The Whig interpretation of Information: Is open source inevitable? I

The following is an attempt to trace some of the outlines of an element of the ideology of technology, it is not a detailed sociological analysis. The standard political model favoured by many interested in information technologies point to the supposed inevitability of openness. It is a techno-libertarianism that hovers over all discussion, our standard right-on refrain. Certainly it can be regarded as a goal, but more along the lines of a regulating ideal, rather than a Five Year Plan. This is a polite way of saying we don’t back any of this up with action. The argument for openness is in its essence a historical one, which notes that once there had been an information technology that somebody attempted to control, there followed a breakdown of this control, with a free and open exchange following. I draw a parallel with Herbert Butterfield’s

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Is open source inevitable? II

[If open source is to have its day, some implications must be examined]

Technologies of privacy:

  • Old style : passive, reactive, the default position. 
  • New versions?: Opt-in, active privacy; specifically designed ways of deciding what we share, and with whom.

Transition away from previous economic models. Manufacturing and the mass ownership of capital has been on the wane for generations. Consider the MIT model of spinning-off industries. According to this study “Entrepreneurial Impact: The Role of MIT”, if one were to regard companies developed by MIT alumni, collectively they would form the 11th largest economy in the world. Technologies must be proven, thus they must be peer-reviewed as well as tested by the market. If everybody can use the same ideas (goodbye proprietary anything), if open source and the intellectual commons get their day, then the matter of ‘economic viability’ is set aside in favour of “technical viability” and ‘environmental viability’. The new models will have to incorporate recognition that there are diseconomies of scale, and what we called economies of scale were all too often a fetishization of size. This is a realization from the realm of network theory, which brings the long tail to bear on our everyday lives. It is not merely a niche element – the long tail is not long tail, as it were. (E.F. Schumacher had an intimation of this in his collection of essays, Small is Beautiful.)

How do we then differentiate between old and new? It becomes a matter of serviceWill digital mean that we are all eventually a part of the service economy? We may be able to set our businesses apart according to how we deal with our customers. It may be a matter of approach rather than cost. A fully open source world, with respect for the intellectual commons, is utopian. Too much seems to stand in its way, but elements of this can be used to consider alternatives to developing nations making the mistakes that the industrial and post-industrial nations have made. Consider the principle of the long tail applied to national economies. Of course there will factors that lead a country to be wealthy by virtue of some natural resource, as long as unsustainable practices are maintained, but an open principle towards information will in theory allow innovation to take place anywhere. We see this in the emergence of ‘regional hubs’ and ‘centres of excellence’, but the best example yet, in terms of something that will actually last (unlike Dubai), is Singapore. CNN has fifty reasons to account for this (about 20 are compelling, but that’s enough for me). For long enough have people considered the first part of McLuhan’s “Global Village”. We need now to give greater attention to the ‘village’ part. That is the locus of differentiation, and of what we can manage, to make our actions environmentally and socially sound.

Facebook, my friend, you are entering a world of pain.

I quite enjoy impromptu battle with people getting furious over Facebook’s redesign on one side, and then there is the “hey, keep it cool man, like, change happens, y’know?” brigade who have set themselves up as the default voice of reason. I side more with the former than the latter, since there’s a difference between acceptance and acquiescence. The posture of the latter holds that we pay nothing for these online services, and basically falls in with the pre-digital mindset of “you’ll take what you’re given”, or “any colour as long as it’s #3B5998“. It is the position of the Dude, who just accepts what happens. By default, I am put in the position of Walter by those who are, like, way more chilled out about it all. Facebook abides, man.

 I told that Kraut a fuckin’ thousand times, I don’t roll on shabbos.

Well, fine. I am he. But think about what exactly the dissatisfaction that people feel with these changes. It’s not simply a manifestation of chutzpah (as someone following in the footsteps of a convert to Judaism, I’m assuming I can say that now) for us to point out that all is not well.
The Dude: Walter…
Donny: They already posted it.
Walter Sobchak: Well they can *fucking unpost it*! 

You know what, they can change Facebook, because we are what it runs on. It is of course not the case that we have paid for a service with cash, but do we think they are providing a service to us for free? Of course not, they get our time, they get our attention, and they get the revenue from every advertiser wanting to hit exactly the target-market that we represent.

This is the new logic of open source being brought to bear on ever more realms, and we need to expand our conceptual vocabulary accordingly. We no longer pay for services with money, but with our attention, with our time. That is as valuable as money, if not moreso, because in the murky world of Facebook’s revenue stream via ads, they can tell marketers that there is billions to be made in the upcoming world. In capital terms, Facebook is not worth anywhere near the numbers thrown about (such as $100bn), what is behind such fantasy figures is the concept of there being a social ecosystem which this website represents. Those billions that don’t come in via direct advertising are to be found right behind our eyeballs. Too right we can complain.

