Last week, my friend Greg DeKoenigsberg posted an article about Jaron Lanier’s negative comments regarding open textbooks. At almost very same time, I happened to stumble upon an article Jaron wrote back in 2006 criticizing Wikipedia.
The common theme is Jaron taking issue with what he calls “online collectivism,” “the hive mind,” and even “digital Maoism” (ouch!). You might call this same concept “crowdsourcing” or “the wisdom of crowds.” It’s all in the eye of the beholder, but the guy clearly does not have much love for wikis or the works of collective wisdom they create.
So I had to ask myself: Why so negative, Jaron?
Is Jaron really a hater of free culture, as Greg claims in his article? Is he an enemy of the open source way? Or is he just a smart dude warning us about the risks of taking the wisdom-of-crowds concept too far?
Fortunately for us, Jaron published a book earlier this year entitled You Are Not A Gadget. So I took a few hours and read it last week to see if I could answer some of these questions.
At times, the book is scary smart, with precise analysis from a man who clearly questions everything, and is in a better intellectual position to do so than most (the section on social media and its redefinition of friendship is especially interesting).
At other times it read like a college philosophy term paper. And occassionally, especially toward then end, it devolved into nearly unintelligeble (at least by me) ravings about things like “postsymbolic communication” and “bachelardian neoteny” (Michael Agger’s review in Slate calls him out for this too).
But wait! Right near the beginning of the book, I found this paragraph:
“Emphasizing the crowd means deemphasizing individual humans in the design of society, and when you ask people not to be people, they revert to bad, moblike behaviors.”
Hey… I kinda agree with that…
[Read the rest of this post on opensource.com]
My friend Jeff Mackanic pointed me to this article from last month’s Wired Magazine where Kevin Kelly makes the assertion that there is a “new socialism” emerging in the form of large-scale collaboration projects online. He discusses contributions to Wikipedia, Flickr, even Red Hat’s own Fedora as examples of village-sized or greater online collective work.
In the context of my recent post regarding what Ayn Rand would think of open source, I think Kevin makes a leap where I might not follow him.The clue is right in the article:
…the leaders of the new socialism are extremely pragmatic. A survey of 2,784 open source developers explored their motivations. The most common was “to learn and develop new skills.” That’s practical. One academic put it this way (paraphrasing): The major reason for working on free stuff is to improve my own damn software. Basically, overt politics is not practical enough.
Where Kevin Kelly reaches the conclusion that contributors working together to “improve [their] own damn software” is a new form of socialism in action, I might take the view instead that this is a new form of individualism.
A form of individualism where people are free to pursue their own self interests, yet do so in such a way that they are still in harmony with those around them. The goal of open source developers is individual pursuit, as the paragraph above from the article makes clear… yet a byproduct of these individual pursuits is a collective good: better software, a better enyclopedia, etc.
If it was socialism, the collective good would be the end goal of everyone. But ultimately, the open source model is based on the individual working for the good of himself in harmony with others, not on being a mindless cog in a much bigger wheel.
But I’m no philosophy expert, what do you think?
At the beach over the weekend, I read Anthem by Ayn Rand. Now before you write me off as the kind of guy that would go around telling people he reads Ayn Rand for fun, let me just say in my defense that this is really the first full Ayn Rand book I have read. And it is only 105 pages long. Having read this, I’d totally read the CliffsNotes for The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged (which is like 1200 pages long).
Rand originally titled Anthem as “Ego” and you can definitely tell why. It is about a futuristic world where people are kinda back in the dark ages technologically-speaking, and live in a collective where people have numbers rather than names, are assigned jobs for life, and have forgotten the word “I” (yes, totally annoying… in the first ten chapters, the main character uses the royal “we” to refer to himself).
It seems like Ayn Rand has been back in the news lately, and I’ve seen her name bandied about in political arguments quite a bit, especially regarding healthcare reform. So it made me think, if Ayn Rand’s core philosophy was about maintaining the supremacy of the individual, what she calls “rational self-interest,” and she rejected the idea that the collective good should be put before the good of the individual, what would she think about the open source movement?
After all, I used to remember seeing stories with proprietary companies referring to open source as socialism all the time, although it doesn’t seem to happen as much these days. More and more of the biggest companies are embracing open source software and the concept of open source is more mainstream than ever.
So surely Ayn Rand would hate open source, right? Not so fast. Here are two good reasons why Ayn Rand might totally dig open source: