notes: lars risan: “the sacramental charisma of the code”

[19/4: freshly completed after battery ran out. Need new battery…]Lars Risan is the first speaker at the network seminar I’m at in Oslo. Don’t you love the idea of code as sacrament? Lars is an anthropologist, and he starts his talk by saying that actually, what we see in the open source movement is a lot like things anthropologists have studied for a long time.
He was asked to talk about the idea of “network” in anthropology, which he admits he’d never really thought about before! He’s using Emile Durkheim vs. Marcel Mauss – one is top down, look at the whole, that explains the small, and the other (Mauss’s) is to look at the small parts and use them to explain the whole. The second approach pretty much means you end up looking at networks. What are the actors doing with each other. Networks cross over, not just the structural groupings like families. Networks have to be built. That’s not really a formal definition, but one way “network” is used. “Network” isn’t really an analytical term in anthropology, it’s a vernacular word that’s often used.

Swapping things is one of the ways one creates relationships. That’s part of creating a network.

The story of Linux:”Liberal ideology, puritan practice” (The big man story – as Eric Raymond)
Linus Torvalds distributes it, open source ideology, but NOBODY DOES rename it and rework it and release Linux 3 and sell it. Well actually Torvalds has patented the wrod “Linux”, but anyway, nobody ever released a version of Linux under another name and sold it as their own while keeping the open licence. not even giants like IBM and so on.

[my battery ran out! here’s a very brief summary]

Charismatic leadership in traditional societies usually leads to fighting between leaders, which is also definitely a trait of open source communities – e.g. clash between Stallman (GPL) and (whoever the other guy is with the open licences, whatshisname)

Yet the open source movement also has a very strong movement towards communication, building of tradition and community and especially towards communicability, the idea that communication should be open.

Marshal Sahlins, in studying traditional societies:

  • Generalised reciprocity: I give to the community (usually my family, sometimes another community) without expecting returns but trusting that they’ll look after me later if I need it.
  • Balanced reciprocity: I give you two hours of my time, you pay me X. The account is settled instantly. “Modern society”.

Generalised reciprocity used to be limited to small, trust-based groups, but with technology it’s become scalable. This is how the open source community works. It’s revolutionary in anthropology to see this working at such a scale and in modern society.

Lars proposes: CODE IS SACRAMENTAL.

He’s using the Catholic meaning of sacrament, where the communion wine IS Jesus’ blood. In the Protestant tradition, the wine merely symbolises Jesus’ blood. This is also Gregory Bateson’s use of sacrament, and Bateson uses this to describe a kind of sign that’s not a sign in the Saussurean way, where the signifier (the word) has an arbitrary relationship to the signified (the thing), or even in the Piercean way, where the sign might have an indexical relationship to the thing (smoke is related to fire and thus can be interpreted to mean fire) or iconic (a drawing). The sacrament is a sign that IS the thing as well as being the sign. It’s a form of direct communication, not mediated via signs or language. (Cool, huh?)

Lars then showed us an example of the source code that is shared in open source communities, and pointed out how each line of the code is annotated with the coder’s name.

  • This is necessary because to collaborate you need to know who wrote what so you can work on it together.
  • It’s also an expression of “I’m here”, much like viking ruins (I wrote this!) or graffiti (Jill was here 2005).
  • and you can run the code and it works or it doesn’t work. Thus, the code is the coder’s skill. It’s not just a symbol of power or charisma, it is power or charisma, just as the wine is the blood of Christ.

We might not think of hackers and coders as particularly charismatic in the way that leaders of Melanasian tribes are charismatic, but in fact they are but their charisma is visible in their code.

That is the power and charisma that makes these trust networks work.

Question from the audience: How can you talk about this and not use Bourdieu!!! He wrote not only about “primitive” gift exchange but also applied this to modern capitalist society. Answer, sure, that’s relevant, but not exactly what looking for just here.

In answer to something else: In the extreme, I’d argue that there’s no such thing as mediated communication, it’s all direct. It all depends on where we think of our bodies as ending. Where do I “end”? Are my clothes me, or a mediation of myself? (Heidegger talks about this, apparently)

18. April 2005 by Jill
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