Open Source: Beyond Software

In the last year or two I’ve done a lot of reading and thinking about open source, and a good bit has been written about the idea that open source represents something potentially far bigger than just a way of making software. Two of the best people who have written on this are Stephen Weber, a professor of political science at Berkeley, and Yochai Benkler, a Yale law professor. Benkler gives a number of compelling examples in Coase’s Penguin, of what’s happening now, and Weber does a great job in the last chapter of The Success of Open Source of opening up the possibilities. I highly recommend reading both.

But on a personal level, I think I’ve always felt the appeal of open source as something more than just a better way of making software. At the core of open source, to me, is looking to cooperation more than competition, seeing the light in people. I feel the society I grew up with primarily views people as passive consumers. Your identity is based on what you buy, what you consume, not what you create. The labels you wear, the music you listen to, the car you drive, the television shows you watch, the address of your apartment/house. You pick your friends based on whether their tastes – their consumption patterns – line up with yours. We are hesitant to sing out loud, to dance, to cook our own food, to play music, to make poetry, to design our own clothes, ect. (I’m not saying that we are all, but I will say that in order to do any of the above, it generally takes getting over a hump to do any of them in public. Even if society does not specifically condemn them, it makes it damn scary the first time you do it before those who aren’t your closest friends. Once you do it you often realize it’s all bullshit – when I got over my fear of dancing, and just started having a damn good time with it, I realized that anyone who was looking at me and judging me negatively was first likely jealous at some level, that they are not able to just put themselves out there, and second, not worth thinking about, since you are for sure having a better time than them, if they’re taking the time to send out negative energy out when they should be dancing and enjoying the music of life).

We are hesitant to sing out loud, to dance, ect. because we are taught that only certain people are allowed to be producers. There is a divide, between those who create our culture, and everyone else. It’s not just that they do their thing better than you as an amateur could do it, it’s that they are an entirely different class of humans. You can decide to devote yourself to becoming a musician, but at some point you then enter popular culture royalty, you are one who is allowed to create, whom others can then select as a choice in their identity.

Open Source presents the opposite. It is the triumph of amateurs over the ‘experts’. The current reality of open source is extremely far from the popular notion that it is just a bunch of passionate people hacking in their spare time. It’s primarily people who are paid to work on it, many of them by large corporations. But this does not in fact dilute the essence, as some would like to believe. Instead it points to the triumph of a technique of production that blurs the line between producer and consumer. That does not even view anyone as a mere passive consumer, but instead as a potential contributor. In large projects the majority of the users don’t contribute, but the open source essence remains. The digital nature of the work makes it a non-rival good, one which I am not hurt if you use it, so free riders on the process don’t negatively affect the core in the slightest. But if you are to participate in the process, you quickly realize that it is something different. That you can help create something, that you can affect the world. Even if it’s in an incredibly small way, fixing a spelling error in Turkish, it still brings a moment of realization that you are more than a passive consumer. And as a whole it points to the fact that if we are transparent in our work, and view the light in others as having the ability to contribute to that work, then together we can build something greater than any of us. Linux has created a better operating system, by being open and seeing users as the most valuable contributors, which they then become.

Open Source then has further lessons for the organization of work and production. In a work environment people are often viewed as mere cogs in the machine, the duty of the manager is to plug them in to get the most productivity out of them. The boss is all powerful, as she has the power to fire you, to eliminate your income, which of course would transform you into less than a person, since it takes away your ability to consume. And in public corporations, the ultimate boss is not even the CEO and board of directors, they are merely in service of the ‘shareholders’, which just means the profit motive, since the majority of shares are held by institutions that shift the companies they hold shares in simply based on what will give them the best return. I could pursue this line of reasoning further, but my point is about the organization of workers, in the current system a single person decides who should do what, has the power to determine most everything, and generally exercises it, not listening to those below, since he is ‘the boss’, and doing so would look like he doesn’t know what he’s doing.

Benkler has many great points about the superiority of production model of open source for many information tasks. And I highly recommend reading what he has to say, but my point is much more about the social relations in a work environment. Many open source projects have a ‘boss’, often called the ‘benevolent dictator’. But this dictatorship is far different than what one thinks of as a traditional tyrant. Fogel in his great book Producing Open Source Software explains:

‘But this kind of tyranny is special, quite different from the conventional understanding of the word. Imagine a king whose subjects could copy his entire kingdom at any time and move to the copy to rule as they see fit. Would not such a king govern very differently from one whose subjects were bound to stay under his rule no matter what he did?’

