Money Ruins Everything

by John Quiggin on May 17, 2008

Dan Hunter and I have a paper coming out in the Hastings Communications and Entertainment Law Journal, which economic and technical innovation is increasingly based on developments that don’t rely on economic incentive or public provision. The main examples, obvious enough for readers here, include open source software, blogs and associated technical and social innovations, and wikis. Abstract and links to SSRN over the fold.

Paper is at SSRN (not paywalled, I hope)

Abstract:
In the economy of the 21st century, economic and technical innovation is increasingly based on developments that don’t rely on economic incentive or public provision. Unlike 20th century innovation, the most important developments in innovation have been driven not by research funded by governments or developed by corporations but by the collaborative interactions of individuals. In most cases, this modality of innovation has not been motivated by economic concerns or the prospect of profit. This raises the possibility of a world in which some of the sectors of the economy particularly the ones dealing with innovation and creativity are driven by social interactions of various kinds, rather than by profit-oriented investment. This article examines the development of this amateur modality of creative production, and explains how it came to exist. It then deals with why this modality is different from and potentially inconsistent with the typical modalities of production that are at the heart of modern views of innovation policy. It provides a number of policy prescriptions that should be used by governments to recognize the significance of amateur innovation, and to further the development of amateur productivity.

{ 64 comments }

1

Allen Varney 05.17.08 at 4:49 am

Military theorist John Robb has presented similar arguments in the context of modern guerrilla warfare — what he calls “open source terrorism” and the global bazaar of military tech. War is increasingly being waged at the smallest scale by creative amateurs armed mainly with cellphones and web forums, working not for profit but for a “plausible promise” that can take various forms. Robb develops these ideas on his blog, Global Guerrillas.

2

Peter 05.17.08 at 8:27 am

Given that many of the people who contribute to open-source software development are paid by their employers to do so, I would think that the adjective “amateur” in relation to this mode of productive activity is badly chosen.

3

Knows about open source 05.17.08 at 8:36 am

Open source is driven to a huge degree by companies such as Intel, IBM, HP, etc. as a legal alternative to fighting Microsoft. The idea it is a bunch of people working for fun and recognition is a bit silly. Amateur productivity is certainly not the correct way to think about it. If that is the basis of your analysis then the paper isn’t worth reading.

4

abb1 05.17.08 at 9:12 am

The piece is 54 pages long, but based on the abstract – yes, it’s a non-capitalist mode of production. These things always existed on the margins – artists, inventors, enthusiasts. The question is: is it about to become the dominant mode of production? Or, at least, substantial? To those dealing with software/internet stuff it certainly seems that it is (or already has), but outside of the software/internet world? I’m not so sure.

5

Seth Finkelstein 05.17.08 at 9:20 am


http://whimsley.typepad.com/whimsley/2008/05/linux-again.html
Tom Slee:

“Open source, like any new phenomenon, is changing. Our understanding of it has to change too. The Linux Foundation report prompts us to re-examine some of the neat and clean dichotomies that were floated around ten years ago and see if they still hold water. A few do, but many don’t.”

6

Roy Belmont 05.17.08 at 9:46 am

abb1:
“These things always existed on the margins – artists, inventors, enthusiasts”
On the margins of capitalist endeavor. Once they had become marginalized by capitalist endeavor.
Think the Clovis point was spread by licensees? We’re so brainwashed into disregarding the methods of survival that got us through umpteen hundred millenia it’s nigh unthinkable there was a time, the majority of our actual history in fact, when people learned rapidly from each other, unimpeded by syndicates of privilege. Not that there weren’t scammy opportunists even then, but back then they were at the margin. There haven’t always been priesthoods of greed.

7

John Quiggin 05.17.08 at 9:57 am

#1 and #3 – I think these comments are missing the central point. To be sure, corporations have taken up open source software, blogs, wikis and all sorts of other innovations, just as they took up the Internet in the boom of the late 90s. And they are certainly doing some good work in developing these innovations. But they are following the lead of amateurs in all these areas.

8

abb1 05.17.08 at 10:01 am

Fair enough: in the last couple of hundred years it’s been a marginal phenomenon. Perhaps this is indeed a new Renaissance or something.

9

Mr Art 05.17.08 at 10:30 am

As a consequence of the developments discussed above, highly capitalized intermediaries are no longer necessary for the creation,production, dissemination, and use of culturally significant content

It’s a shame to see John repeating this [new] chestnut. You really think all the makeup artists, sound & light technicians, cameramen, etc. that get paid by the current copyright system will have an equivalent in the amateur sphere?

10

abb1 05.17.08 at 11:30 am

…makeup artists, sound & light technicians…

The thing about new socio-economic models – it’s impossible to predict how they might end up working. They emerge after a long sequence of trials and errors.

How would you explain agri-subsidies and the futures markets to a 15c farmer? You kill a pig, take it to the town and sell it, how can it be any different?

11

Tim Worstall 05.17.08 at 11:48 am

I’m afraid this confuses me immensely.

“The most
obvious example is the weblog, where individuals produce vast amounts of
commentary, opinion, diary-notes, criticism, and observations, almost
always with no economic motivation”

And:

“Because these creators produce content for the love it and are prepared
to work for free—or even to lose money to feed their desire to create—their
existence threatens the economic assumptions of commercial providers of
content.”

That it’s playing merry buggery with the extant commercial providers of content sure. But it’s the “no economic motivation” part that confuses. Is “the love of it” not an economic motivation? The various things that you describe, the showing off of technical abolity, for example, social interaction etc?

