ox4 Notes II: Open Hardware Challenges and Ambitions

A RonjaThis post continues my coverage of the Fourth Oekonux Conference. Johan Söderberg talked about the Czech open hardware project Ronja. RONJA was developed to provide a cheap, easily producible alternative to Wi-Fi, allowing wireless data transmission between computers. Amazingly, Ronjas use visible light for data transmission, but they are quite fast (10 MBit/s) and allow reliable point-to-point data transmissions, except in case of fog.

The goal of the Ronja project was not only to build affordable open hardware for data transmission, but also to allow the creation of anonymous, censorship-proof networks that can’t be controlled by companies or the state. All design information has been published under the GNU Free Documentation License. The Ronja hardware was sufficiently successful to be employed not only by private people, but also by companies.

But the success also led to tensions in the community which ultimately lead to the decline of the project. Somebody created a commercial fork of Ronja, the Crusader. The Crusader was mass-produced and intended for corporate users; it used a laser instead of a normal light source, which made it faster (100 MBit/s instead of 10 MBit/s) but also more difficult and dangerous to built (you can become blind if you operate a laser the wrong way). The rest of the community didn’t want to switch to this design, in order to keep the design simple and safe for normal users/builders. Their decision was understandable, but it also meant that the regular Ronja hardware ceased to be competitive to normal Wi-Fi, which became faster and cheaper over time.

Another problem was that the copyleft principle doesn’t really work for hardware (as already mentioned in regard to Jacco Lammers in the first part of my report). Copyright (and thus copyleft) only governs information, not the hardware built according to this information. So commercial forks such as the Crusader weren’t forced to contribute their improved designs back to the community. This annoyed the original Ronja maintainer who was unhappy about companies making money on his project without giving back. In order to make money himself, he decided to switch to a “I will free the design after I’ve got enough donations” model for new improvements. He did get donations, but this switch meant that he had to work on new developments in secret, giving up the open, community-based style of development. This in turn annoyed the community members who had enjoyed giving their time and ideas, instead of their money, for Ronja development.

Because of these developments, the project has now largely become inactive.

There are interesting lessons here, I think, about how commercial and noncommercial interests can clash, and about how the lack of suitable licensing model for open hardware projects can harm them. I wouldn’t say that profit-driven and noncommercial participants cannot form successful alliances (free software has shown that they can), but cases such as Ronja make it clear that they don’t get together easily. Regarding the licensing issue, the best scenario would probably be if somebody came up with a “clever hack” that makes the copyleft/share-alike principle work for hardware (just like the GNU GPL was the “clever hack” that invented this principle for software). Another option would be to give up the expectations of “everybody should give back their improvements” and switch to liberal BSD-like licenses (which don’t contain a copyleft clause).

After this sobering talk about the decline of an open hardware project, Marcin Jakubowski gave a very enthusiastic talk about how he and his group are “Building the World’s First, Replicable, Open Source Global Village.” The goal of the Open Source Ecology (OSE) project is to design a “global village” that allows small groups of people to live entirely independent from capitalism, producing their own energy, food, housing, transportation and so on. The village shall be “open source” (open design), and sufficiently documented so that others can reproduce it. As is reasonable, they focus on first designing and producing the means of production that shall later allow them (and everybody who decides to reproduce their designs) to produce the goods they need for living.

Their Global Village Construction Set (GVCS) contains 41 pieces which they are working on, or plan to work on, which in their view are sufficient to produce most things needed for a simple, self-sustainable life, except for microcircuits (computer chips) and and metal (scrap metal can be reused). The GVCS is designed for modularity and for disassembly/easy repair.

Marcin said that the GVCS equipment for 30 people might cost about 6,000 USD (for materials) and require somewhat less than one year per person for building; additionally, land to live on is needed. If people would buy everything from conventional sources, the total cost would be about 830,000 USD and 2 person years (instead of 30) would be required for assembly. Stefan Merten pointed out that, if you take labor costs into account, the Set is not necessarily more efficient—indeed, assuming an average net salary of 40,000 USD, 30 people would earn 1,2 million USD in a year, which would be more than enough to buy everything from conventional sources (and hire some specialists for assembly).

Efficiency is indeed an important point and I’m not sure that the somewhat low-tech approach of Marcin’s group will be able to compete with all the sophisticated technology capitalism has invented. Peer production will hardly be able to outdo capitalism if it would mean that people would have to work more instead of less.

Also, the somewhat survivalist, very basic lifestyle of the OSE people probably won’t be attractive for lots of people. Again, I believe that peer production can only win if it offers people a better life than capitalism, and I don’t yet see that in the OSE approach. They’re thinking too small, in my opinion—capitalist societies are extremely complex, with a very high division of labor, and I doubt that post-capitalist societies will be able to reach a similar (or higher) standard of living without maintaining similar levels of complexity and division of labor. Peer production is suitable for very complex societies, since it is based on the self-selection of people to do the things they like most; and since people’s preferences vary widely, a sufficiently large group will cover a wide range of activities. But groups of just 30 or so people won’t be able to do it, they are far too small.

Still, Marcin’s project is exciting and I expect that quite a number of goods things will come out of it. They’re tackling the issue of how to produce the means of production, which is indeed the most important challenge, and even though it’ll probably take much more time and more people than they expect to make these designs really useful and efficient, it’s a good start.

Videos and slides of Marcin’s presentation are available at the OSE blog.

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