The dictator is essentially the same as anyone else on the project, since at any time anyone has the ability to copy the project (to fork, in open source parlance), and take it where they want. The participants choose to give him power because it is useful to have a leader, an arbitrator, a judge. And everyone has the power to choose what tasks they want to work on, the ‘boss’ can only ask nicely. Or, more likely, he can call favors, as he reaches his position by helping out others a lot, and they in turn will often help him out when he says that something is really needed.

This model seems much more just, in terms of organization of work, and indeed, much more democratic than our current work environment. Schweikart concurs:

‘It is a striking anomaly of modern capitalist societies that ordinary people are deemed competent to select their political leaders–but not their bosses. Contemporary capitalism celebrates democracy, yet denies us our democratic rights at precisely the point where they might be used most immediately and concretely: at the place where we spend most of the active and alert hours of our adult lives.’

His book, ‘After Capitalism‘, lays out a compelling model of an alternative to modern capitalism called ‘economic democracy’, where firms still compete on the market, as it’s one of the good innovations of ‘capitalism’ (though he would argue that it’s not a defining feature of capitalism), but where individual firms are actually run quite similar to open source projects. Power is in the hands of the workers, who choose their leadership. This can be a benevolent dictator model, or a consensus based democracy, as Fogel shows as the model in many more mature open source projects.

My point is not to scare you with talk of ‘socialism’, but just to point that one of the essences of open source to me is treating one’s fellow producers in a more just way than the current paradigm of producers and consumers allows. To not view work as the thing you have to do to make money to consume, but to view it as the thing you do, your dharma in the world. Your relations with your co-workers and your boss will be more positive if your work is seen as a shared, cooperative project, where tasks aren’t assigned, but are agreed upon. In open source everyone ‘owns’ the project, and that sense of ownership also brings a sense of responsibility to ones co-workers and bosses that is often lacking in many modern work environments.

To me this root essence of open source, the blurring of the line between producer and consumer, the seeing the light in people, is what has lead to its success, and speaks to its superiority as a mode of production and creation in the world. We are seeing open source being applied to many different arenas, from creating an encyclopedia to mapping mars to academic works. I believe that the lessons at the heart of open source software have nothing to do with software, and indeed can even go beyond the production of digital goods and information. In this blog I will primarily be exploring the applications of the open source process to geographic information, but other topics will likely arise as well.

Transparency is a good thing

Information is power. Those who hold power often keep information private, and with it make the decisions that affect our lives. There are many excuses for keeping such information closed, the most popular one of late is ‘security’, but there is also ‘cost’ – the information was expensive to acquire, and there for that cost must be recouped. For the most part we’ve accepted that companies should keep information private, indeed in the information economy their intellectual property is the only thing they’ve got. The US government realizes this and is putting all its weight behind getting countries to sign TRIPS plus bilateral agreements that lock down the IP regimes of the world. They do this because they couldn’t actually get the treaty they wanted passed in a world court. The US government is actually pretty good at releasing the intellectual property that they produce, computer code becomes public domain, as does most mapping data. But many other countries are more restrictive, and indeed the reality of how much information is actually available is laden with excuses of cost and security.

I don’t quite believe in absolute transparency, as I admit that there is some information that can cost lives if put in the wrong hands. But I strongly believe that as much information as possible should be available to all. This cuts to the core of my beliefs about open source – it doesn’t matter if the vast majority of people are not changing the code, what matters is the potential to do so. For me it’s a more ‘true’ democracy, the democracy we currently have in America feels like a big horse race every couple years. Politicians create an easy to digest message and attempt to sell it to the consumers/voters. It represents a deep cynicism about the citizens, that they aren’t worthy to make real, informed decisions themselves. Granted this is a much deeper problem – whose responsibility is it to seek out information? But I believe that a more ‘true’ democracy could encourage and educate the populace to make more informed decisions. And that transparency in all aspects of life is the way to get there. Showing all the cards makes people realize that their lives are not just controlled by forces outside of themselves. Our democracy is incredibly powerful, we the people can change the course of our history, but we don’t believe that we can, so we don’t. Decisions about urban planning, the shape of our daily lives, are made in random court buildings that people don’t even know that they can attend and have a strong voice. Barely a majority of the population turns out to vote every four years. In this ideal transparent world, not everyone would have all the issues completely under control, but they’d entrust others to, and they’d have the ability to look at the ‘source code’ for decisions. Imagine if all our politicians had to document every decision they made, if they were to actually make publicly available that the reason they supported Disney extending the copyright regime another 10 years was because they contributed a few thousand dollars to the re-election campaign.

