May 8, 2008

Book review: The power of group sharing

Author: Brad Jackel

Clay Shirky's book on what information technology is doing to our world, Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organizations, has important things to say to anyone interested in open source software (OSS). His thoughts on the evolving effects of the technological revolution we are all living in make for a fun way to spend a few hours.

Shirky's central contention is that as human beings are inherently social, group-forming, information-sharing beings, and anything that changes our abilities to form groups and share information changes our culture: "A culture with printing presses is a different kind of culture from one that doesn't have them." Shirky argues that we now have communication tools (by which he means everything from email to the Internet to social networking services to mobile phones and SMS) that are "a better fit for our native desires and talents for group effort" than traditional formal organizations. He does not dismiss traditional organizations out of hand, but he shows that there are many things that are not possible with a formal organization that are becoming possible with the new forms of group effort that are evolving.

A traditional organization, for example, cannot afford to find, let alone hire, someone whose sole interest in contributing to an encyclopaedia would be cleaning up the grammar in an article on the rubber compounds in aircraft tyres. Wikipedia, on the other hand, can tap into the talent of hundreds of thousands of people who occasionally fix a typo when reading an article. The old model of group action of any kind was to get people who cared a little to care more, to care enough to do something, usually by paying them. The new model of group action, made possible by the collapse of transaction costs in communication, allows people who care a little to do something useful.

Caring a little is not pejorative in Shirky's sense. Someone who subtly improves one driver "cares a little" compared to someone who decides to write an operating system from scratch. The skills of someone who improves one driver, and nothing else, are unavailable to a traditional organization, but are not unavailable to open production systems, thanks to communication tools which effectively reduce the cost of many-to-many communication to nil.

We are, Shirky argues, merely at the "beginning of an intense period of experimentation with these tools." The examples he uses to argue his case include such things as political protest in Belarus, Wikipedia, Flickr, a UK bank's backflip on policy, Linux, the pressure applied to the New York Police Department to force them to help in tracking down a lost mobile phone, and OSS in general. He is persuasive in showing the common factors to all these apparently unrelated stories.

Linux features prominently in Shirky's overview of the state of play, his focus being the game-changing tools that allowed for the group effect that enabled Linux to exist:

Almost a decade passed between the founding of the FSF and Torvald's original message. Why did Stallman's vision not spread earlier? And why, after a decade of marginal adoption, did it become a global phenomenon in the 1990s? In that time not much about either software or arguments in favour of freedom had changed. What did change was that programmers had been given a global medium to communicate in. Linux is exhibit A.

His insights into OSS in general are, at first blush, startling, even mildly offensive untl you follow them through:

Open source is a profound threat, not because the open source ecosystem is outsucceeding commercial efforts, but because it is outfailing them. Because the open source ecosystem, and by extension open social systems generally, rely on peer production, the work on those systems can be considerably more experimental, at considerably lower cost, than any firm can afford. Why? The most important reasons are that open systems lower the cost of failure, they do not create biases in favour of predictable but substandard outcomes, and they make it simpler to integrate the contributions of people who only contribute a single idea.

This is achieved by not trying to do things on behalf of users, but to instead provide a platform for them to do things for each other (publish then filter), avoiding the traditional organization's necessary bias (filter then publish) in favour of the predictable but substandard. Comparing the "development" between XP and Vista with the development between the first version of Ubuntu I used and the Hardy Heron installation I am writing this review on, it is difficult to argue with the logic: far from needing to buy a new machine to run the new OS, my laptop just got faster. Firefox would be another example of this idea in its provision of a platform that allows plugins to be developed, as opposed to a futile attempt to provide all things for all people from the top down.

Shirky goes on to draw out the significance of open source in general; that is, not the significance of the software itself, but what the means of the production of that software demonstrates as being possible:

What the open source movement teaches us is that the communal can be at least as durable as the commercial. For any given piece of software, the question "Do the people who like it take care of each other?" turns out to be a better predictor of success than "What's the business model?" As the rest of the world gets access to the tools once reserved for the techies, that pattern is appearing everywhere, and it is changing society as it does.

In an environment where the threats to the promise of open source, P2P, not to mention the Internet itself, often appear more pressing than the promise, Shirky's ability to put it all into historical context is comforting. He argues that our control over all this technology is more akin to steering a kayak down a river than driving a car, and bluntly asserts that "to ask the question 'Should we allow the spread of these social tools?' presumes that there is something we could do about it were the answer no."

The invention of the printing press removed the need for scribes: "what was once a service had become a bottleneck." Shirky tells the story of an individual who wrote a passionate defence of the role of scribes in the face of the threat of the printing press, then distributed his passionate defence of scribes, in bulk, by having it printed. (One might draw any number of parallels here with increasingly hysterical legal threats being emailed around the globe.) Shirky then tells the story of a young printer who realised that books would be a whole lot more convenient if they were small enough to fit in a saddlebag. That is, rather than worrying about the impact of the printing press, or bothering to argue for it, still less trying to reverse it, this printer simply saw that it was there, and made a small, incremental improvement to the technology which allowed for information to spread even more easily: so the octavo book format was invented. As Shirky puts it, "the future belongs to those who take the present for granted."

This book is well written and intellectually exciting. I cannot imagine anyone involved, however tangentially, with OSS not getting an awful lot of ideas from the book.

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