19 March 2007

Open Knowledge, Open Greenery and Modularity

On Saturday I attended the Open Knowledge 1.0 meeting, which was highly enjoyable from many points of view. The location was atmospheric: next to Hawksmoor's amazing St Anne's church, which somehow manages the trick of looking bigger than its physical size, inside the old Limehouse Town Hall.

The latter had a wonderfully run-down, almost Dickensian feel to it; it seemed rather appropriate as a gathering place for a ragtag bunch of ne'er-do-wells: geeks, wonks, journos, activists and academics, all with dangerously powerful ideas on their minds, and all more dangerously powerful for coming together in this way.

The organiser, Rufus Pollock, rightly placed open source squarely at the heart of all this, and pretty much rehearsed all the standard stuff this blog has been wittering on about for ages: the importance of Darwinian processes acting on modular elements (although he called the latter atomisation, which seems less precise, since atoms, by definition, cannot be broken up, but modules can, and often need to be for the sake of increased efficiency.)

One of the highlights of the day for me was a talk by Tim Hubbard, leader of the Human Genome Analysis Group at the Sanger Institute. I'd read a lot of his papers when writing Digital Code of Life, and it was good to hear him run through pretty much the same parallels between open genomics and the other opens that I've made and make. But he added a nice twist towards the end of his presentation, where he suggested that things like the doomed NHS IT programme might be saved by the use of Darwinian competition between rival approaches, each created by local NHS groups.

The importance of the ability to plug into Darwinian dynamics also struck me when I read this piece by Jamais Cascio about carbon labelling:

In order for any carbon labeling endeavor to work -- in order for it to usefully make the invisible visible -- it needs to offer a way for people to understand the impact of their choices. This could be as simple as a "recommended daily allowance" of food-related carbon, a target amount that a good green consumer should try to treat as a ceiling. This daily allowance doesn't need to be a mandatory quota, just a point of comparison, making individual food choices more meaningful.


This is a pattern we're likely to see again and again as we move into the new world of carbon footprint awareness. We'll need to know the granular results of actions, in as immediate a form as possible, as well as our own broader, longer-term targets and averages.

Another way of putting this is that for these kind of ecological projects to work, there needs to be a feedback mechanism so that people can see the results of their actions, and then change their behaviour as a result. This is exactly like open source: the reason the open methodology works so well is that a Darwinian winnowing can be applied to select the best code/content/ideas/whatever. But that is only possible when there are appropriate metrics that allow you to judge which actions are better, a reference point of the kind Cascio is writing about.

By analogy, we might call this particular kind of environmental action open greenery. It's interesting to see that here, too, the basic requirement of modularity turns out to be crucially important. In this case, the modularity is at the level of the individual's actions. This means that we can learn from other people's individual success, and improve the overall efficacy of the actions we undertake.

Without that modularity - call its closed-source greenery - everything is imposed from above, without explanation or the possibility of local, personal, incremental improvement. That may have worked in the 20th century, but given the lessons we have learned from open source, it's clearly not the best way.

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