In the above, in a beautiful lecture that I am still digesting, Kodwo Eshun quotes from an unpublished manuscript by Mark Fisher, talking about the forces suppressing “the collective capacity to produce, to care, to enjoy”. From my perspective, this makes me think about the ideals of free software, and the practicalities of trying to carry it out. I made TidalCycles in the world of free software (operating systems, libraries, documentation passed down freely from others), on a ‘holiday from capitalism’ supported by student and academic grants and arts residencies, giving it away for free. I was able to absorb a lot of prior work during this time, to help me create something new. Quite a few others have now joined TidalCycles as a free project, and many more in using it. How is capital blocking this collective capacity to produce, to care to enjoy?
I suppose the more radical positioning of live coding in general, more common in the early days, is now being lost. This is the idea that live coding is about experience, not end-product, that to live code is to improvise in and for the moment, that at the end of a performance you have nothing left. The desire to produce music that can be repeated, that can be sold as a product, is I think starting to drown out the idea of ‘blank slate’ improvisation. As people (myself included) crave music with more composed detail, more temporal structure, we get outside the current limits of the live coder in the moment, and take the easy route of introducing pre-written structures, suitable for packaging up as ‘tracks’. We go through the motions of selling them on bandcamp, probably making back a hundredth (or even thousandth) of a minimum wage, but trying to legitimise what we’re doing within the value structure of a past record industry.
By giving away free software with a permissive license, partly as an invitation for others to jump in and contribute features, ideas, and documentation, in practice you also invite people to grab the software and treat it as a ‘tool’ within a ‘workflow’ based on commercial software. This seems innocuous, and to question this behaviour runs against the assumed aim for software to reach as many end-users as quickly as possible. But this aim rides over many other potential aims (e.g. to grow sustainably, to create an alternative), and pursuing it forces a free software collective into interacting with commercial institutions, thereby taking on their value structures. Where Tidal users are also users of commercial software (including MacOS and Microsoft Windows), they’re already trained to think in terms of centralised support and feature requests, and not the collective responsibility to produce, care and enjoy. There is always pressure for the community to divide into ‘developers’ and ‘users’, one serving the other, in a way which simply isn’t sustainable without the latter paying the former. Once we start looking for the users to indeed pay the developers, we’re running away from the possibilities of collective imagination.
I’m running out of time for this blog post, but how to respond to these thoughts? I guess resisting the easy answers, and instead keep looking for alternative paths that only free software culture can take. Re-imagining the programming language and text editor around the principle of data love – where sharing what you have only increases in value. More thoughts to follow.