Pointer to post:
I found Mitch Kapor’s recent blog entry on this topic thought-provoking, pretty much in spite of itself. I see plenty of clichés and flaws in his attempt at structured argumentation. A high-school rhetoric teacher would tear Kapor’s composition to shreds.
For starters, he detracts from his argument by overstating his thesis at the outset, and then immediately weakening it with rhetorical diffidence.
Putting his most assertive foot forward first, Kapor states: “Open source heralds a global paradigm shift in social and economic value creation of enormous proportions, the extent of which is almost completely unappreciated.” Yeah, yeah…actually, lots of people—too many, in fact—have waxed overappreciative of the open source movement and the supposed “paradigm shift” it represents.
Then he shuffles his feet with the following hedging language: “If I am right, then we are in for interesting times as the irresistible force of open source meets the immoveable object of corporate entrenchment.”
Excuse me, Mitch: “if I am right”? Didn’t you just assert that you are right? If you’re not asserting that you’re right, then why should we read any further? If you want to engage our minds in your line of argument, you need to have some fundamental confidence in your authority to speak on the topic.
In spite of all that, I found his fundamental question worth considering: “Does the open source model apply beyond software?” Specifically, he seems to be wondering aloud—without definitively answering—whether the principles of open source communities have a parallel in the functioning of biological systems. The next statement is another classic utterance in the annals of self-laceration: “If I actually knew biology, I might be able to answer that question.” Much of the rest of the piece mostly cycles around in that same “if I knew enough or thought deeply enough about this important issue then I might have something useful to contribute to this overlong blog entry” mode.
When Kapor does get to the point, it’s a bit of a disappointment. He says: “I am ignorant of current practice, but I would look at information sharing going on in biomedical research as to whether there is an active community-based dynamic going on or not, and if not, whether there could be.”
Huh? So, is he asking whether open-source principles are implemented in the scientific field of biomedical research, or in the functioning of biological systems, or both? He equates “open source” with some notion that he calls an “information commons.” He isn’t clear at all whether this “information commons” is the same as the older notion of a “public domain.” He seems to also include the criterion of “dynamics of active contribution and community participation over time” in his definition of open source, though it’s clear that an open source project can lapse into passivity and limited participation without ceasing to be open source. He also seems to contrast open source—however defined—with “private ownership of assets,” as if the two economic models are mutually exclusive; in fact, Linus Torvalds owns Linux, but distributes it freely under an open-source license.
Kapor’s focus shifts to the question of whether open-source is inconsistent with innovation. He closes by asserting: “Empirically, I would say the fostering of a common results in improvements in products over time, which we ordinarily assume requires competition to achieve.” Huh? What empirical evidence do you cite in support of this assertion? None. Also, you seem to imply that an open-source community is a competition-free zone—when, in fact, it may be intensely competitive community of technical wizards trying to outdo each other in advancing a common project toward common objectives.
OK, now, the core question of whether open source principles operate in biological systems. What precisely are these open source principles? I would posit three:
• Uncensored creation
• Unfettered transmission
• Unconstrained consumption
We can cite these core principles without bringing such unessential notions as “community,” “commons,” “contribution,” and “ownership” into the discussion. Evolutionary biologists regard the individual—not the species—as the appropriate focus of natural selection (yeah—that’s a controversial position in some circles, but I side with the late Stephen Jay Gould in preferring to focus on the individual’s struggle for procreational success). The three “open source” principles that I posited can be viewed as “freedom-friendly” behaviors that, when adopted by all individuals in a particular population, foster continuous, unrestrained innovation. (In some sense, the shared species-wide behaviors—plus genome, body plan, habitat, and artifacts—constitute a biological “commons”).
Innovation potential is the key to open source, as it is to evolutionary success. Some software (or biological) innovations may eventually prove adaptive to new conditions, and hence be “selected” by them. As conditions change continuously, innovations will oscillate back and forth in terms of their “fitness.” Some innovations may never prove adaptive, but are still innovations, and shouldn't be squelched. Remember what I said about "uncensored creation." Innovation potential must be preserved, and censorship is the enemy of innovative potential.
Freedom-friendly software-development governance structures are essential for our collective innovation and adaptation (put more simply: freedom = survival).
Hence, open source.