Yes, there are huge and howling gaps in my knowledge of economics, but isn’t it a usual assumption that people try to maximise utility, rather than purely profit or other commercially measured things?

So the definition of “economic motivation” as being purely profit or similarly commercially measured matters seems a little odd. Or is this more a measure of my own lack of knowledge of the subject?

If “economic motivation” is indeed described purely in those cash/profit terms then my quibble goes away. But is that a normal assumption?

(No, I haven’t gone through all 54 pages, just the first few. Perhaps this is dealt with later?)

12

John Quiggin 05.17.08 at 12:09 pm

Obviously, Tim, there’s a sense in which all motivations are economic motivations. But there’s also a commonly used narrower sense (broader than profit but not encompassing social interaction pursued for its own sake), referring to activities directed towards increased access to market goods and services. Since “economic” in the first sense is redundant, I suggest you read it in the second.

13

John Quiggin 05.17.08 at 12:13 pm

#7 The article discusses this problem, particularly at pp 242-3.

14

Seth Finkelstein 05.17.08 at 12:17 pm

“.. they are following the lead of amateurs …”

That could be said of anything that gets corporatized.

See another post by Tom Slee:

http://whimsley.typepad.com/whimsley/2008/04/linux-grows-up.html

“Open source started off as a small-scale set of projects done mainly by volunteers. As the scale and scope of open source projects an increasing number have provided their contributors with some money (augmented perhaps by a waitressing job). Now a few of the most successful have hit the big time and become full-scale economically important commercial enterprises.

Things change. As open source software has matured and expanded it has become both more unlike the rest of the world and more like it. It will be fascinating to see what comes next, but the Linux Foundation report has made clear that open source has crossed its commercial Rubicon, and there is probably no going back.”

15

lemuel pitkin 05.17.08 at 1:32 pm

You really think all the makeup artists, sound & light technicians, cameramen, etc. that get paid by the current copyright system will have an equivalent in the amateur sphere?

This points up the next logical step for this argument — from arguing about *whether* the amateur modality is important, to specifying the activities in which it is more and less important.

Software, music, fashion, social science don’t require significant capital or large-scale division of labor, so the amateur mode works very well. Computer hardware, movies, health care, architecture, not so much. And then there are the hard sciences, which can be highly specialized and capital-intensive, but have a publicly supported infrastructure that allows something like the amateur mode.

As with most of these questions, it’s when you go from yes or no to where, when and how much that you start to learn something.

16

Mikhail 05.17.08 at 3:17 pm

There is a huge differences between volunteers and amateurs. I totally agree with a point made above that most of such social movements including open source are started and progressed by highly skilled individuals, usually employed in the same profession as their voluntary activities. This activity simply provides an opportunity for these people to engage in projects they like as opposed to which they get paid for. This has no bearing on their level of skill which tends to be highly professional. Amateurs they certainly aint. Even if a person is doing something as a hobby, they tend to be highly proficient in it.

17

Kaveh Hemmat 05.17.08 at 4:01 pm

The distinction between amateurs vs volunteers is key. Clearly a lot of people doing unpaid activity like blogging or writing open-source software are using skills they gained from doing similar things professionally, for pay.

Software, music, fashion, social science don’t require significant capital or large-scale division of labor, so the amateur mode works very well.

It’s true that social science and humanities scholarship is done by individuals without formally organized cooperation, such as co-authoring papers–most people don’t co-author publications in history and the humanities. But the vast majority of useful work is done by professionals who are getting paid for the work, not volunteers. I don’t see people writing the kind of stuff that you would publish in a journal and putting that up on blogs or wikipedia.

But if I’m not mistaken, developing software, especially powerful software like linux or Open Office, takes a lot of people working together. I think if anything the fact that you can do a certain kind of work alone is a disincentive for doing it on a volunteer basis. This because a lot of the enjoyment of something like an open-source software project is, I think, the socialization, working on a project you love with other people who love it too. My guess would be that for a professional volunteer to do something like an open-source project, the benefit is that you have control over who you’re working with and what you’re working on and how you work together, which you wouldn’t have when you’re doing something for pay.

The volunteer activity that social scientists and other academics seem to do most is blogging, which I think is more social than writing articles. For me, that’s a lot of the attraction (at least for posting on blogs, I don’t have one of my own), I’m interacting with people more than I generally get to do when I’m working on my dissertation. So if I’m going to do publishable work, I’m going to try and get the professional recognition for it that comes from publishing it in a known journal, not just posting it on a website of my own, or wikipedia.

18

abb1 05.17.08 at 4:36 pm

My impression is that quite often the way it works is this: you download a piece of software that is close to what you need, you modify it by adding functionality that you need (the usual clone/modify practice) and then you upload it back. Some of it will branch out into various dead-ends, but the main version (or a few branches) might evolve into something extremely good and valuable – in contrast with commercial software designed by a small group of engineers – that’s bound to be either too generic or too specialized.

See, turns out evolution works better than intelligent design.

19

lemuel pitkin 05.17.08 at 4:53 pm

the vast majority of useful work is done by professionals who are getting paid for the work, not volunteers.

Sure, but that’s not the question. The questions are (1) is more useful work done on an unpaid basis than in the (recent) past, and (2) if so, does this call for changes to laws and other institutions in those areas where amateur labor is most common? John Q. says yes on both questions, and I think he’s right. Altho his argument would gain clarity & precision if he took some time to lay out the areas where the amateur mode is not relevant.

developing software, especially powerful software like linux or Open Office, takes a lot of people working together.

