Foreword to the English edition
Politics, technique and co-research
From a personal point of view, my desire to delve into writing this book comes from the intersection of my two main interests: politics and technology. Throughout my lifetime, these vital passions have been nourished by my practical experience in these fields. My political involvement began with the social movements of the ‘70s in Italy and, despite a few breaks determined by the somewhat difficult contingencies of political exile, has continued throughout my life while working with different collectives on seminars regarding political analysis and refection. My passion for technology goes all the way back to my childhood and has manifested itself in an intellectual curiosity and an interest not only for technological innovations but also for the socio-political implications they bring. My studies therefore naturally oriented themselves towards the technical domain, up to obtaining my degree in engineering with a specialisation in the field that would later be called Information and Communication Technologies (ICT*1) whose development has never slowed over the last few decades.
The ICT of the ‘70s didn’t benefit from the dominant position it has today and, at the time, it didn’t seem very important to try to understand how the technological innovations of capitalism could turn into an antagonism that radically transforms the present. However, having posed this question relatively early, I found myself in the position of a technician who walks, a bit unconsciously, along the path of co-research.* At its roots, co-research is a practice born from activist field research with the workers of the Fiat Mirafori and other Piedmont factories, including Engineer Adriano’s mythical tech company, Olivetti. There, the work of Romano Alquati, one of the founding fathers of this practice, is well noted. In his own words:
an activity that is both research and process of consciousness as well as a reciprocal transformation of the identity of the researcher and that which was in those years being called worker subjectivity. Co-research, for its egalitarian character, is counterpoised and substitutes the old avant-garde communist practice of guiding the masses in the struggle.2
It seems useful to detail – in chronological order – the three types of experience that have characterised my personal relationship with technological innovation in order to situate the ideas and the hypotheses developed in this book in a social and political context.
The first experience was in the context of my years as a consultant for large software applications in an IT consulting multinational corporation. At the moment when capitalist innovation began extracting knowledge from third-sector workers in order to codify it into software packages that would then guarantee company control and the optimisation of rent, the process of co-research takes on a new dimension. With IT consultants on one side and the “investigated” cognitive workers on the other, these two groups are usually set against one another by management. The whole challenge in practicing co-research lies in creating a space where, instead of competing, the cognitive worker can gain consciousness of the company’s financial and control objectives thanks to the automatization of internal procedures and, later, acquire the capacity to redirect, modify or even block the processes of digitalised exploitation. An arduous mission in an era when union influence was being visibly reduced and when labor organizations were entering the phase of destabilisation and decline that is now quite evident. An early signal of the hostilities that were manifested in companies where the articles published in specialised technical journals warning managers of the risk of the failure of software projects to control workers through automation: it appears, in fact, that only a third of them were successful. Even though only technical explanations were given, it was pretty clear that the forms of cognitive worker resistance made the road to company normalisation through dangerous technology.
The second type of experience is more fragmented, precisely due to the political activity that provoked ruptures and forced me to start all over again – multiple times and in geographically diverse places – with my attempt to spread knowledge and alternative/antagonistic uses of technological innovation. Whether it be creating a cooperative start-up in Milan in the early ‘70s or, in the early ‘80s, an association working to promote the first PCs education in non-profit social economies in France, or even in conceiving the first network application of labor rights to support union activities and the use of free software, there has always been a thread tying these experiences together; experiences that, in a certain sense, come close to that of the modern world of hackers.
The third and last type of activity is tied to the intuition of the impact that the spread of networks and mobile technologies has on society. This intuition gave me the opportunity to set up an experimental laboratory to implement the very frst mobile applications, the famous “apps” that will later be discussed at length.
At the beginning of the digital era, a certain similarity still existed between writing an article or a book and writing a program, despite the differences between natural languages and software code. In both cases, however, it was a predominantly solitary activity for which a long and tiresome testing phase was needed before the program “ran” or before the writing was fluid. In the first case, objectivity prevailed over the author’s subjectivity. With the spread of networks and the birth of new movements, especially the hacker movement, modalities of cooperation changed and, consequently, the method for writing software was profoundly modified. This was made possible by a timely integration of a global community. The programmer’s original solitude is tempered by this potential. Making contributions available and being able to cooperate in an open context, participating in various projects, introducing evolutions or simply correcting errors become the commons* of free software.* In a noted article, E. Raymond3 uses the metaphor of the “bazaar”4 to evoke a methodology that lacks hierarchy in the common work of hackers which enabled the success of Linux,5 an extremely complex artefact. He counterpoises this way of cooperating to the “cathedral,” i.e. a restricted nucleus of experts and specialists who construct a masterpiece; a technique that, according to the author, doesn’t lend itself to creating great works of software.
The “bazaar” method has had an influence on writing this book, both for the intensity and the frequency of my exchanges on the various topics addressed, as well as for the support that many people have given me to compensate for my numerous weaknesses, including the literary and linguistic shortcomings of an engineer who emigrated decades ago.
Another part of this “bazaar” attitude can be seen in my potentially ingenuous attempt to make the materials accumulated from numerous articles, texts and books (in various languages) available in the form of a digital library. Unfortunately, this initiative was blocked due to copyright infringements using the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), surprisingly coming also from authors and publishers known for their sympathy for copyleft principles.
While it is difficult that the diffusion of knowledge is stigmatised or prosecuted in the hacker movement, the same cannot be said for the academic and publishing world where this principle is less valid.
Even though the great majority of what is published in my techno-socio-political digital library is in relation to the ethics and the practice of free software, the copyright machinery has not stopped and continues to impede the free circulation of knowledge.
1 From here on, an asterisk* indicates a reference to the Glossary at the end of the book for more details. The acronym ICT will be used throughout the book.
2 Armano & Sacchetto, 2012 [our translation].
3 (Raymond, 2001)
4 E Raymond is also a fierce opponent of Copyleft and of free software, against which he proposes open source, a term of his invention. In this regard, see (Ippolita, Open non è Free. Comunità digitali tra etica hacker e mercato globale, 2005).
5 Linux is the family of Unix-like operating systems, released with the GNU GPL licenses that characterize free software (see the Glossary), under various possible distributions, with the common characteristic of using Linux kernel as the core. For more details, see Linux in the Glossary and the later paragraphs dedicated to Unix and Linux.
Technological Mediation and Vanishing Lines
Foreword by Tiziana Terranova
Translated by Jason Francis McGimsey
Official release to the book trade in February 2019.
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