03 January 2008

Open Source: A Question of Metrics

Here's a characteristically thought-provoking post from Chris Messina:

I’ve probably said it before, and will say it again, and I’m also sure that I’m not the first, or the last to make this point, but I have yet to see an example of an open source design process that has worked.

Indeed, I’d go so far as to wager that “open source design” is an oxymoron. Design is far too personal, and too subjective, to be given over to the whims and outrageous fancies of anyone with eyeballs in their head.

Call me elitist in this one aspect, but with all due respect to code artistes, it’s quite clear whether a function computes or not; the same quantifiable measures simply do not exist for design and that critical lack of objective review means that design is a form of Art, and its execution should be treated as such.

What interests me is that he's actually articulating something deep about the open source methodology: it can only be usefully applied when there is a metric that lets you judge objectively when things get better.

That's why free software works: you take some code and improve it - making it faster, more compact, less buggy - or, ideally, all three. It's why collaborative novels and symphonies rarely work. There's no clear way to improve on what's already there: anyone can tinker, but there will always be different views on whether that tinkering works. It's also why why Wikipedia more or less works: although based on facts and their citations, there's still plenty of room for disagreement over how they should be presented.

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