But not a big capital outlay — that’s important. Equally important, software development may involve a lot of people without a real division of labor as such. The various tasks involved can be carried out independently and all require more or less the same skills. This is very different from the division of labor that you find on a movie set, in an operating room, on a construction site, etc.

a lot of the enjoyment of something like an open-source software project is, I think, the socialization, working on a project you love with other people who love it too.

Here I agree completely.

20

novakant 05.17.08 at 5:54 pm

But not a big capital outlay—that’s important. Equally important, software development may involve a lot of people without a real division of labor as such.

That both really depends on the type of software. The field of computer graphics, for example, is so complex, that the programmers (and even the users) tend to be specialists. The development costs are high, and while there are free alternatives to the commercial programs, they are not widely used, not even by amateurs.

Generally, I view these open source / amateur content discussions with a bit of skepticism: while I really appreciate the community that provides me with tools to make my life easier and the creativity of the amateur content providers, there is a danger that the general public starts to think that everything could and should somehow be for free and that the appreciation for professional software development and content creation will be diminished. These things will always cost a lot of money and involve a lot of hard work by professionals that want to be paid well.

21

Quo Vadis 05.17.08 at 9:00 pm

Open source is driven to a huge degree by companies such as Intel, IBM, HP, etc. as a legal alternative to fighting Microsoft.

‘Huge’ is an overstatement. The scope of open source software is as broad as the needs and imagination of programmers. There are, however some very important areas of software where an odd relationship has developed between commercial and open source entities that is both symbiotic and competitive. This is where companies like Sun Microsystems, IBM, Red Hat Software among others come into the picture. It comes down to the question: How do I make money selling something other people are giving away for free?

The answer to that question lies in the basic flaw in the open source model from the end user’s prospective: open source developers tend to solve problems they have or that they find interesting. They don’t necessarily respond to criticisms like: “You have to be a programmer to understand the user interface.” or “The documentation for this software is written in Polish.” or, most importantly “This bug is costing my company $100,000/day in lost revenue!”

I developed a system for a customer on Fedora, Red Hat Software’s open source release of their commercial Linux distribution. The client decided to use a commercial product to communicate with their legacy systems. The vendor of the product didn’t support Fedora because in order to warranty their product they needed more cooperation from the Linux developers than they could get from open source projects. That’s where Red Hat came in. My client upgraded to Red Hat’s commercial product, and my software ported over without a hitch. The upside for the rest of the world is that my client is now subsidizing the software used by millions of people for free.

On another point, I’m not sure whether people outside the industry realize how important the open source movement has been to the development of the Internet as we know it. Under the traditional commercial software development model where license fees might be based on the number of people who benefit from the use of the software, the license fees for the software needed to operate this blog might be $100,000/year. Imagine how different the Internet would be if those rules still applied.

Now, how about a little love for Richard Stallman, the mad monk who started the ball rolling and his church, the ?

22

Quo Vadis 05.17.08 at 9:04 pm

We need that comment preview function.

That link title in the last sentence should read The GNU Project?

23

seth edenbaum 05.17.08 at 9:51 pm

Throughout history most of those prizing observation have considered financial gain as secondary, tertiary or even counterproductive. Those who prized invention thought more of gain. Modernism, modernity or Sputnik put inventors in the academy, changing its focus and affecting its goals: a social scientific acknowledgment of the inevitability of self-interest became a Platonist/Panglossian faith in its truth. But now the affect has gone both ways and inventors and “innovators” [and god how I hate that word] are recognizing the relation of curiosity to communication. Maybe they were lonely? It’s good to know, but many of us, including those who write and read this blog (if they looked at their own choices) have always taken that logic as their own. How many discussions have there been on the lack of republicans in the academy?
Maybe now the neoliberals are losing their hold as well.

24

Cranky Observer 05.17.08 at 10:18 pm

> They don’t necessarily respond to criticisms like:
> “You have to be a programmer to understand the
> user interface.” or “The documentation for this
> software is written in Polish.” or, most
> importantly “This bug is costing my company
> $100,000/day in lost revenue!”

I have implemented quite a few medium- and large-scale commercial information systems, and I can assure you that commercial manufacturers stop listening to you the minute they cash your 80% progress payment. “Working as designed”, “won’t be fixed in this release”, “submit an enhancement request”. But unless you have a very big maintenance contract you can forget about any individualized attention after the salesmen have left the scene of the crime.

Cranky

25

Quo Vadis 05.17.08 at 10:58 pm

@24

In case it wasn’t clear, a contractual obligation for maintenance and support is the whole point of the “licensed” open source business model I described.

26

Zora 05.18.08 at 12:23 am

We’re so quiet that few people know about us, but Distributed Proofreaders is an all-volunteer effort that has prepared nearly 13,000 free ebooks over the last seven years. We’re getting better at it, too.

You can find our books at Project Gutenberg, but also at manybooks.net, mobipocket, and other ebook sites. Many of them don’t credit us in the slightest. Sometimes that makes me feel sad; sometimes I just feel like a secret mistress of the universe.

I survive, barely, on what I make copyediting and proofreading books for pay. But my heart and soul are in the books I do for free.

27

Walt 05.18.08 at 1:34 am

That’s a really beautiful comment, Zora.

