Does the 485th richest person in Britain really need to crowdfund a mobile phone?

People get fanatical about open-source software, but Canonical Inc. is not a charity, writes Alex Hern.

Yesterday, Canonical, the private company which leads development of the open-source operating system Ubuntu, started a crowdfunding campaign on the site IndieGoGo. The aim is to raise $32m to enable the production of the "Ubuntu Edge", a planned smartphone running the operating system which will incorporate elements of the desktop software, to create what the company calls "next generation of personal computing".

The device itself looks promising, although with a starter price of $830 (the crowdfunding campaign is offering discounts of up to $230 to early backers) it will need to be top-of-the-line to compete. Nonetheless, just a day in and they have already raised over $4m. But there's a bigger question to be asked, which is: why crowdfund?

The relationship between Ubuntu and Canonical can be confusing, at least to people outside the world of open-source software development. "Open-source" is the term for software which has been released to the commons by its creators. There's a number of ways to do this, but the most popular is with a so-called "copyleft" license, like the "GNU general public license", or GPL. That allows anyone to take the source code of a program and use it to make new things, without asking permission or paying anyone anything; but, it requires that any new software which is made is also licensed under the GPL, and has its source code released to the public.

Ubuntu, the operating system which Canonical leads development of, is licensed in this way. It's based on a family of open-source operating systems called GNU/Linux, and so it would be difficult (although not impossible) to charge for: anyone who wanted to get the software for free could perfectly legally download the source code, compile it, and then host it themselves.

Instead, the way companies such as Canonical make their money is by selling customer support and similar services to users of open source software. But with the Ubuntu Edge, they won't even have to do that. While the software will be open source, the hardware is still something people will have to buy, so they will be able to make money on it far more directly. And they do make money; Canonical is a private company with a reported annual revenue of $30m, founded by Mark Shuttleworth, the 485th richest person in Britain, who bought a flight on the International Space Station in 2002 for $20m.

If you're a multi-million dollar company headed by a multimillionaire with a bolshie idea for a product which could make you a lot of money, the normal way to do things is to sell shares and take loans until you've got enough cash to fund the product; then sell that product to customers. Taking thousands of pre-orders for a phone which you won't deliver until May 2014 – and which you have no contractual obligation to deliver at all, because crowdfunding sites are not e-commerce sites – and dressing it up in the aesthetics of artistic patronage is an odd, and slightly distasteful, way of doing things.

Kickstarter, the leading crowdfunding site, recently doubled-down on its opposition to this sort of campaign, writing that it's a service "to help bring creative projects to life", and tightening up its rules to prevent companies using it to launch their businesses. It's not hard to see why, when this is the sort of thing which has been stopped.

The Ubuntu Edge docked with a monitor. Photograph: Canonical, Inc.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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New Times: David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

The digital revolution has had two profound effects on how power is distributed – both of which squeeze the state's power.

Left-wing political parties exist to use the power of the state to rectify unjust distributions of power in society. What has gone wrong with this project? First, the political parties bit. Established parties everywhere are struggling to seem relevant to most people’s everyday concerns: they look increasingly like the tired relics of a more hierarchical age. The exception, of course, is the current Labour Party, which has opened itself up to become the biggest mass-membership party in Europe. But the trade-off has been to move away from seeing the acquisition of power as its primary purpose. These days parties can only really draw people in by offering to be vehicles for the expression of political resentment and disenchantment. But that is no way to rectify the causes of their resentment; neglecting the challenge of power usually ends up making things worse.

However, this is just a symptom of the wider problem, which is the changing nature of power. Technology lies at the heart of it. The digital revolution has had two profound effects on how power is distributed. First, it has empowered individuals, by providing them with unprecedented access to information, tools of communication and the means of expression. This is power exercised as choice: we all now have multiple ways of registering our likes and dislikes that never existed before.

Second, the digital revolution has empowered networks, creating vast new webs that span the globe. Some of them, such as Facebook, are close to being monopolies. We end up joining the networks that other people have joined, because that’s where the action is. This gives a small number of networks an awful lot of power.

Both of these developments are deeply problematic for the power of the state. The proliferation of choice makes citizens much harder to satisfy. Many of us have got used to micromanaging our lives in ways that leaves government looking flat-footed and unresponsive, no matter how hard it tries. At the same time, states face global networks that they have no idea how to control. International finance is one of these: money is information and information now has too many different ways to flow. States are getting squeezed.

The paradox is that the same forces that are squeezing the state are also giving impetus to left-wing politics. There are huge imbalances of power being created in networked societies. The monopolists are hoovering up money and influence. Personal connections count for more than ever, now that networked connections have become ubiquitous. Education is turning into a way of pulling up the drawbridge rather than moving up the ladder. One temptation for the left is to assume that the evidence of injustice will sooner or later outweigh the disabling effects of these social forces on the state. That is part of the Corbyn gamble: hang around until people are sufficiently pissed off to start demanding social-democratic solutions to their problems.

I don’t think this is going to happen. There is nothing to suggest that popular dissatisfaction will find its way back to the state as its best outlet. It will be channelled through the networks that are making the life of the state increasingly difficult.

The other temptation is to think that the left can achieve its goals by bypassing conventional social democracy and channelling its own ambitions into network politics. This is the other side of the Corbyn gamble, or at least the view of some of the people who have attached themselves to him: a new politics is coming that uses digital technology to mobilise fleet-footed networks of activists who can generate change without going through the cumbersome and time-consuming process of winning general elections. That also looks pretty wishful to me. These networks are just another vehicle for expressing personal preferences. They don’t have any means of changing the preferences of people who think differently. You need to win power to do that.

The state’s power is being squeezed by networks of empowered individuals, but these networks don’t have the kind of power necessary to do the redistributive work of the state. What is the left to do? It needs to try to find value in the fact that the state is not just another network. The right does this instinctively, by talking up the state’s security functions and championing ideas of sovereignty and national identity. But that does nothing to address the deleterious effects of living in a modern networked society, where we are swamped by personal choice but impotent in the face of corporate and financial power.

Rather than trying to harness the power of networks, the left should stand up for people against the dehumanising power of Big Data. The state isn’t Google and should not try to pretend to be. We don’t need more choice. We don’t need more efficiency of the kind that digital technology is endlessly supplying. We need protection from the mindless bureaucratic demands of the new machine age: the relentless pursuit of information, regardless of the human cost. There are limits to what the state can do but it retains some real power. It still employs real human beings; it educates them and provides them with welfare. It should do what is in its power to make the work tolerable and the education meaningful, to provide welfare in ways that don’t leave people at the mercy of faceless systems. The left needs to humanise the state.

At the moment, too much energy is being spent trying to humanise the party. We are told that people are tired of robotic, careerist politicians; they want unspun versions of people like themselves. But robotic politicians aren’t the problem; the coming age of robots is. While the party tries to feel more comfortable with itself, the effects of a networked society are running rampant. Acquiring the power of the state is still the best way to fight back. It doesn’t matter if that has to be done in an ugly, mechanised, artificial way, by careerist politicians with whom we wouldn’t choose to spend our personal time. Better an ugly, artificial politics than an ugly, artificial world. 

David Runciman is a professor of politics and the head of the department of politics and international studies at Cambridge

This article is part of a New Times collection of the future of the left. Read the other pieces here.

 

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times