There has been a lot of discussion in the mac community about a certain promotional deal by which nearly a thousand dollars worth of software can be bought for $40. I won’t bother rehashing this discussion, as most of it concerns whether or not this is a “good deal”: for developers, for the people who buy software, or for the “mac software community” as a whole. Of course it is a good deal. Developers sell tens of thousands more copies of their software than they normally would, and get free advertising in the process — and users get … a thousand dollars worth of software for $40. Duh. No, what is much more interesting here is the source of this anxiety.
You see, mac software developers are not like ordinary workers. Their “means of production” tend to consist entirely of their laptops, their education, and the shirt on their backs. When they are hired to work at a larger company they are often given stock options and treated as partial-owners. Even those developers who give up this artisan lifestyle to work at large companies: Google, IBM, Apple, etc. tend to be treated much different from other kinds of workers. Google is famous for its unique work culture where employees get a percentage of time to work on creative projects, and I’ve heard there is an employee at Apple who works naked. I don’t know if that last one is true or not, but the fact that it is even plausible shows something about the unique role of software engineers in our economy.
In his economics Ph.D. thesis Kenneth Levin argues that the “financial success of many North American high-tech
companies–biotechnology, computer software development and design, as
well as Internet startups–are partly due to their collective way of
organizing the production and distribution of gross profits received” and that high tech companies are interesting hybrids which exhibit both “collective and non-collective ways of organizing the production and distribution of gross profits.” One of the great ironies of the internet age is that software engineers work in a work environment which probably closer to communist ideals than anything else in the American economy, and yet most of them are libertarians. I believe that this contradiction explains why the developer community is having such a difficult time wrapping its head around what is happening with this new promotional deal.
What is happening, in short, is that the nature of software development, as a form of work, is changing. And not just in terms of this new deal either. More and more middlemen are learning how to take a piece of the action: whether it is Apple’s iPhone application store, new marketing strategies, or cloud computing (yes, Google is a middleman as well), software developing and how one makes, sells, and distributes it is changing. Since it isn’t an issue I’ve studied, and am I not a developer myself, I have no idea how software development will change, only that as a careful observer it seems to be changing and the particular, almost ideal, conditions under which developers now work will be unlikely to continue unless developers start thinking of themselves as workers in a changing economy, and stop treating economic questions as if they were simply moral ones.