28

Jake 05.18.08 at 2:37 am

In case it wasn’t clear, a contractual obligation for maintenance and support is the whole point of the “licensed” open source business model I described.

Massive parts of the gcc/gdb development (elf support, making it perform well on RISC architectures) were done by Cygnus under just such a model.

There are other complements to open source software that have subsidized development: servers (Apache), books about how to program (Perl), internet advertising services (Firefox).

While there is a lot of interesting sociology to be done around open source software, thinking of it as done by amateurs or for non-commercial reasons is going to lead one astray.

29

John Quiggin 05.18.08 at 3:36 am

Although we talk about open-source software among other examples in the article, one of the points we make is that its a mistake to focus exclusively on this area. Not being a programmer myself, I’m more interested in efforts like that mentioned by Zora.

30

seth edenbaum 05.18.08 at 5:45 am

More important than volunteerism as such: Craig Newmark turns down offers to sell Craigslist because he likes his job, makes a very good living and isn’t interested in becoming a billionaire. Self- limiting capitalism is not idealism, it’s acknowledgment that enough is enough and that wealth is a byproduct -and maybe a pleasant one- but not a the driving force. What’s new is the context.

31

Cheryl Morgan 05.18.08 at 8:24 am

John – if you want to take this further I suggest a fruitful area of research might be a comparative study of laws regarding non-profit corporations in different countries. The USA has a system that is remarkably friendly to what one might call “cultural” amateur activities, including allowing people to offset expenses incurred in such activities against taxes. In contrast the UK makes it very difficult for non-profit organizations to operate unless they are clearing “charitable”. You may also want to try to contact the UK’s Commission on Volunteering which has a brief to encourage amateur activities and has a refreshingly (for the UK) broad view of what this means.

Various pontification from me here and here.

32

James Wimberley 05.18.08 at 3:00 pm

#22: “We need that comment preview function.”
I quite agree with quo vadis. But how do we give our CT masters an incentive to put it back? A free blog is a show put on by oligarchs for proles for status rewards, like a mediaeval pageant or execution. We can enjoy, take part if allowed, or stay away: but not complain.

33

Marshall 05.18.08 at 3:44 pm

Dr. Quiggin,

I found your section on open source more convincing than the other sections in that it struck me as a bona fide innovation that took (and is taking) place outside the paradigm for innovation and constitutes an anomaly to the paradigm. But as you said in the paper, plenty of profit-making corporations stepped in to “support” the technology, i.e. make a killing off of the work that others did.

Why those others did not seek to accrue the profit themselves might be an interesting topic to debate, but it was precisely the operationalization by traditional economic actors that made the technology widely available and caused the epic changes (if any) in human interaction. The economic model of innovation is not brought into question in its essence, nor are there obvious implications for policy. By supposedly lacking a regulatory space for amateur innovation, are we somehow suppressing promising advances?

I was not at all convinced by the historical narrative about intangible capital goods at the beginning of the paper. I detect an over-eagerness to announce changes of world-historical importance.

34

agm 05.18.08 at 6:46 pm

Well, if the paper isn’t focused on software, you did a shitty job with terminology. “open source” is explicitly referring to software and how people relate to each other regarding software. There’s already enough idiocy resulting from people forgetting that, thank you very much.

35

agm 05.18.08 at 6:49 pm

(See the page linked therein to see what I mean if the link’s content isn’t clear enough.)

36

Tracy W 05.18.08 at 7:16 pm

We’re so brainwashed into disregarding the methods of survival that got us through umpteen hundred millenia it’s nigh unthinkable there was a time, the majority of our actual history in fact, when people learned rapidly from each other, unimpeded by syndicates of privilege. Not that there weren’t scammy opportunists even then, but back then they were at the margin. There haven’t always been priesthoods of greed.

When and where weren’t there priesthoods of greed or syndicates of privilege? Please name times and places? How about the guild system in medieval Europe, or the secret knowledge of navigators in pre-European-contact Polynesia? Or the caste system of India?

37

tom s. 05.18.08 at 7:32 pm

Trackbacks seem to have gone the way of the dodo. Too bad. Is it tasteless to promote my too-long-winded for a comment response?

