Open source, Society & economy, Technology

Under the Economist’s microscope

Title and Registration

The Economist has a very interesting article on its perceptions of open source from the old skool monetize-your-poo world. Tara puts it best: “There was a study that came out advising against buying small cars, what with all these SUVs on the roads today.”

Hmm. Yeah, you’ll notice that depending on how you frame the question (and depending on which ones you ask), the conversation will take on a vastly different character. Another way to put it: YOMV (your “objectivity” may vary).

So the Economist usually is pretty fair and balanced, so I’ll give them some credit. And I’ll cite some gems:

However, it is unclear how innovative and sustainable open source can ultimately be. The open-source method has vulnerabilities that must be overcome if it is to live up to its promise. For example, it lacks ways of ensuring quality and it is still working out better ways to handle intellectual property.

On describing the open source community ecosystem (similar to my own map of the Mozilla Universe from my Spread Firefox days):

From that core group, the open-source method lets a series of concentric circles form. First, there are around 400 contributors trusted to offer code into the source tree, usually after a two-stage review. Farther out, thousands of people submit software patches to be sized up (a useful way to establish yourself as new programming talent). An even larger ring includes the tens of thousands of people who download the full source code each week to scrutinise bits of it. Finally, more than 500,000 people use test versions of forthcoming releases (one-fifth of them take the time to report problems in bug reports).

On IP woes (with which we’re all familiar):

The question of accountability is a vital one, not just for quality but also for intellectual-property concerns. Patents are deadly to open source since they block new techniques from spreading freely. But more troubling is copyright: if the code comes from many authors, who really owns it?

The reason why CivicForge is necessary:

Rather than a democracy, open source looks like a Darwinian meritocracy. …even though open-source is egalitarian at the contributor level it can nevertheless be elitist when it comes to accepting contributions.

And challenges for the future of open source… can it create a wellspring of sustainable innovation or simply rip off proprietary products’ concepts and interfaces?

Even if the cracks in the management of open source can be plugged by some fairly straightforward organisational controls, might it nevertheless remain only a niche activity—occupying, essentially, the space between a corporation and a commune? There are two doubts about its staying power. The first is how innovative it can remain in the long run. Indeed, open source might already have reached a self-limiting state, says Steven Weber, a political scientist at the University of California at Berkeley, and author of “The Success of Open Source� (Harvard University Press, 2004). “Linux is good at doing what other things already have done, but more cheaply—but can it do anything new? Wikipedia is an assembly of already-known knowledge,� he says.

The second doubt is whether the motivation of contributors can be sustained. …Once the early successes are established, it is not clear that the projects can maintain their momentum, says Christian Alhert, the director of Openbusiness.cc, which examines the feasibility of applying open-source practices to commercial ventures.

And so what I’m left with is uncertainty; yet filled with hope. Clearly they’re on the outside looking in. They’ve grabbed a few butterflies, stuck them to a board and declared that these beautiful little self-organizing creatures are interesting but in all probability, impractical. Not interesting to our captains of industry.
“It just won’t work”, goes the refrain. “How could it?”

→ Begin rant.

And that’s all well and good because it won’t. Not with the old models in tact. Not with DRM fucking everything up. Not with opaque institutions coveting their intellectual property like it was a birthright. Not with your laws that stifle innovation, with your education system that keeps kids thinking in narrow rectangles, keeps down the free flow of work, of play, of curiousity.

What this article fails to do — purposefully — is to recount the story of open source from the perspective of the inhabitants of the bazaar. This is clearly the cathedral view on the open source phenomenon, asking, “How can we learn from their successes and monetize the fuck out of them?” Why not ask about how the proliferation of SUVs made our streets and highways unsafe?

Well, that would expose the fallacy of our faux-capitalist system. It’s not open, not free (enough), not a level playing field. Corruption is the grease on the axles that drive the wheels powered by the diesel of the sovereign state. When you come to our town, we invite you in, we see what you’ve done everywhere you’ve gone, everywhere you’ve been. Yet being open, we let you in. We even sit down and share scotch. But you won’t get it without becoming a part of it.

Not just like that. And not just by opening us up on an examination table, by poking at our vital organs, by studying our work, quantifying our behavior. To benefit from open, you’ve got to be open, believe open, see open, live open, want open.

