48.
Feenberg, A. (2010). Between reason and experience: Essays in technology and modernity. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Foucault, M. (1976a). Histoire de la sexualité 1: La volonté de savoir. Paris: Gallimard.
Foucault, M. (1976b). Sorvegliare e punire. nascita della prigione. Torino: Einaudi.
Friedmann, G. (1946). Problèmes humain du machinisme industriel. Paris: Gallimard.
Gallino, L. (2007). Tecnologia e democrazia. Conoscenze tecniche e scientifiche come beni pubblici, Torino: Einaudi.
Gibson, J. J. (1977). The theory of affordances. In R. Shaw & J. Bransford (Eds.), Perceiving, acting and knowing (pp. 67–82). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Giddens, A. (1990). The consequences of modernity. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Giddens, A. (1991). Modernity and self-identity: Self and society in the late modern age. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Gorz, A. (1988). Métamorphoses du travail. Quête du sens critique de la raison économique. Paris: Éditions Galilée.
Gramsci, A. (1975). Quaderni dal carcere. Torino: Einaudi.
Hall, S. (1973). Encoding, decoding. In Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (Ed.), Culture, media, language: Working papers in cultural studies (pp. 128-138). London: Hutchinson.
Hardin, J. (1968). The tragedy of the commons. Science, 162, n°3859, 1243–1248.
Hardt, M., & Negri, A. (2003). Impero. Milano: Rizzoli.
Heller, M.. (1998). The tragedy of the anticommons: Property in the transition from Marx to markets. Harvard Law Review, Vol. 111, n° 3 (January), 621–688.
Hess, C., & Ostrom, E. (2007). Understanding knowledge as a commons. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Hickman, L. (2001). Philosophical tools for technological culture. putting pragmatism to work. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Himanen, P. (2001). The hacker ethic and the spirit of the information age. New York: Random House.
Hope, J. (2008). Biobazaar. The open source revolution and biotechnology. Cambridge (Mass.): Harvard University Press.
Hunt, A., & Wickham, G. (1994). Foucault and law. towards a sociology of law as governance. London: Pluto Press.
Ingold, T. (1983). The architect and the bee: Reflections on the work of animals and men. Man (N.S.), 18, 1–20.
Ingold, T. (1997). Eight themes in the anthropology of technology, Social Analysis, n°41(1), March, 106–138.
Ingold, T. (2000a). Evolving skills. In H. Rose & S. Rose (Eds.), Alas poor Darwin, arguments against evolutionary psychology (pp. 225–246). London: Jonatan Cape.
Ingold, T. (2000b). The perception of the environment. essays on livelihood, dwelling and skill. London: Routledge.
Kaczynski, T. J. (2010). Technological slavery. Port Townsend, WA: Feral House.
Kloppenburg, J. (2005). First the seed the political economy of plant biotechnology. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
Kloppenburg, J. (2010). Seed sovereignty: The promise of open source biology. In A. Desmarais & K. H. Wittman (Eds.), Food sovereignty: Theory, praxis, and power (pp. 1–15). Halifax (NS): Fernwood Publishing.
Kompridis, N. (2006). Critique and disclosure: Critical theory between past and future. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Kuhn, T. (1962). The structure of scientific revolution. Chicago: Chicago University Press.
Latour, B. (1987). Science in action: How to follow scientists and engineers trough society. Cambridge, Ma: Harvard University Press.
Latour, B. (1991). Nous n’avons jamais été modernes. Paris: Éditions La Découverte.
Latour, B. (1993). Dove sono le masse mancanti? Sociologia di alcuni oggetti di uso come. Intersezioni, n., 2, 221–255.
Lessig, L. (2005). Cultura libera. Milano: Apogeo.
Marx, K. (1970). I manoscritti economico-filosofici del 1844. Torino: Einaudi.
Mauss, M. (1923–1924). Essai sur le don. forme et raison de l’échange dans les sociétés primitives, l’Année Sociologique, seconde série.
Mauss, M. (1936). Les techniques du corps. Journal de Psychologie, XXXII, 3–4, 271–293.
Merlau-Ponty, M. (1945). Phénoménologie de la perception. Paris: Gallimard.
Michaels, T. (1999). General public release for plant germplasm: A proposal. Version 1.1, 26 February. http://horticulture.cfans.umn.edu/Who_sWho/Faculty/TomMichaels/GeneralPublicLicenseforGermplasm/
Nicolosi, G. (2007). Biotechnology, alimentary fears and the orthorexic society. Tailoring Biotechnologies, 2(3), 37–56.