38

Roy Belmont 05.18.08 at 10:56 pm

Tracy W:
“When and where weren’t there…?”
In 8,427 BCE, for about 5 months, in what is now the Languedoc. Periodically before and after that.
More to the point: hyperbole to illustrate the utter dominance of the commons by those priesthoods, contemporary, the near-absolute indoctrination of the common people by those priesthoods, contemporary and historical, and the seizing of the wheel of human destiny by those priesthoods and their acolytes and slaves.
Which is why we’ve gone through the guardrails and are now essentially airborne.
Your argument is a little sister to the GM food argument that, since the Mayans obviously intentionally rearranged the maize genome by selective breeding we get to do whatever we want to the genes of anything at all.
The presence of scammy opportunistic assholes in the Late Pleistocene does not, it cannot, and it will not rebut the assertion that we are now, as a socially-constructed mammalian enterprise, so over-run with humanoid parasites and parasitic institutions that we can barely move.
Barely move, that is, in a direction that is not immediately beneficial to those parasites and their institutions.
Life before the pasteurization of dairy products was brutish and short, as we all know from being taught that over and over in elementary school.
But then there were those odd moments when some of us stood on windswept ridges high above valleys teeming with good things to eat, where the air and the water were clear in all directions, and our health and intelligence were gifts from the culling hands of predation and winter and disease.
Or evolution, as it were.
Currently public enemy #1, for all the foo-fraw and hullabaloo about its lack of intellectual acceptance as concept in the fundamentalist camp.
Each phase of our developing seems inevitable because its appearance on the timeline is of necessity in linear relation to what came before. What I wanted to put forward was the idea that it didn’t have to go this particular way, that the main part of why it did was the slow insidious assumption of centrality to human experience by formerly marginal pseudo-parasites, whose patterns of behavior have now become the dogmatic template for nearly everyone. American Idol! Fannie Mae! Vista!
Richard Stallman’s open-source vision appears naturally out of the rainbow flux of 60′s semi-utopian idealism, which is also where the only real resistance to what we’re now though possibly not for much longer calling “global warming” had its origins.
Zora’s editing-for-love. Jimmy Carter’s yeoman diplomacy in the Middle East.
These non-fiduciary drives were once central motives of human experience. My point.
We had to be, and were, bent and broken to arrive at this crass and anxious juncture. This process of taming and domestication is now built into most of the social constructs our children encounter.
Not that there weren’t ancient Polynesian versions of the modern greedhead with his violently-enforced proprietary “secret knowledge”, or even Cro-Magnon versions. Mumbo-jumbo. Yadda-yadda.
That there were once more of the better ones, that they appeared more often and were encouraged and more often revered, and that they had more room to move, and be.

39

lemuel pitkin 05.19.08 at 2:48 pm

Roy-

If you put an extra space between your paragraphs, your comments will be *much* more readable.

Just a little bit of open-source editing for you…

40

Tracy W 05.19.08 at 3:22 pm

The presence of scammy opportunistic assholes in the Late Pleistocene does not, it cannot, and it will not rebut the assertion that we are now, as a socially-constructed mammalian enterprise, so over-run with humanoid parasites and parasitic institutions that we can barely move.

It may however rebut the assertion that “there was a time, the majority of our actual history in fact, when people learned rapidly from each other, unimpeded by syndicates of privilege.” Which, after all, is the assertion you in fact made, and have not yet supported.

I am also interested in which time periods you believe that we were not so overrun with parasitic organisations that we could barely move.

41

seth edenbaum 05.19.08 at 3:42 pm

“Zora’s editing-for-love. Jimmy Carter’s yeoman diplomacy in the Middle East.”
Carter’s a war criminal who’s angling for glory as a humanitarian. Google “Kwangju.” His very public pursuit of the Nobel was obscene,
And as far a priesthoods are concerned, what’s the academy? And what’s is it when it sees itself as outside the wider culture, looking in, when all study is the study of externalities?
What’s a priest who studies his flock rather than living among them? Rationalist monasticism rather than priesthood seems to be the model now.
Not a good sign.

What’s occurring is a small but significant shift away from an ideal of individualism and towards a more social, and social democratic, aesthetic. The change in sensibility comes first, the change in politics follows. All basic stuff but in reverse order of the model followed by the high priests of individualism who make up the the majority of academics these days.

42

abb1 05.19.08 at 4:55 pm

I am also interested in which time periods you believe that we were not so overrun with parasitic organisations that we could barely move.

I think those are more like trajectories thru space-time, rather than time periods. Religious sects, occasional movements. Evolution hasn’t been kind to them so far, apparently It has different plans.

43

paul 05.20.08 at 1:00 am

Is the current version of open source where, say, the Mozilla Foundation takes in somewhere north of $60 million a year, all that different from the days when any educational institution could get a source license to Unix for the cost of media, and an entire national email and file-transfer system (uucp) was hidden in the discretionary budgets of local managers at AT&T and a few other companies? (And for that matter, is open-source really so seriously innovative rather than just a way of getting the last 30 years’ corporate and academic research results into common use?)

What you’ve got, I think, is a combination of the usual creativity and volunteerism that happens when society creates a surplus with (as noted by others) the ability to use the enormous capital invested in computers and networks by big corporations to get big visible impacts at relatively low marginal-dollar costs. With a dollop of the old patronage system coming in the form of donations by folks who won the corporate-finance lottery. But all of the people doing this wonderful work still need to have day jobs.

I also think that open-source innovation seems particularly anomalous in the face of an industrialized economy that has specialized in eliminating the surplus available for volunteer and community work in previous decades. Think of all the civil organizations and hobby groups that have withered since the 70s because fewer and fewer ordinary people had either the spare time to participate or the money to donate. Now only
something with negligible marginal cost, like blogging or (some) open-source development or distributed proofreading, can survive, it seems.

44

Ray Davis 05.20.08 at 8:50 pm

Although Florentines got to see a big new statue of David for free in 1504, it wasn’t carved by an amateur. It was paid for by people whose goals wouldn’t have been so well met by something locked away in a private residence.

The key isn’t professionalism vs. amateurism but how those with capital view “intellectual property.” What drives open source (and open access journals) is increased recognition that closed models are comparatively ineffective at meeting common goals (including our employers’). By paying for our labor to go into open source we get fewer bugs, more features, and can fix problems as needed without negotiating possible license violations. As concepts like copyrights and patents are extended past the point of profitable return, more profitable routes will be sought out.

45

cm 05.21.08 at 7:09 am

I have little doubt that OSS will obtain and maintain a substantial part of the software business (perhaps better described as “software activities”).

However, there will be ample scope for non-OSS commercial software.