So thanks, Econ, for stopping through; you’re welcome to return. I’ve always thought that you’ve done good work — but hey, realize that you can’t coopt this by writing about it as though it’s a company to be acquired or business practices to be assimilated. Keep at it, hopefully you’ll get it over time. I wish you well back at the altar.

Advertisements
Standard

7 thoughts on “Under the Economist’s microscope

  1. From what I’ve read of the popular economic analyses of SUV-vs-small-cars, the point is not that it improves the world to drive an SUV, but that it’s a rational economic decision, absent any force that imposes the costs of the externalities — safety of other drivers, environmental effects, aesthetics — on the decision-makers. Which is not to say that most people necessarily make their car purchase decisions in an economically rational manner, but, you know.

    Naked Economics uses this very issue to discuss the role of government in surfacing externalities and making the private cost equal to the public cost. As a transit-riding, car-not-owning, comfortable-enough-to-care-about-the-environment sort of guy, I have a visceral abhorence for the “urban SUV” phenomenon, but I think that economic analysis of this nature helps the problem more, long term, than it harms. Clear thinking on the forces currently in place to promote such buying patterns is extremely important if we want to affect interesting change on those patterns, at least IMO.

    I wasn’t thrilled with the Economist article either, and I think that it suffers from some of the same “survivor bias” analysis that characterizes a lot of attempts to paint all of open source with one unifying brush, but I think it was more right than wrong in helping people without much direct experience understand where open source is most likely to be successful (and therefore likely disruptive). That might help people who oppose some or all forms of open source work, and even possibly lead to some battles lost, but I think that the model is strong enough to stand up to even informed competition, and I hope it will also help people looking for some sort of lateral move with their business to see how they can participate in open source to their own benefit. (Really participate, I mean, not just label-and-spin.)

    (Guessing that I can use html links in here, sans preview — apologies in advance for ugliness that may ensue.)

  2. Apologies for being a skeptic of your reasoning, but this rant does show a general disregard of basic economics. Be thankful for the priveledge that you have been given, socio-economically and educationally. Then realize that 99% of the rest of the world lives under much different conditions than California.

  3. After sleeping on my snark, I realized I should probably offer an example. I do respect what you’re trying to do here.

    > Corruption is the grease on the axles that drive the wheels powered by the diesel of the sovereign state. When you come to our town, we invite you in, we see what you’ve done everywhere you’ve gone, everywhere you’ve been. Yet being open, we let you in. We even sit down and share scotch. But you won’t get it without becoming a part of it.

    What does this mean? Just pointing at ambiguous “corruption” is pure “madness of the crowds” politicing.

    The difference between their town and our town is that, in their town, information is delivered expediently and concisely to the hands that are most able to act on it. Until the “open town” can deliver on that promise, it will be relegated to counter-cultural status of those with enough freedom to place ideology over common sense.

    This is economics, not dogma we’re talking about here. While I agree there is quite a bit of unfortunate overlap, just calling it out accomplishes nothing. Read Hayek: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Friedrich_Hayek

  4. Jordan, I have no idea what I meant. Heh, not really, but I think that your challenge is right on.

    Open source has a long way to go to make itself as nimble, efficient and visionary as its proprietary counterparts. That is the work of the next generation of open source practitioners, of which I consider myself a member.

    And yes, it’s absolutely about economics. But economic theory has a way of being pushed through political action… in which case, the open source community must operate both as an engine of work and as a political lobbyist. Our economic behavior is our contribution to society, and this idea of moral or ethical business and economies of generousity is something that can bring to the fore of socio-political discourses.

    Hmm, definitely something to ruminate on in person methinks.

  5. > And yes, it’s absolutely about economics. But economic theory has a way of being pushed through political action… in which case, the open source community must operate both as an engine of work and as a political lobbyist. Our economic behavior is our contribution to society, and this idea of moral or ethical business and economies of generousity is something that can bring to the fore of socio-political discourses.

    I like this! It feels much more genuine (and well thought out) than the original post. I’d love to see this kind of thought expounded upon in your posts!

    I’m not sure if you’re going to be able to swing it on charm alone; all apologies, but Ms. Hunt is far sexier than you =o)

  6. Heh. Damn, you’re right. I guess I’ll have to make up in wit what I lack in bodaciousness. Ms Hunt indeed has me beat on that count. 😉

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s