Socialism and Technology
One of the most common talking points against socialism is its supposed incompatibility with innovation and technological process. We have all heard that “communism couldn’t make the iPhone” in reference to the perceived slowness of change and innovation under a command economy. This is a mistaken position. Indeed, some of the most influential inventions of our time were developed outside of the private sector. The cut-throat competition and intellectual property of private enterprises is not conducive to innovation. Furthermore, the failure of capitalism to effectively distribute resources leads to decreased permeation of new technologies. Technological progress can only reach maximum efficiency under an environment of open collaboration and with the involvement of the wider working class.
The consequences of the insular nature of corporate development are apparent when looking at today’s software environment. Software can broadly be separated into two categories: proprietary, which ships as unreadable binary blobs that are very difficult to examine and reverse engineer; or open-source, meaning the application’s source code is freely available to traverse and audit. It is generally known that open-source software has security benefits and is more privacy-respecting than proprietary software. The security benefits come from the ability of any user to audit the source code of a given program in search of vulnerabilities. The proprietary software model does not have as many eyes analyzing the code for potential issues; additionally, bug fixes and updates are often slower to release for proprietary software because of the hurdles of corporate bureaucracy. Crucial updates may never be released at all if a company deems them to be too expensive. Open-source software generally has less privacy concerns and collects less data from users because users can tell exactly what data will be collected. Open-source projects also collect less information because selling data to advertisers is not as critical in the business model. Some of the most iconic privacy-preserving software packages, such as Tor Browser, Tails, and AdBlockPlus, are open-source.
While it is difficult to make precise statements about the security of every proprietary package versus every open-source package, there exists data that demonstrates the benefits of open-source. Consider the fact that Linux, an open-source family of operating systems, has had significantly fewer major vulnerabilities than Microsoft Windows. Many are quick to attribute this to Linux’s smaller market share as a desktop operating system; however, this argument falls apart when considering the fact that Linux dominates the server operating system market and powers the modern Internet. These servers are comparatively higher-value targets than the average PC, so it should follow that there would be more malware for Linux distributions; clearly this is not the case. Part of the advantage comes from Linux’s file access permissions being much more strictly segmented than Windows; but much of it comes from the efficiency of development teams and the inherent security of open code. On the other hand, Microsoft is known for disregarding the security of its operating system; the company has refused to issue CVEs for known vulnerabilities, including the EternalBlue exploit created by the National Security Agency, kept secret by Microsoft, and used in the infamous WannaCry ransomware campaign.
In his book The Cathedral and the Bazaar (1999), computer programmer Eric Raymond says this about the advantages of the open-source model:
Many people (especially those who politically distrust free markets) would expect a culture of self-directed egoists to be fragmented, territorial, wasteful, secretive, and hostile. But this expectation is clearly falsified by (to give just one example) the stunning variety, quality, and depth of Linux documentation. It is a hallowed fact that programmers hate documenting; how is it, then, that Linux hackers generate so much documentation? Evidently Linux’s free market in egoboo works better to produce virtuous, other-directed behavior than the massively-funded documentation shops of commercial software producers.
Perhaps in the end the open-source culture will triumph not because cooperation is morally right or software ‘‘hoarding’’ is morally wrong (assuming you believe the latter, which neither Linus nor I do), but simply because the closed-source world cannot win an evolutionary arms race with open-source communities that can put orders of magnitude more skilled time into a problem.
Our support of free and open-source software ought to be politicized and incorporated into our larger struggle against private property and corporate secrets. The free (libre, not gratis) software movement has been spearheaded by right-libertarians and unsavory figures since the early days of open-source development. By using open-source software and supporting its developers, we advance our cause against monopolies and for the availability of software to all layers of society. We can accomplish this with a class analysis of the essential freedoms that define the free software movement, and by demanding the nationalization of the tech and telecom sectors without compensation.
The struggle for open technological processes and our issues with profit-seeking capitalists extend to the physical dimension. The tech industry has from its inception been plagued with low-quality products and confusing, conflicting standards. Tech companies choose quantity over quality, resulting in hardware that is built to fail. Apple is notorious for implementing planned obsolescence in its models, resulting in tens of millions of dollars in fines — a meaningless slap on the wrist for the world’s first trillion dollar company. The e-waste generated by these fragile devices pushes us further into our current ecological disaster.
Some have pushed back against the wasteful designs of hardware by demanding legislation protecting the right to repair. This refers to the ability of a user to repair and modify their equipment without undue difficulty from hard-to-repair designs, unavailability of parts, and threat of voiding a warranty. Right to repair activists have won several successful legislative accomplishments, such as the implementation of right to repair laws in 25 states. However, the movement fails to confront the root cause of the issue. The ability to repair a product is useless if the product is originally made to be fragile and short-lasting. This problem will not be fully solved until producers prioritize quality and longevity over selling more units than last year; this solution requires a departure from the capitalist model of constant growth for the sake of growth.
Leon Trotsky writes in The Transitional Program (1938):
In reality, the trusts keep no secrets from one another. The business secrets of the present epoch are part of a persistent plot of monopoly capitalism against the interests of society. Projects for limiting the autocracy of “economic royalists” will continue to be pathetic farces as long as private owners of the social means of production can hide from producers and consumers the machinations of exploitation, robbery and fraud. The abolition of “business secrets” is the first step toward actual control of industry.
Workers no less than capitalists have the right to know the “secrets” of the factory, of the trust, of the whole branch of industry, of the national economy as a whole.
It is clear that the secrets of the tech capitalists creates waste on a massive scale and prevents the development of technology outside of small circles of industry barons. Technological innovation will only proceed unfettered if given an environment of collaborative innovation under worker-controlled means. Remember that the Internet, GPS, space flight, and many other world-changing inventions were developed outside of private corporations. Programmers ought to be employed at state and educational institutions, where they receive fair pay and do not face crunch time from unrealistic release dates. Development of the technologies necessary to confront the most pressing issues of our time, from the climate crisis to efficient distribution of goods, will require nationalization and workers’ control of the tech sector. We must expropriate the capitalists’ private property and release their trade secrets to the world.
We do not want an iPhone. We want durable, sustainable products. We want technological progress benefiting all of humanity.
Nationalize the tech sector!
Socialism is our way forward!