Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Open Source Ethos

The intern book club has turned into my favorite reason to read hyper-music/tech-focused non-fiction. The last selection, and my favorite thus far, was Jonathan Zittrain's Future of the Internet.

I found most interesting his discussion about what the internet was built to do: 1) perform only actions universally useful since specific problems could be fixed later and, 2) trust that all its users were working towards the common good. In short, the engineers built dumb pipes that don't care what information is being sent or where it's coming from or going to.

It's insanely naive and endearing to me that people built a network on the assumption that no one would want to mess with it intentionally. I heart geeks. But those assumptions, especially about the lack of malicious intent, are how we arrived where we are today: a glorious place that's revolutionized how we interact with each other and a place where spam and viruses and copyright infringement abound.

What I find so fascinating about the theories underpinning the internet and code and collective endeavors like Wikipedia is that the way they're built run counter to capitalism. In the brick-and-mortar world, we pay people for knowledge, solutions to problems and functionality. Our Constitution specifically encourages creativity by granting people an exclusive right to license for a time their creativity for a cost. The value is created by retaining your right to keep information scarce and then profit from its sharing.

In the digital world, websites are easy to build because you can grab code from any other website; solutions to problems are shared freely so someone else probably has already fixed your problem and left you with time to fix another problem; and the network is flexible enough to accommodate any functionality you want to build on top of it. The value instead is created by sharing information to build something greater. This student gets that and his professor certainly doesn't.

So, are the "problems" with the digital revolution only those of mindset? That we're giving away things we used to sell? And now are we trying to overlay the old economy of goods-for-money onto an open source ethos when instead we should be rethinking altogether?

I don't know, but it's nice to stumble upon a new way to view the same problem, which is why I'm interested. So check it out: the book's available free via Creative Commons license or here's an interview for just a taste.

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