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.

Promote Free Culture

This poster has been in the works for a while, but I’m happy enough to finally publish it today:

It’s available in source form from Spread Ubuntu here and on the deviantArt page you can order a print if you can’t make your own prints.

If you think the work I do to make our cultural ideas more easily understood, consider dropping a few sheckles1:

What do you think?

Update: I put in fresher text which should help some of the older stale text be more understood.

Bruno on Economics

Bruno Girin today wrote a very comprehensive comment about my previous blog post about Free Culture.

I thought it was good enough to post as a full post and also add my own reply at the bottom:

It’s all down to the concept of scarcity, which is the corner stone of market economy. Market economy works something like this: when a resource is scarce somewhere, you will look for a provider than has a surplus of that resource and is ready to exchange it against something you have that he wants. For example, Argh went hunting and has a lot of meat but no fruit. Urgh went collecting fruit and has a lot of fruit but no meat. Argh and Urgh agree to exchange meat against fruit to address their respective scarcity problems.

Money is the same, it’s just a resource that’s easier to carry and exchange than a wheelbarrow of strawberries. But it only works because of its scarcity. If everybody became a millionaire overnight, money would lose its value. And here lies the rub in buying over the net. You can’t buy with virtual money because it can potentially be duplicated so you have to come up with payment mechanisms that can link a virtual buyer and a virtual seller to a real buyer and seller that have real money and goods. The infrastructure to do this is far from simple and doesn’t cross borders easily. It is also hampered by the fact that on the net you are anonymous. Interestingly enough, payment is lot easier on a mobile phone because your phone is linked to a SIM card, that has a number, that is administered by a network operator that allocates it to a real person that is billed every month or has pre-paid for usage of the mobile. So payments engines have a way to link the purchase to a real person and therefore real money: bill the network operator and the operator will forward the bill to the buyer. You can’t do that on the net because you don’t have this chain so you have to devise ways to re-construct the chain for every single payment.

The other aspect about the net and computing that scuppers all economic models is the fact that it has completely changed the concept of scarcity. In the real world, duplicating an object takes time and effort, whether it’d be a pencil or an aircraft carrier. This gives you automatic scarcity and you can attach a price to it. In the virtual world, constructing an initial prototype (whether it be a computer program, a song, a book, a 3D aircraft carrier) is time consuming but duplicating it is easy and virtually free. So there is no scarcity on the objects anymore, there is scarcity on the skills required to build the original prototype. So if you follow standard economic principles, once a digital object is built, its price falls to 0 because it costs nothing to duplicate and there is no natural scarcity; the only possible scarcity is artificial and enforced through things like licenses, DRM, etc.

So free culture isn’t killing our culture or economy, it’s just applying the scarcity principle in market economy to digital goods. The problem is that all standard economic models are based around physical goods where there is a cost associated with duplicating them and don’t work anymore in a situation where duplication is free. In particular, the real world depends a lot on middle-men who can source a particular scarce resource, whether it be grocery retailers or music shops. They add real value to the supply chain in the real world but that value drops significantly with digital goods. So they basically find that they are out of a job in the digital world and aren’t too happy about it, which is probably where this accusation that free culture destroys our culture and economy stems from.

I can tell you what is scarce: people’s time. If someone can work out an economic model where people are paid for the work they perform and not for the copying of that work. We’d probably have a better argument for all kinds of Free Culture including Free Software.

“Free Culture is Killing our Culture”

If you watch the BBC you may have seen a recent episode of “It’s only a theory” where they had as a guest Andrew Keen, author of “The Cult of the Amateur”. His theory was that The internet (and in essence Free Culture) is killing our culture and our economy.

I won’t go into the narcissist arguments, we could all be better at considering others and being more humble. I’m also going to ignore the irony of writing a blog post which is a part of the problem in Andrew’s eyes.1

The theory managed to squeak by on a change of vote from Reginald D Hunter. His argument was very interesting though, he said that Andrew was afraid of the changes and that we hadn’t learned how to “make money” from the internet yet. That there changes were good and that killing the old culture was a good thing and we just need time to figure it all out.

Of course I was hoping to see the fear-inspired conjecture thoroughly rebuked. But after seeing why it was passed, I’m actually more impressed with Mr Hunter.2

Big media needs to die because it’s just an inefficient and too centralised way to make media. I find myself more and more simply enjoying content online and trying to pay for it. I have no problems with paying for content of course, but I’m altruistic, so of course I’m going to pay for content as much as I can, I actually commission plenty of artworks for Free Culture.

Free Software is sort of like the older brother of the free culture philosophy. Software has the advantage that it has a few extra advantages to being participatory, the fact that more of it can be compartmentalised and mixed together with other code without having to consider context as much. But just as much as Free Software has to find it’s way from the proxy funding of support contracts, Free Culture has to find it’s way from the proxy funding of advertising.


1 I write this blog to get better at writing, it’s nice to get readers, but it’s not why I do it.
2 Of course recent episodes of Andy Hamilton’s overruling and general incompetent silliness has reduced my respect for the guy, so I was expecting him to vote silly.