If it sounds mad

I’ve just been reading Glyn Moody’s article on the defence of hackers and open source. And no doubt I fully disagree with any notion that Free and Open Source is as relatable to some mass anarchistic insensible process.

I thought to myself that there probably is a quick test to see if what someone is saying about open source makes sense. A quick and dirty litmus test for checking if the author understands open source in principle and in practice.

If you replace “Open Source” with the word “Science” and set the date of the article or book back to 1650, does it sound like it’s totally mad?1 If you replace “Open Content” with “Free Speech”, does it sound like the author is grasping for a way to put people back in their nice Aristotelian place?

What I see when I read articles and books that attack free culture, is a mind on the other end of the text trying to work a messy and human process into an authoritarian view of the world (nice, ordered, predicable systems). I actually boil this down to a lack of trust in humanity and messiness. Which is a shame, because biological evolution is a messy system with lots of “waste”2 and human dialectics is a messy system with a lot of “waste” (what some call a long tail of content quality) and yet they’ve both produced amazing results3.

This is why it’s right that new ideas in Ubuntu should be tried, but at the same time a critical eye be placed over the results. Because it’s only through trying things out that we learn if they work at all. Even in design, where most designers would claim to be self supporting machines of innovation, I believe it’s natural to have a certain amount of trial and error. Of course having the space and energy to carry out the chaotic research is important, something we work on to improve in the open source design world.

But trying things does take a lot of energy and this is where the efficiency gains of open source are most important. We don’t know which of the thousands of programs are going to be the best, but we do know that at every stage there is the opportunity to share gains and pick up where others have left off. Truly standing on the shoulders of giants that came before us allows us to be usefully “wasteful”.

Far from Free and Open Source being a constraint on innovation, I find more and more that it is the source of innovation and what we really need more of is a way to execute on good ideas rather than the old tired thinking that we just don’t have any good ideas.

What are your thoughts?

1 I admit that this does require some association of the method of creating practical mechanical designs (software) with the methods of creating testable theoretical models as in science. I’ve had very long emails in this discussion, but I’m still fairly confident that it’s equatable in it’s requirement for open sharing of ideas and designs.
2 The waste is not waste in my view, it’s navigation.
3 I’m a big fan of the idea that the classic view of innovation is rubbish and the only truly new ideas are just convenient mistakes. All other ideas are dialectic compositions and so “innovation” in my view is more about mixing existing ideas and good innovators are good mixers.

3 thoughts on “If it sounds mad

  1. Open source does indeed bear some resemblance to science, however, unlike science, it’s primary focus is not to feed and sustain a mutually beneficial ecosystem of publishers and scientists, excluding everyone else from the process. It’s similar, but then (as a researcher) you choose to ignore the fact that the university is paying a hefty fee for access to journal archives and in turn is being paid (not by the publishers though, as far as I know) to produce them. What the general public gets is the occasional headline in news , with the scientists on camera eager to get some spotlight on the television and get their 15 seconds of fame.

    Open source is actually different and it’s the way research should be done (and there are initiatives that push this style of research work). Here, not only the people within the system can participate and benefit from the results, but anyone else can as well. Actually, a better way to think about it is in terms of barriers of entry – in open source, there are none (aside from your technical skills or your ability and willingness to learn). The equivalent of this in research would be the “citizen scientist” model with full and free access to all research being made.

    I fully agree with the biology analogy. Things converge on successful designs over time, so initial fragmentation is not a problem. Taking all of this into account one can hardly arrive at any conclusion other than that open source simply fosters innovation. People may argue that proprietary software is more efficient and drives innovation. But the truth is that the only thing proprietary software does better is that it has funding for development, whereas open source often does not. But this is a question of finding the suitable business model and adapting to new conditions.

  2. @Sirrus – Although I do have a bugbear with the way modern Science is conducted. Not the part that gives priority to researchers who have proven themselves through good qualifications. But the part that places expensive and exclusionary journals at the center of publishing. hopefully all that will change and we’ll get back to the roots of science.

    I agree very much with everything else you say.

  3. doctormo,

    Sadly, until academic institutions come up with an alternative approach to accessing adequate performance towards a tenured position, the mainstream published journals are here to stay. Working inside the scope of the standard journal system is a deeply entrenched part of job performance across many scientific fields for young researchers. It’s going to take another 20 years before we see it dismantled and replaced by something else. It’ll take that long for enough of the internet-age researchers to stay in academic research long enough to be deans and provosts and college presidents and to start being able to start steering policy in conversation with the unionised faculty workforce.

    Personally, I’m more hopeful of a complete economic collapse in the US which sees also sees the collapse of the institutionalized higher learning centers that is just long enough to have state institutions re-chartered as completely new institutions and new merit based faculty systems.


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