Regardless of whether you listen to proponents of free markets, intellectual property rights, the capitalist system, you will hear essentially one explanation for our success: ownership. In fact, listen to the right politicians and you may even hear that we can solve our problems by “increasing ownership.” But what does this mean? The basic argument is this: there is a causal relationship between the level of ownership of an innovation with the level of innovation. You will hear the argument that if people don’t own the results of their innovation, and aren’t free to profit from their work, that there will be a sharp decrease in the rate of innovation. If musicians don’t own their songs and can’t effectively control their sale, then you won’t get as much good music. If software developers or movie makers can’t reap the rewards of their innovation, then you won’t get the same level of innovation in new applications or movies. Such advocates cite the critical link between the abstract ownership of such “intellectual property” and the prosperity and welfare of our society. Even the most hardened Open Source advocate has to admit that there is some superficial logic there…
After all, what has open-source really achieved? Can its innovations be compared in any way to those of the capitalist, ownership economy? Capitalism (or some hybrid of capitalism and the military-industrial complex) brought us virtually every significant application or operating system in existence today. Open Source made them less bug-ridden, sometimes more compatible or user friendly…not exactly innovations on par with the original. Capitalism brought us Brittney Spears and “Diddy”…OK, so brush aside the sarcasm and try to name a musician who has contributed more to our modern culture through Open Source methods—recognizing that if you can’t that’s a pretty bad sign. Same with cinema—sure, www.homestarrunner.com is semi-open source in that it’s at least distributed for free, but even that contains an assertion of ownership. It’s not looking like Open Source is going to win the innovation debate…
In my last post I presented a slightly sarcastic critique of the fallacy that correlation doesn’t equal causation. There is a strong correlation between ownership-based societies and innovation—one argument is that the Cold War ended because, absent innovation, the Soviet Union just couldn’t keep up. You can certainly correlate that lack of innovation with a lack of ownership. The traditional opposition to ownership-based systems has come in the form of some hierarchal model of centralized planning like Communism. Perhaps this is the weak link in the otherwise solid argument that ownership is necessary for innovation: capitalist systems exhibit more than just ownership—they also are far less hierarchal than the traditional comparison of the old USSR. While the US economy is still based on hierarchy, it is many smaller, competing hierarchies at play, compared to the single and unified hierarchy of a centrally-planned economy. So let’s embrace our fallacy for a moment: there is definitely a correlation between less hierarchy and more innovation—is this also a cause?
The polar opposite of the structure of hierarchy is rhizome, a network of independent and interconnected nodes. As a system with far less hierarchy than our current system, is there also a great potential for open-source innovation in rhizome? Ultimately, can a rhizome structure create the same system of rewards that likely leads to innovation in our capitalist, ownership-based society? The short answer: no. However, rhizome has demonstrated its ability to spark innovation as rapid or more rapid than ownership-based capitalism—the difference, however, is a fundamental one: rhizome innovation is not achieved by one or many individuals, but is rather an emergent phenomenon of their collective interaction. This is a fundamental difference, for not only is rhizome innovation not dependent on an ownership-system, it is also fundamentally impossible to be owned.
Understanding emergent innovation requires at least a superficial understanding of innovation—and I say “superficial” not to suggest that the reader is incapable of a greater understanding, but because at this point science does not fully understand how emergence works. What is understood is that for some reason the interaction between independent nodes creates something that is greater than the sum of its parts: emergence. Take the human brain, for example: billions of independent but interconnected neurons communicating back in forth somehow produce the emergent qualities of intelligence, consciousness, and imagination. Even though computer “brains” have been assembled with far more transistors than the human brain has neurons, they appear to be fundamentally incapable of replicating these most basic capabilities of the human brain. This is probably because they are organized in a hierarchal manner, not in the independent but interconnected manner of the human brain. It is for this reason that hierarchy cannot utilize emergent innovation, whereas rhizome structures can.
The current situation in Iraq is an example of emergent innovation in direct competition with hierarchal, ownership-based innovation. The ownership and reward environment in Iraq by the US forces and Iraqi government is qualitatively similar to that in the US economy: there are individual actors assigned to “innovate” solutions to the military and political problems there (such as a close friend who works for the Air Force Test and Evaluation Center, who is trying to solve the problem of improvised explosive devices), and there is an ample award system—both for military members and for capitalist defense contractors—should any of these individuals or groups of individuals innovate a useful solution. On the other side of the equation there is a largely rhizome-structured resistance that lacks the ownership or reward system for their innovation. Non-the-less, this semi-rhizome resistance has benefited from the phenomenon of emergent innovation to keep pace with, and by some estimates out-innovate the hierarchal occupying forces and transitional government. The struggle in Iraq is worth studying perhaps more for this battle of hierarchal vs. rhizome innovation than for the more immediate geopolitical impacts.
Returning to the more general theme of “Open Source Innovation,” where do we stand? It is my opinion that Open Source innovation is a broad failure when compared to capitalist, ownership-based innovation. This is largely because Open Source innovation has framed the conflict according to the rules and assumptions developed by the capitalist, ownership-based innovators. If, however, the Open Source movement recognizes that its strength lies with its potentially rhizome structure, and if it leverages that strength to compete on a diagonal rather than in a head to head battle, then the emergent innovation of rhizome will prove to be more capable than the ownership-based innovation of capitalism. And perhaps most importantly, if it is successful the innovations of rhizome will be fundamentally un-ownable: they will provide an egalitarian benefit for all that will help to affect a gradual societal transition towards rhizome structure as a whole.