I’ve felt a suspicion about transparency for awhile, indeed in the US we have a strong rhetoric about our open society, but in my life I’ve found it to be more image than reality, that our lives our controlled by others. And it’s not just something I’ve found, it’s the majority of the people, who accept that we actually have little say in where our world goes. I think I would have stayed cynical about the ability of simple transparency to change things, but my experiences with open source have given me a much stronger faith in it. Simple transparency with regards to the software one runs, a very minor thing in the grand scheme of things, has had an almost revolutionary impact on a multi billion dollar industry. It reorganizes how people work, how things are produced, into what I strongly feel is a more optimistic, cooperative model. I strongly believe this model is applicable to far more than software, though that’s a topic for another post. But at the root I believe it has the power to change how the world works, that its implications go to the root of politics and economics, and that it can be the basis of building a more cooperative, fair and just world.

The profit motive has gone too far

capitalism hasn’t failed, but its hardly succeeded either

it needs augmenting

– from The Headmap Manifesto

I’m not saying that money doesn’t matter – it has way too many meanings and implications in reality to not matter. But I will say that I really don’t like how the field of economics reduces people’s motivations to pure monetary terms. Or rather, I’m fine if they do that within their field, to build interesting models, but I feel that meme has taken over. It reduces humans to mere rational beings, looking to maximize money. But we are far more than our bank account and what we own. I feel the profit motive has gone too far, that it has taken over other, more noble (and just as valid) motives, as the only way of interpreting the world. Some argue that without the protection of patents and the promise of large sums of money, nobody would be motivated to innovate. This is simply not true, it’s like saying that artists would not be motivated to paint if they weren’t going to become rich.

We as humans want to express ourselves, we have innate curiosity and desire to create things in the world. Granted, to build technology, or to make music, or to do anything creative, money is needed to support the effort. But I feel the current model of limited liability corporations and absolute ownership are not the apex of how to best encourage human creativity. I believe another route is being shown with the open source model, where the motivations are varied, but the primary one is not money. Money plays a role, that can not be denied. People have to pay their bills, many (including me) get paid to work on open source projects. But no one has the potential to make millions from their contribution to open source software – they do it for a wide variety of other motivations. I’m very interesting in exploring how to set up and propagate motivation mechanisms that more efficiently encourage human creativity and innovation.

I feel that the current set of motivations as epitomized by the limited liability corporation, have played a huge role in getting us to where we are today, but that they are past their prime. Corporations as their own legal, self propagating entities, are wreaking destruction by their very logic.

Our greatest fear is not that we are inadequate…

‘Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond imagination. It is our light more than our darkness which scares us. We ask ourselves – who are we to be brilliant, beautiful, talented, and fabulous. But honestly, who are you to not be so?

You are a child of God, small games do not work in this world. For those around us to feel peace, it is not example to make ourselves small. We were born to express the glory of god that lives in us. It is not in some of us, it is in all of us. While we allow our light to shine, we unconsciously give permission for others to do the same. When we liberate ourselves from our own fears, simply our presence may liberate others.’

– Marianne Williamson in Return to Love: Reflections on a Course in Miracles

You can change the world

We are brought up to believe that the world is a static thing, that it works under its own logic, and a single individual is basically powerless to change it. My big problem with this assumption is that it’s a self defeating one. If every single person is to believe that they are powerless to change their world, then no one is going to even try, and qed we all are powerless to change it.

I’m not talking about changing the world in little ways, I’m talking about the big changes. If we take on the big problems, we just might actually make headway and perhaps even solve them. If we focus on small ones, well that’s all we’ll solve, guaranteed. I actually just came across a nice speech that articulates a lot of this feeling of mine. It’s more of a research focus, but I think the points are just as applicable: Richard Hamming: You and Your Research

People are the most important thing in this world

There are a number of things that I’d like to riff on through out this blog, but I think it may be wise to start with where I’m coming from, lay out some root assumptions about what I think about this world. Setting these down may make some of my future posts make a bit more sense, and I hope that they can serve as footnotes and references so I don’t have to explain so much in the future. We’ll see if it works.The first assumption is that people are the most important thing in this world. Much of my writing is going to end up about technology, as it’s what I’m interested in these days. But the ground on which all the interests for me lays is people. I’m not talking about ‘users’ and being ‘user-centric’, I’m talking about people: your best friends, your family, those in your immediate circle of acquaintances, and the vast array of individuals who make up this world. Human beings are absolutely amazing, wonderful creatures, and we should never lose sight of that, no matter what our work, our career, our mission on this planet is. For the first 18 years of my life I lived more or less in my own world, never letting anyone know what I really thought, and thus never letting anyone in to really hurt me. And I didn’t get hurt, but I also didn’t experience any real happiness. When I went to college I decided to make friends my first priority, and the amount of love and pure happiness I’ve experienced since then is mind-blowing.