Two related factors that are usually underestimated are the learning curve (for newcomers) to become familiar enough with a complex enough piece of software, and the superlinear growth in software complexity when making changes/extensions (e.g. adding new features or replacing algorithms or data structures), esp. when supporting things outside the original architecture or originally envisioned use of the product.

Both of those translate to an ever increasing barrier to entry as a software evolves and gets larger.

The level of investment, ability to organize and sustain the required workforces knowledgeable about the product, and keeping them motivated to do things that are not in their immediate interest, is usually only obtained in a commercial or semi-commercial (e.g. academia with industry-backed funding, or R&D institutions) context.

And it can be plausibly expected that even OSS products will fall prey to the same problems as all things that are getting too big, opening up opportunities for nimbler replacements that won’t necessarily start out as open source.

That an organization would choose to develop their proprietary product instead of the OSS product would then be a matter of barrier to entry into the OSS product, and possibly fact or perception that the proprietary technology is superior or more easily managed.

46

abb1 05.21.08 at 8:52 am

…possibly fact or perception that the proprietary technology is superior or more easily managed

Yes, it’s the all-powerful “cover your ass” phenomenon. If I am the CTO of a corporation, I’ll choose microsoft or oracle, because whatever happens, no matter how miserably it fails – no one is going to question my judgment, I’m not going to lose my job and get blacklisted because of my choice.

47

Roy Belmont 05.21.08 at 9:26 am

#41
The Clovis point. There are no citations available.
No doubt there were contemporary scammy opportunists who tried to proprietize that kind of knowledge. Logic says they were not in the majority.
None either for the additional assertion I’m making that the Neanderthals laughed and sang, extrapolated from their grave sites. Anybody who took that much care for their dead also sang. People who sing, laugh. Are laughing and singing Neanderthals in your conception of pre-history?
Possibly you believe that currently we are not so overrun with humanoid parasites and parasitic organisations that we can barely move. If so, hang on, watch closely.
#42:
Carter’s role in Kwangju looks from here to have been more like he was in over his head and relying on bad advice. I doubt, with no citations to back it up, that Carter’s decision leave the Korean resistance dangling in the wind was as cold-blooded as you seem to see it. And it seems way too cynical to view his current activities as nothing but megalomania.
Altruism takes a lot of forms, not all of them heroic action or sacrifice. My unsupported assertion is that before we began to dominate the natural world, most of our history, altruism was so integral to survival it was essentially what we were.
The Medici may have given us a nice big statue and some buildings and paintings, but those unknown ancestors gave us everything – language, music, tools – for free. It is a symptom of this profane time that those gifts, and the spirit in which they were given, are trivialized.

48

lemuel pitkin 05.21.08 at 2:47 pm

My unsupported assertion is that before we began to dominate the natural world, most of our history, altruism was so integral to survival it was essentially what we were.

I think this is essentially true but the picture is a little more complicated.

Hierarchy and exclusive “property” are common throughout the natural world. The success of human beings came precisely from our ability to get rid of the normal primate dominance hierarchies and repalce them with much more fluid, egalitarian social structures, allowing larger groups and more complex forms of cooperation.

But that replacement was never complete. Human history shows a constant tension between egalitarianism and hierarchy. And maintaining the more egalitarian structures required constant vigilance. A commonplace of pre-agricultural societies is the efforts people make to pull downn anyone who looks like stablishing themselvves at a level to far above the group. there are even arguments that anti-Semitism and similar forms of prejudice draw support from this strain of ancietn huamn pyshcology — that it was the human ‘egalitarian revolution’ that created the possibility of both altruism and genocide.

Human beings dominate the natural world because of our unique capacity for egalitarianism (probably a better term than altruism.) But that very dominance has allowed us to partially return to the older mammalian patterns of dominance and exclusion.

49

abb1 05.21.08 at 3:25 pm

“The first man who, having fenced in a piece of land, said, “This is mine,” and found people naïve enough to believe him, that man was the true founder of civil society.”
– Jean-Jacques Rousseau

50

cm 05.21.08 at 4:42 pm

abb1: I was arguing from the point of view of a company/entrepreneur developing their own proprietary software, not using somebody else’s.

At least from a technical perspective, there is a barrier to entry into working on an established complex (OSS) product, and/or tracking other people’s external changes and coordinating with them.

Having your own product that you know and control, and that has everything that you want to offer to the particular market you want to address, may be preferrable.

And who’s to say existing OSS stuff represents the top of the line in terms of technology? There are always new approaches of addressing old and new problems which may be better along some dimension, not necessarily speed of execution.

51

johne 05.21.08 at 6:31 pm

“…there was a time… when people learned rapidly from each other….”

Besides the possibility that Clovis point knappers could in fact have been part of a closed group, guilds, priesthoods, and trade secrets aren’t the only mechanisms that slow innovation. Anthropologist George Foster, the developer of the theory of Limited Good, found that a potter’s innovation in the small Mexican town where he did much of his research was not taken up by others of the trade nearly as quickly as Foster expected. When a few eventually began to use it, his questioning seemed to reveal that such “early adopters” had spent decades convincing themselves that they had come up with the idea independently — only in that way did they feel comfortable using it.

As a matter of fact, it could be argued that the community had developed the equivalent of a patent system, in which an innovater would have a reasonable time in which to benefit from their invention free from competition, before it was taken up by the larger society. You could even argue that it is an open-source, socially-based, patent system.

Worse is the phenomenon that many of us who have spent much time in third-world societies have witnessed — an automatic suspicion of innovation, and uneasiness or outright fright in the face of change.

