Nick Carr suggests some reading, including a provocative post from Jaron Lanier. To extend the link chain just once more, Jaron’s post was made as somewhat of a response to an article by Freeman Dyson. Phew.
Lanier’s point is that work in private can produce good things, or, more pointedly, better things than more public, open-source methodologies. My initial reaction to this was not exactly one of surprise.
Jaron’s portrayal of open-source as being eminently capable of producing polished clones of existing artefacts, while struggling to produce large-scale paradigm shifts makes a lot of sense. Of course, one has to couch all these claims and descriptions in some meliorating language. Namely, even if you, unfairly, view Linux as a purely derivative product, its continued development, making it a better and better product, does change the operating system game in terms of redefining what a potential customer expects from a product, and what that customer is willing to pay for. However, it is quite a bit harder to make the argument that Linux, in and of itself, represents a bold new direction for operating system design.
Importantly, one does not need to categorically decry either open- or closed-source development to consider Lanier’s submission. What seems clear is that the act of copying an existing artefact has the significant advantage of inherently providing a shared goal for all contributors. There is a platonic truth at the core of the effort captured in the object being copied itself. Unfortunately, the development of something substantially different from what has come before must instead rely on much more mundane forms of communication, and this is where closed-source development can have an advantage.
Once an artefact has been created, it may speak for itself. But until that time, the responsibility for communicating that artefact’s nature lies in the, effectively, side-band communication capabilities of its designers. The development process itself may in fact be viewed as the attempt to communicate this new idea. Unfortunately, without tangible evidence at hand, most people are unable to sufficiently convince others of the worthiness of one particular goal over another such that potential supporters are willing to set aside their own misgivings over particular design choices. A silly analogy is the fabrication of a chair. If you and I are to copy an existing chair, then who am I to disagree with the plan that we give our chair four legs? But if we are instead tasked with inventing a new mechanism for supporting the human form, then who are you to tell me that we must give our device four legs?
We are able to resolve, for better or for worse, the problems engendered by our own communication shortcomings by barter: I offer you some amount of money to follow my design. That way, a design that I couldn’t possibly implement on my own is brought into the world. Of course, closed-source approaches fail at least as often as they succeed, for hidden within the simple-to-express notion of, “I’ll pay you to follow my plan,” is the necessity that the contributor bring his or her own ingenuity to bear in figuring out how best to implement the given plan, or even improve it with the designer’s consent. We don’t want smart workers stupidly following orders, but we also don’t want too many chefs in the kitchen. No, there is still a place in the world for the cathedral and the bazaar. Neither can accomplish all that the other is capable of.
So, what motivated Lanier’s potential-flame-bait-yet-simultaneously-easily-defensible article? I can’t say for sure, but I think a lot of it stems from a single phrase in Dyson’s article describing the detrimental effect of speciation on Darwinian evolution: “It probably slowed down the pace of evolution considerably.” Delivered in such an off-hand manner, this statement doesn’t invite much scrutiny, but I think that this is where the disagreement begins. The comparisons to technology development are no stretch at all. The question is, does providing momentary succor for a single voice in the chorus facilitate the creation of something new, something better? Researchers do not scatter their best thoughts across peer reviews, they must instead cultivate some ideas in a controlled environment — asking for input from select others, working through the details themselves, maybe getting a post doc. to run some experiments — and present the seeds of the idea as a cohesive whole that has grown to something substantial enough for others to evaluate. This closed development is how complex communication is achieved, and while it may slow down diversification of ideas, or genetics depending on which branch of the discussion you find more compelling, it strongly supports the effort to strike out from today’s local minimum.