Sunday, November 13, 2005

A Critical Look at Open Source Innovation

Open Source is great—there is no doubt that when a source-code (say, LINUX) is opened up to a global network of interested parties, then those parties make quick work of fixing bugs and making minor improvements. Same thing with FireFox, OpenOffice, etc. But is the open-source model capable of spawning the very innovation that led to the operating system, the “office” application or the web browser? How many of the open source products currently available are a first-generation innovation? Aren’t they all just a free and less bug-ridden version of something that was first developed under the umbrella of intellectual property rights? If we didn’t have intellectual property laws, would we still have the kind of fundamental innovation that defines our world—and, for utopianists, give us the hope of a Star-Trek future where technology has solved all of our problems?

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, 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.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

So much for Global Warming...

Looks like global warming is no longer really a problem, thanks to the intrepid work of the Pirates of Somalia! Take a look at these environmental crusaders...

What? How are they solving the problem of global warming? Bear with me. Basically, since the Kansas Board of Education has approved the teaching of theories other than evolution, the theories of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster is finally legitimate. And the Church of FSM has come up with some remarkable science about global warming, viz. that it is caused by a decline in Piracy:

Or maybe, just maybe, this is a parable that correlation does not equal causation. Hmmm, no, that doesn't sound like something the public is ready to accept.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Battle Cry: November '05??

Say “May ‘68” today on your average street corner and people within earshot will probably think that you’re talking about somebody’s birthday. Outside of French intellectuals and those who haven’t yet forgotten their class in modern European history, the phrase doesn’t carry much meaning anymore. But it did at one time. Will “November ‘05” carry a similarly powerful message in the near future?

What happened in May of 1968? ( ). In short, there was a sudden outbreak of student protests in Paris, loosely organized around communist ideals, anti-Vietnam War sentiment, anarchism and frustration. After massive marches in Paris the uprising was joined by 10 million workers on strike, and street battles with the police ensued. The crisis was literally a full-blown insurrection. But it ended as quickly as it began, and the conservatives under de Gaulle increased their strength in the next election.

What is happening now? John Robb at Global Guerrillas has some interesting comments: France was one of the first to transition to the State-Nation, and then on to the Nation-State. The current wave of riots and arson engulfing France is perhaps best viewed as the death throws of the French Nation-State (see The New Map). France is arguably the most xenophobic and racist of all the “western” nations—just as it was far more anti-Semitic than Germany prior to the rise of Hitler. Yet multiculturalism and globalization have led to the presence of a huge—yet poorly integrated—underclass of minorities in numerous French slums. This underclass—especially the quickly growing masses of North African and Islamic youth—feel justly alienated from a French culture into which they will never fully integrate. But what is at least as interesting as the cause for the uprising is the manner in which this uprising is emerging. How is it similar to the events of May of 1968?

Are the events of November, 2005 and May, 1968 parallels of each other? May’68 had well articulated organizing principles, but there were several of them, and they were often in conflict with each other. Nov’05, on the other hand, seems to have no consciously articulated organizing principle, but rather seems to be an emergent phenomenon derived from a broad sentiment. Will it go anywhere? Is a conscious articulation of the rationale behind the uprising needed to facilitate its continued growth and impact, or is rhizome more powerful without direction, or with only emergence providing guidance? Will there be any lasting change? Can the Nation-State of France (or any other Nation-State for that matter) be transformed by anything other than complete destruction? Can this uprising be quelled by a compromise that actually addresses the problem, or will it fizzle like the events of ’68? We’ll have to wait and see…

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Pipeline Mercantilism

It's a slippery subject: How does a freely-exchange-traded commodity become subject to mercantilistic influences? Well, here's one example:

Russian and China Agree to Pipeline Project

How is this mercantilsm in action? Well, oil only goes where the infrastructure exists to ship it. Market forces will fund capital projects to build infrastructure to ship it where there is demand--but the key is that this pipeline project is not operating under the auspices of market forces, but is instead being subsidized by the two respective governments. So these government subsidies are intentionally directing market forces--this is subsidy mercantilism. It certainly isn't new, but we are definitely seeing more of it with regards to energy. So far almost all mercantilistic efforts have focused on negative barriers--making it cheaper for oil to flow the direction that a government wants it to, for example. The more dangerous phase in energy mercantilism will come with the increase in positive barriers--legal or financial barriers that make it more expensive for oil to flow any direction OTHER THAN the route desired by a given government. The critical difference here is that any nation willing to spend money can lower barriers through subsidy. Only nations with either 1) oil on ther own territory (or that must pass through their territory), or 2) sufficient military force to exert control over oil that does not directly flow through their territory. So the transition from creating negative barriers to creating positive barriers to oil flow is the "tipping point" between peaceful energy mercantilism and non-peaceful energy mercantilism.

At some point it is more expensive to create negative barriers than it is to erect positive barriers. At that point the global game of energy mercantilism will turn violent.