52

abb1 05.21.08 at 7:04 pm

I was arguing from the point of view of a company/entrepreneur developing their own proprietary software, not using somebody else’s.

But does it ever happen anymore? I don’t think so, unless it’s some simple and very much company-specific application. Nobody develops any in-house software these days…

53

Quo Vadis 05.22.08 at 12:44 am

Abb1,

You need to get out of whatever pigeon hole you’re stuck in. There’s as much if not more custom system and application software being developed today as ever.

In fact, the availability of free systems software like Linux, Apache, Java and PHP means that a greater percentage of a company’s software budget is available for custom development. Free software is actually creating more opportunities for professional software developers, not fewer.

54

cm 05.22.08 at 5:56 am

abb1: Neither did I mean a company developing their own product for internal use, instead of using an external (OSS or otherwise) one.

What I meant was a company developing a proprietary product for sale to others, competing with other products (including OSS) out there.

From the proprietary developer’s perspective, their own product is (1) under their control, (2) they know it — unlike some “organically” grown and complex OSS product on which generations of ambitionados have laid their hands, and (3) they start without the baggage and possibly with a better technical approach.

From the (power user) customer’s perspective, you have a choice between an OSS product with a maintenance contract and a proprietary product with a maintenance contract. What you think works best for you depends on the vendor’s salesmanship, and in cases some technical merit aspects of the product relative to your needs.

55

cm 05.22.08 at 6:11 am

quo vadis: You are assuming that software budgets stay the same, per user capita or whatever base metric. Arguably one thing that Linux etc. have enabled is the server farm. I don’t see how that would free up money for internal software. Server farms have to be operated, and the maintenance contract cost (if applicable) probably scales with your server farms. I wouldn’t think Redhat charges the same whether you run 10 servers or 1000 (but I don’t know).

As far as I can see at least in “supporting” departments, internal (or contracted out custom) development budgets are matched to staff cuts in the job descriptions that are automated away.

Website/database development/operation vs. phone reps, automated resume mills vs. human recruiters, “employee/manager self service” vs. clerical staff, etc. Where I work (mid-size corporation) the secretarial and recruiting staff has been cut down to the bone, to the point where only VPs and up have a secretary.

56

Tracy W 05.22.08 at 8:40 am

No doubt there were contemporary scammy opportunists who tried to proprietize that kind of knowledge. Logic says they were not in the majority.

This is irrelevant. Your assertion was that “There haven’t always been priesthoods of greed.” You have not provided any evidence to support this assertion.

None either for the additional assertion I’m making that the Neanderthals laughed and sang, extrapolated from their grave sites. Anybody who took that much care for their dead also sang. People who sing, laugh. Are laughing and singing Neanderthals in your conception of pre-history?

Before we get onto laughing and singing Neanderthals, are we agreed that there is in fact no evidence to support the idea that we believe that “there was a time, the majority of our actual history in fact, when people learned rapidly from each other, unimpeded by syndicates of privilege.”?

Sorry to be so pedantic about this, but your basic response to any doubts I express appears to be to produce a gush of more ideas. This is not conducive to the learning process. I want to get things settled about the state of evidence behind your earlier claims before we move on to your later claims.

Possibly you believe that currently we are not so overrun with humanoid parasites and parasitic organisations that we can barely move. If so, hang on, watch closely.

So you believe that we were always so overrun with humanoid parasites and parasitic organisations that we can barely move?

57

abb1 05.22.08 at 9:03 am

Cm, sure, of course software companies develop proprietary software, that’s their business, this is how they make money. If you’re talking about software companies, then I’m not sure I understand what you’re saying in #50.

QV 53, what kind of custom software? Give me an example. I was thinking about applications like firewalls, monitoring systems, web servers, office/document management systems, proxies, load-balancers, VOIP, instant messaging, etc. – that kind of stuff. This is (as I understand) where you typically face a choice between commercial and open source. Is there really any in-house development (beyond trivial customizations) of this kind of stuff anymore?

58

dg 05.22.08 at 11:51 am

A few points:

1) GNU/Linux has in the space of 15 years from being a kitchen table project destroyed the commercial Unix market and derailed Microsofts plans for servers. That this would happen was obvious, at least to me, in 1995 when I was urging my then database company employer to port their product to GNU/Linux. The big advantages OSS has over commercial software is that it does not have a marketing and sales organization and does not have layers of product and development managers. So if something would be useful, or even just fun, there is no-one to tell you NO, don’t work on that, it’s not in the project plan. No-one to tell the customer that feature z is only available at extra cost. No reason for developers to make the program deliberately incompatible with other systems. No pressure to ship defective products to make this quarters goals or protect the stock price.

The real reason GNU/Linux took over the OS market, except for desktops, and is taking over the embedded market, and that Apache took over the web server market is they are simply better. More reliable, faster, more adaptable than the commercial equivalents.

OSS changes the IT ecosystem. I support myself by doing consulting, mainly with Postgresql, an open source database. Most of my clients could not exist or succeed without open source.

One, a quite successful startup operates several dozen hefty database instances, tens of terabytes, the Oracle licensing would be several million dollars, plus half a million per year for “maintainance”. Instead they pay nothing for Postgresql licensing and for about half of my time consulting to advise, tune and troubleshoot. They also use Linux. There is no way they could have started or succeeded if they were using all commercial software.