Nicolosi, G. (2012). Corpo, ambiente, tecnicità. Azione tecnica ed esperienza tra Ragni e Formiche. Tecnoscienza, vol. 3 (1), 73–93.
Noble, D. (1993). La questione tecnologica. Torino: Bollati Boringhieri.
Ostrom, E. (1990). Governing the commons. The evolution of institution for collective action. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Oyama, S. (1998). The evolution’s eye. A systems view of the biology-culture divide. Durham: Duke University Press.
Paccagnella, L. (2004). Sociologia della comunicazione. Bologna: Il Mulino.
Paccagnella, L. (2010). Open access. Conoscenza aperta e società dell’informazione. Bologna: Il Mulino.
Polanyi, K. (1974). La grande trasformazione. Torino: Einaudi.
Postman, N. (1993). Technopoly: The surrender of culture to technology. New York: Vintage Books.
Rai, A., & Boyle, J. (2007). Synthetic biology: Caught between property rights, the public domain, and the commons. PLoS Biology, 5(3), e58. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0050058.
Raymond, E. (2001). La cattedrale e il bazar. Milano: Apogeo.
Rose, N. (1996). Inventing our selves. Psychology, power and personhood. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Ruivenkamp, G. (2005). Tailor-made biotechnologies: Between biopower and subpolitics. Tailoring Biotechnologies, 11, 11–33.
Ruivenkamp, G. (2008). Biotechnology in development: Experiences from the south. Wageningen: Wageningen Academic Publishers.
Ruivenkamp, G. (2009). Scienza, lavoro immateriale e politica: Appunti per una ‘terza via’ biotecnologica. In M. Negro, F. Ciaramelli, & G. Nicolosi (Eds.), L’ esperienza del corpo nell’ era delle biotecnologie (pp. 145–182). Enna: Città Aperta Edizioni.
Ruivenkamp, G., Hisano, S., & Jongerden, J. (Eds.). (2008). Reconstructing biotechnologies: Critical social analyses. Wageningen: Wageningen Academic publishers.
Sclove, R. (1995). Democracy and technology. New York: Guilford Press.
Sclove, R. (2012). Reinventing technology assessment for the 21 st century. Washington: WWICS.
Sennett, R. (2008). The craftsman. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.
Shiva, V. (2004). L’industria biotecnologica si basa su fondamenta di menzogne e illegalità. In C. Silici (Ed.), OGM. Le verità sconosciute di una strategia di conquista, Roma: Editori Riuniti.
Sigaut, F. (1994). Technology. In T. Ingold (Ed.), Companion encyclopedia of anthropology: Humanity, culture and social life (pp. 420–459). London: Routledge.
Sigaut, F. (2007). Les outils et le corps. Communications, 81, 9–30.
Stallman, R. M. (2002). Free software, free society. Boston (Mass.): Gnu Press.
Stiegler, B. (1998). Technics and time, I. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Suarez-Villa, L. (2001). The rise of technocapitalism. Science Studies, vol. 14, n° 2, 4–20.
Van der Ploeg, J. D., & Long, A. (Eds.). (1994). Born from within. Practice and perspectives of endogenous rural development. Assen: Van Gorcum.
Von Hippel, E. (2005). Democratizing innovation. Cambridge (Mass.): MIT Press.
Winner, L. (1995). Citizen virtues in a technological order. In A. Feenberg & A. Hannay (Eds.), Technology and the politics of knowledge (pp. 65–84). Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
This article is the combined outcome of the PhD research by the first author on ‘On the Traces of Hephaestus. Body, Skills and Technology’ and the second author’s research on ‘Genomics and the production of commons: Open source as a method ‘to go beyond’ public and private knowledge production’ carried out in cooperation with the Centre for Society and Genomics (CSG) of the University of Nijmegen and the Netherlands Genomics Initiative (NGI). Both authors thank Stephen Conway for the English translation. The first author thanks Prof. Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent and Prof. Marina Maestrutti for having had the opportunity to discuss some ideas contained in this article in a seminar organized by CETCOPRA (Centre d’Étude des Techniques, des Connaissances et des Pratiques) at the Sorbonne University (Paris) on the 19th of March 2012 during his period of visiting research.
Rights and permissions
About this article
Cite this article
Nicolosi, G., Ruivenkamp, G. Re-skilling the Social Practices: Open Source and Life–Towards a Commons-Based Peer Production in Agro-biotechnology?. Sci Eng Ethics 19, 1181–1200 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11948-012-9405-4
- Social skills