Finally, of course Facebook is going to listen and make more changes, because though Bebo and Myspace etc. are dead in the water, they died because they deserved to. They were no kind of a challenge. The situation we are in now is that Facebook is in the position of AOL, a stupid monopoly of closing off information. Creating a wall to keep information out equally keeps it in, and every information technology has proved that to be a foolhardy strategy in the long term (even the guilds only kept the print press out of Paris for 20 years). The prize of openness and market-share is Google’s to grab.

The Fallacy of Invention

In the sixth chapter of his book, The Nature of Technology, “The Origin of Technologies”, W. Brian Arthur considers how technology is actually brought into being. It follows on from his observation that a technology is the exploitation of a natural phenomenon or principle to a specific end. As such, he notes that:
‘Typically several groups of inventors have envisaged the principle in action at more or less the same time and have made attempts at a working version of it. Such multiple efforts and filling in of key pieces make it difficult to speak of “invention” in the sense of being first.’
He goes on to give an example of this, but consider it in the abstract for a moment. If we cannot say that invention in the “hard” sense of the lone genius tinkering away and creating something civilization-altering, then what type of reconsideration does this call for us to make?

Well, if we move from a “hard” notion of invention (which, as an aside, is a part of the myth of creative genius that was adopted to a large extent by those who wrote about rather than practiced scientific and technological investigation. I’m looking at you Mary Shelley…) to a “soft” one, we can then have either:
   (a) the idea of co-operation, with science as a collective enterprise, which is a standard refrain of the sociology of science, and finds support in the advent and successes (though subject to diminishing returns?) of Big Science.
   (b) the idea of there still being an individual innovator, but now their particular works contributes to an external, even transcendent “atmosphere” of innovation. This is the view that notes both Leibniz and Newton worked on the calculus in the c17th, and so there was something in the water that caused them to make these advances.

Well, I have problems with both these views (which is funny, since I was the one who proposed them). The first is a crushingly dull, pragmatic view of science. It is descriptive in a way which doesn’t inspire further investigation. It seems content to accept this view as a fact of reality, without setting it up as a platform for further investigation. “This is this is this, and that’s that.” The second, though extreme to some, as it will appear to set up technology as a disembodied force, an autocatalytic entity that exists unto itself. Radical though this interpretation may seem, I read enough science fiction for this view to not go far enough (italics = I really mean it).

The question I want to pose is the following: if we allow that the standard idea of invention is sufficient, do we go on finessing it into newly watered-down versions (development, for example), purely to conform to some ideal whereby words precisely mirror something found in a natural state in reality? Clearly not, as this suffers the fate of infinite regress – “turtles all the way down”. Still, words are imprecise, and we still use them, so we need to borrow a bit from column a, and a bit from column b. From the first in terms of invention we need to recognise the messy aspect of social reality, and from the second we need to recognise that there is something weirdly sci-fi about technology when considered in the abstract. It does seem to have a logic of its own, and so perhaps our social reality ought to reflect this, rather than trying to force invention, scientific creativity, and technology (the sources of this information age) into an out of date model of high-industrial capitalism.

Invention needs to be brought into line with what we know about ideas and how they permeate and power our information civilization. We are a network society, in Manuel Castell’s phrase, and we are moving away from the zero sum game logic that resulted in the destructive rapacity and exploitation of the c19th entrepreneurial model. Even the high priests of this (such as Rockefeller, Carnegie), knew their way of doing things could not be maintained. They sought to atone after the fact via their good works (giving us insidious nonsense as found in that hateful coinage “philanthrocapitalism”), blighted in their thinking by a tit-for-tat, linear logic. From the very beginning, however, we must see the structural conditions of any situation.

Caption reads: “Forty-Millionaire Carnegie in his Great Double Role. As the tight-fisted employer he reduces wages that he may play philanthropist and give away libraries, etc.”

Back to invention, and we see that invention is always a part of a network of ideas, building upon previous advances, and drawing upon the work of others (in terms of both actual physical, back-breaking labour, and the other mentally creative sort). The short-cuts taken by a business to increase productivity are also part of a network, but one that impacts others, elsewhere, at some other time. Why should our social reality (in legal, political terms) not directly recognise this? The creative commons and open source are a direct and logical corollary of social reality’s inherently networked nature. Invention (here a synecdoche, not a straw man…I hope) is evidence of this, and we need greater fidelity in our conceptual apparatus when thinking about technology.