Google would be simply unthinkable without OSS. The whole architecture depends on compute nodes costing as near to nothing as possible and on being customizable to make large scale clustering practical and economically feasable. Just installing NT-server-edition on a few hundred thousand systems and keeping them patched s, never mind actually paying for the licenses, would be impossible. If NT or commercial Unix was all that was available there would be no Google.

3) Richard Stallman is literally a saint. It may take a while for him to be canonized, but it would be justified.

4) Amateur does not mean unskilled. It means done for love. Most people do better work when they are interested in it or if they are talented that way. OSS thus tends to have better developers than commercial software, who are better motivated and a have sufficient time to do the job right.

5) Amateur production is not exclusive to software. Contrary to the Imaginary Property industry bs, there would still be music even if it didn’t all get paid for. There have been “garage bands” for longer than there have been garages. Artists, writers, and poets are also largely not in it for the money. Indeed, the example of samizdat shows that not only do you not have to pay them, you can’t even shut them up.

6) The internet enables large scale collaborative amateur production. Linus Torvalds wrote the start of Linux, but relied on the GNU compilers and utilities (largely created by Richard Stallman) to have a functioning system. But it would have remained a curiosity without the thousands of other contributors. As it is, Linux and some other OSS projects are faster and more effective at software development than any commercial organization. Windows Vista, years late and arguably inferior to the earlier XP is only the most obvious example.

59

cm 05.22.08 at 4:15 pm

abb1: Let me try again. And first of all, I don’t mean to argue against anybody’s position, but rather provide an additional perspective.

Whenever any software product (including OSS) becomes “too big”, its development stagnates, as it becomes ever more challenging to make changes, add new features in a coherent manner, and indeed maintain or obtain an oversight and understanding of the whole system. Even when it’s not about features, the same goes for implementing more efficient or otherwise better algorithms.

Of course, I’m not talking about stable base utilities that have a well-understood and limited feature set.

Eventually this will express itself in an untenable learning curve and punitive overhead when doing any work on the product, as well as likely the product becoming sluggish and lagging in new features.

This opens up opportunities for competing products that start from a clean slate.

In any area, when somebody thinks they have invented a better mousetrap, they usually don’t hack an existing product that is centered around the old mousetrap technology, and where perhaps the non-core (non-mousetrap) parts, e.g. the user interface, are not particularly great.

Even in OSS you have many competing implementations in various areas, each with distinct advantages, and differing feature sets, targeting different interests. And even in OSS, new products share little code from those they replace, so I don’t see code reuse as a major tradeoff component.

Now combine this with the fact that a new product development need not be OSS.

60

cm 05.22.08 at 4:22 pm

dg: Not trying to invalidate anything you say, but there is one phenomenon (not flaw) in “open source” — the “amateurs” will generally only be motivated to pursue, or give preference to pursuing, the needs (and if you will whims) of their own, their immediate community, and perhaps a larger community of which they feel part.

They will not generally accommodate specific client needs, or needs of a community foreign to them (in a professional sense).

That leaves plenty of opportunity for commercial ventures, based on OSS or not.

61

Quo Vadis 05.22.08 at 4:38 pm

cm @55

I don’t want to sound rude, but it’s obvious from your first paragraph that you don’t have a lot of experience with open-source based software systems. FYI, I make the better part of my living building and selling custom software systems and services to small to medium sized companies, and I’ve been doing this for almost 20 years now.

abb1 @57

I’m currently re-engineering a legacy accounting system system for a company that provides customized accounting services for hedge fund managers. Previously, I worked on a web system for a realty company, an email monitoring product for a startup, a transaction processing system for an e-commerce value-added network …

For many companies, computer systems are not just for generic HR, CMS and accounting functions, they also implement the core business the way an assembly line does for an auto manufacturer. These systems are highly specialized and typically represent a significant part of the company’s capital investment.

62

dg 05.22.08 at 8:10 pm

cm@60

There is some truth in what you say, in particular some some application topics are underserved or require specialist inputs, eg tax software.

They will not generally accommodate specific client needs, or needs of a community foreign to them (in a professional sense).

A thought experiment: enter a feature request to some active OSS project and the same request to the corporate competing product. See who accomodates you first.

There is a way to get what you want with OSS: send in a patch.

63

Roy Belmont 05.22.08 at 10:32 pm

#56:
I’m sorry, but that’s mostly all hyper-rational gibberish. There is no evidence. There never will be.
And so ends that part of our discussion.
This strident demand that you be provided documentation for things that otherwise will have no validity is a rhetorical trap rationalists use to discount anything they can’t own and manage.
My paranoid side sees a deeper agenda behind the stridency. My poetic side wonders what it might be.

#58:
Samizdat was a remnant artifact, a relic of what was once common enough it was just how things were. Like weeds in a vacant lot. Bears in the zoo.
It stands out as minor and exceptional because we’ve been so thoroughly nobbled by wanna-be hivelings and their drones. We all get born under these giant insectile pseudo-human aggregates which have almost immortal physical lifespans and powers way beyond individual human capacities. Our Distributed Masters and their support teams. But they aren’t human, which will be their eventual undoing.
For aesthetic reasons, Tracy W – because aesthetics are the ultimate morality. Reason falls away, beauty remains.
Stallman’s quixote-opposition to that hive-predation is what in my book recommends him for canonization.

64

cm 05.23.08 at 1:55 am

quo vadis: Certainly, I don’t know much about small companies.

Comments on this entry are closed.