This for me has extended into a view of the world, in trying to see the light in everyone. I believe that human beings, at an individual level, want to do good, and want to love and be loved. Technology is interesting to me primarily for it’s potential to lead to greater connection and understanding between human beings. To giving a voice to all, to including everyone in a quest to create a better world. I believe that every single person has something valuable to contribute to the world, and technology should help to enable that contribution. We can not create a new world ‘for’ anyone, we must create it together.

First Post

So I’ve decided to enter the world of blogs. I’ve been quite reluctant to do so in the past, since most of what I would see felt like a lot of narcissistic wanking. The most obvious being the online diaries of people just putting all their personal crap on the web for all to see. But I also didn’t understand the more celebrated blogs, which just felt like people building up fan clubs, trying to get the most popular blog by taking stances and talking about issues or pointing out interesting insights they had. I suspected that there must be something to this blog thing, but whenever I looked at a blog I was quite under-impressed.

The first ‘aha!’ moment of realizing the potential of blogs came reading Lessig’s Free Culture, as he said blogs ‘are arguably the most important form of unchoreographed public discourse that we have.’ Which is a pretty powerful statement, but it does make sense when you think of the alternatives we have for public discourse. There are no town hall meetings any more, there is little way to engage those whose views may differ from yours. The architecture of blogging, with asynchronous communication and trackbacks, allows for real public discourse. Of course I am still less than convinced that the political blogospheres that form are anything more than groupthink, narcissism spread a little more widely where people debate the small points with a like minded group. A wider circle of wanking, not actually changing anyone’s mind about anything.

But I’m not starting a blog to discuss politics, though I won’t rule it out. The main reason I’m starting a blog is so that I can put my thoughts on the internet but without forcing them into people’s inboxes. I have a tendency for very long emails, and in the past I’ve just forced them on email lists, but often felt bad about it, sending to 50 or 200 people many of whom could probably care less. Which is to say my blog is probably going to be a bit different than the traditional short posts commenting on some article or other blog post. But the biggest thing I’ve realized about blogs is that they can’t be contained in any single category. Comparing blogging to journalism, as has been a fairly hot topic in the mainstream press, is like comparing writing with a pencil to journalism. Blogging is simply a medium, in which you can do whatever you want.

This blog will be an experiment in exploring what I’d like to do with the medium, seeing how it changes my message. But as brevity is not my forte, many of my posts will probably be long. Indeed I think I’ve already exceeded the standard blog post limit. And many of them will likely explore the random ideas bouncing around my brain instead of just the more standard insightful comments and recycling of the posts of others. Though in blog fashion I will try to use others as my starting point. Indeed I believe there are no original thoughts, there is just combining and remixing the memes that are already out there. Much will focus on mapping and the geospatial web. Initially this will likely be my biggest focus, as I just spent much of the last nine months researching and about the bigger issues, and need to just brain dump a lot of what I came across, and a blog seems like the perfect medium for me to do so. I will also get meta and explore many of the implications of an rssed, social networked, and collaboratively filtered world, which has been fascinating to me lately, and a good part of the reason I’m starting to blog. And the third cluster of thoughts I’ve been having of late center on alternatives to the profit motive and the current state of corporations – what might come next. How to create structures that encourage innovation and creativity, and allow people to live their lives, but perhaps reigning in some of the inequalities that seem to be an accepted reality today.

Through all these ideas will naturally run an open source current, indeed I think the core ideas of open source are what unites all three. And I will explore how these ideas can be combined, and how they can lead to a better world for us all. And beyond that pretty much anything that occurs to me is fair game. I’m probably just going to make rough categorizations of posts, and I’ll probably repeat myself – perhaps someone else in this emerging collaborative filtering world will make a meta-blog tagging and rating my posts. But I’m not holding my breath… yet.