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The objective benefits of open source

He's right: it's simply a question of metrics. With open source code, you have various objective metrics – speed, size, portability etc. When it comes to designing interfaces, it's very subjective – and hence hard to ensure that things always improve through iteration. But these problems are not about “openness” or the “collective” approach as such: top-down, centralised efforts have just as much difficulty determining what is “progress” for areas where judgement matters, and just as little problem when there are clear metrics.

Zoom Jaron Lanier
Source: Jaron Lanier
Lanier seems to have another dig at openness in his recent book You Are Not a Gadget. I says “seems”, because I've not read it: I have many other tomes I'd rather tackle first, assuming the following is a fair summary of its argument (which his other writings suggests is the case):

In his 2010 work (You Are Not a Gadget) Lanier criticizes "the hive mind" and describes the open source and open content expropriation of intellectual production as a form of Digital Maoism. He finds that it has retarded progress in computer science and innovation in music. He attacks some of the sacred cows of today including Wikipedia and Linux in this manifesto, Wikipedia for its function of "mob rule" by anonymous authors and editors, along with the weakness of its non-scientific content and its bullying of contributors who have genuine expertise in their field. He also argues that there are limitations of certain aspects of the "open source" and "open content" and that they lack the ability to create anything truly new and innovative. He further argues that these approaches have destroyed opportunities for the middle class to finance content creation, and have concentrated wealth in what he calls "the gods in the clouds": people who, rather than innovating, insert themselves as content concentrators at strategic times and locations in the "cloud".

The fact that he trots out the old FUD about open source being unable to innovate – maybe he's heard of this thing called the internet, which was created almost entirely using open protocols and open code – is perhaps an indication of the tiredness of his arguments.

Similarly, the idea that the middle class have fewer opportunities to finance content creation overlooks the fact that people are now creating unprecedented quantities of content for *free*, purely for the love of creation – you know, that “l'art pour l'art” thing again. It's true that not every one of them is a masterpiece, but guess what? That's always been the case: the vast majority of creation has *always* been mediocre. The difference is that today we are more aware of how much rubbish there is because we have unparalleled access to it.

It is this rich, variegated aspect of abundance that Lanier seems not to appreciate when he writes:

The ideology that drives a lot of the online world – not just Wikileaks but also mainstream sites like Facebook – is the idea that information in sufficiently large quantity automatically becomes Truth. For extremists, this means that the Internet is coming alive as a new, singular, global, post-human, superior life form. For more moderate sympathizers, if information is truth, and the truth will set you free, then adding more information to the Internet automatically makes the world better and people freer.

Hackers care about quality, not quantity – this is what makes free software so good. And openness is about being able to build on what has gone before – to make things better, not just pile things up. Moreover, hacker culture puts a high value on interpersonal relationships. Key elements of the open source methodology are giving and collaboration. Those work well because hacker culture also places a premium on attribution: failing to acknowledge that you have built on the work of others is a serious solecism. This reduces the risk of free riders draining the goodwill of a community.

In other words, hackers and open source are precisely the forces that Lanier should be praising, since they are closely aligned with his desire for an allegiance to people, not machines. It's a pity that someone with his pedigree doesn't recognise that.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or For other feature articles by Glyn Moody, please see the archive.

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