Review of International Studies

Research Article

Opening other windows: a political economy of ‘openness’ in a global information society

CHRISTOPHER MAY*

Abstract

Although analysis in IR and IPE has increasingly started to focus on non-state actors and the information society, the role of the legal architecture of the Internet has been relatively under-analysed in terms of the structural power around communication interfaces. In this article I suggest the work of Lewis Mumford offers a useful lens for thinking about the political economy of technological change in an information society. I set out the role of intellectual property rights as the legal form of the global information society, and suggest a major challenge to this legal form is the idea of ‘openness’, specifically in the realm of open-source and/or free software. I examine this issue in the realm of (so-called) informational development, where major proprietary players (predominantly Microsoft) have been confronted by an increasingly vibrant open-source alternative. The open-source and free-software movements can be analysed as an emerging example of a globalised ‘double movement’, seeking to re-embed the tools of informational development in a societal realm of information, establishing in Mumford’s terms a ‘democratic technics’ as a reaction to the programme of information and knowledge commodification spurred by the TRIPs agreement.

Footnotes

* An earlier version of this article was presented as the keynote address at the Governing the Knowledge Society conference, at the Centre for Globalisation and Governance, University of Hamburg, Germany, October 2006. I would like to thank the organisers and the audience for an extended and stimulating debate on the issues raised in this article that helped me clarify and improve the discussion here. I also thank the Editors of the Special Issue for comments that helped me further refine my argument, although the remaining shortcomings are of course my own.