19 June 2010

Open Source: A Question of Evolution

I met Matt Ridley once, when he was at The Economist, and I wrote a piece for him (I didn't repeat the experience because their fees at the time were extraordinarily ungenerous). He was certainly a pleasant chap in person, but I have rather mixed feelings about his work.

His early book "Genome" is brilliant - a clever promenade through our chromosomes, using the DNA and its features as a framework on which to hang various fascinating facts and figures. His latest work, alas, seems to have gone completely off the rails, as this take-down by George Monbiot indicates.

Despite that, Ridley is still capable of some valuable insights. Here's a section from a recent essay in the Wall Street Journal, called "Humans: Why They Triumphed":

the sophistication of the modern world lies not in individual intelligence or imagination. It is a collective enterprise. Nobody—literally nobody—knows how to make the pencil on my desk (as the economist Leonard Read once pointed out), let alone the computer on which I am writing. The knowledge of how to design, mine, fell, extract, synthesize, combine, manufacture and market these things is fragmented among thousands, sometimes millions of heads. Once human progress started, it was no longer limited by the size of human brains. Intelligence became collective and cumulative.

In the modern world, innovation is a collective enterprise that relies on exchange. As Brian Arthur argues in his book "The Nature of Technology," nearly all technologies are combinations of other technologies and new ideas come from swapping things and thoughts.

This is, of course, a perfect description of the open source methodology: re-using and building on what has gone before, combining the collective intelligence of thousands of hackers around the world through a culture of sharing. Ridley's comment is another indication of why anything else just hasn't made the evolutionary jump.

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9 comments:

PV said...

It's a shame that our society is too quick to assign credit of an invention to one or two people instead of accepting that it is (far more often than not) the product of a collaboration and competition between several people - as was the case with the invention of the lightbulb (you could thus think of Edison as an Industrial-era patent troll).

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a Linux Mint user since 2009 May 1

glyn moody said...

@PV: yes, I think it goes back to this romantic notion of the hero (usually hero rather heroine) inventor. Collectivity has been out of fashion for a while...but is coming back with a vengeance...

PV said...

It's actually sort of a vicious cycle in that sense - patents supposedly help these mythical solo inventors (without whom the great inventions of the world would never have occurred, supposedly; who must have a monopoly to even compete (how ironic)) continue to invent, while the supposed existence of these mythical solo inventors further justifies calls to expand the scope of patents.

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a Linux Mint user since 2009 May 1
If readers of this blog could also take a look at my blog dasublogbyprashanth.blogspot.com (which deals with many of the same topics as this one) and subscribe to it, I would greatly appreciate it.

glyn moody said...

PV: good point. Indeed, something rather like that is often mentioned when I suggest abolishing patents...

PV said...

I figure I should mention the fact one of my friends owns quite a few patents filed when he was in college a few years ago (and granted shortly thereafter) - all based on his research on electrical systems I think (or something like that - he's continuing in that field with his PhD now, and it's all way above my head). Royalties earned from his patents weren't huge, but they were definitely enough to cover his tuition costs. Though I am in full agreement with you that software, genome, and agriculture patents are the worst of their kind and must be abolished, might it be possible that for complex hardware inventions like these, patents could be beneficial (especially if the patent term was lowered to the original 14 years as defined by the US Copyright Act of 1790) for all? This would essentially cover the time period where the inventor would make almost all of his/her money off of the invention (and not much longer than that).
On a slightly related note, check out my post http://dasublogbyprashanth.blogspot.com/2010/06/follow-up-film-industrys-next-avatar.html on Enzo Tedeschi's movie The Tunnel and his revenue and distribution model. He is allowing people to buy individual frames of the movie to support it financially - giving people a personal stake in it - while using things like torrent sites to his advantage instead of clamping down on them reflexively.

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a Linux Mint user since 2009 May 1

glyn moody said...

@PV: you're right, patents can be remunerative, but the question is whether on balance they are good for society as a whole, not individuals.

Yes, we might introduce shorter terms for patents, but I take the view that the only non-arbitrary term is zero...

tpegbert said...

This excerpt is also a good description of how the free market works and why central planning is always doomed to fail.

glyn moody said...

@tpegbert: indeed.

Tim Tyler said...

Matt Ridley has written several good books - I expect this latest one will be a positive contribution too.