posted on 2007-05-04 10:08:00
I feel I should explain a bit about why the events of May 1st were so important, why it was as I called it "a watershed day". Since I wrote that piece this afternoon the events covered have been very much in my thoughts and I've discussed them with a number of friends of mine, some technically inclined, some not. There were two events. The first being Dell's decision to offer Ubuntu preinstalled on select computers of theirs. This is a huge victory for Open Source Software generally and also Linux particularly. It's a larger victory for the Open Source Production Model because it stands as evidence that such a production model can compete with that of proprietary vendors such as Microsoft, Apple, etc. That I consider to be (significantly) less important than the second event of the day. That is, the HD-DVD scandal
. Or the cyber riot
. Whatever it should be called. Those of you who know how much I trumpet on about Open Source and Linux should understand what a large claim that is for me. It's more important that a ton of people revolted online against a standard than that Dell said they would sell (Ubuntu) Linux computers. And I've been predicting that Linux on the Desktop thing for a good year now. A year's expectations fulfilled but secondary to some arbitrary online screaming fit? Yes. Part of that is because I was expecting the Linux thing to happen sooner or later. I'm glad it was sooner but not shocked. I figured Linux would be about ready by now it would just take a company with the guts to try it. I can say I'm half-surprised (but pleasantly) that the company was Dell. The revolt was much more important though and showed us much much more
about the dynamics of online communities and power structures.
First, by way of introduction to the problem space, I'd like to clear up what could be an easy misconception. What essentially happened was a 16 byte code (09-f9-11-02-9d-74-e3-5b-d8-41-56-c5-63-56-88-c1
) that protects HD-DVDs from being pirated, played on unsupported platforms (such as Linux), being ripped, etc. was leaked onto the internet. A piece of legislation protecting the code called the DMCA was passed in 1998 which extends the protections of copyright and makes it illegal to produce or spread methods of circumventing or infringing copyright. So, the code is not protected speech. My posting it here even is illegal. (It should be noted that some feel the very existence of the code and the resulting inability to play HD-DVDs on Linux or back them up is a consumer rights violation. Legally, this assertion is not ungrounded but until the DMCA is repealed it is irrelevant. The DMCA for its part has faced much derision and opposition since its inception for many reasons, vagueness high among them. If I informed you that you could circumvent copyright and reproduce a book with a copier, paper and ink, I could be in violation of the DMCA, for example.) The Movie Companies whose copyrights are protected by this code are of course upset that the safety of their product is now jeopardized by piracy. The code leaked out onto the web in February and the movie companies began sending out cease and desist letters so that sites would take it down. Then, on May 1st people started noticing. Three sites in particular which all derive their content (information) from their users formed the center of it all. Slashdot, Digg, and Wikipedia. Slashdot and Digg are user-generated technology news sites and Wikipedia is, of course, the online encyclopedia we all know and love. When Wikipedia and Digg started trying to censor the code (Slashdot didn't) from their sites people started noticing and rebelled in extraordinary fashion. Within 48 hours the number of hits when the code was searched for on Google went from under 1,000 to over a million. Digg and Wikipedia were swarmed with people trying to propagate the code in dozens of forms (such as masquerading it as lottery numbers, an IP address, or even a picture of stripes where the colors' hex values spelled out the code). Digg was the center of the controversy and simply could not control the number of users forcing the information onto the site through stories, diggs (votes that increase a story's visibility on the main page), and comments. Wikipedia had more success by locking the entry for HD-DVD and did a number of other things to prevent the spread but still had it's forums inundated with the code.
The important fact wasn't that people spread the code and lashed out\fought back against what they perceive as draconian intellectual property regimes and corporations (that happened for regular old DVDs with DeCSS in 1999) but that these sites, the icons of the Social Web or Web 2.0, were at the mercy of their userbases.
The amazing promise of the Open Source revolution has been the efficiency and power of it's production models. That's what enabled a few thousand volunteers and about a thousand dollars a month to compete with Encyclopedia Britannica through Wikipedia. That's what enabled a rag tag bunch of software developers from round the globe compete with Microsoft and Apple through Linux. While it's clear that the Open Source Model has definite advantages its limitations and drawbacks are somewhat less studied and, perhaps due only to lack of experience and evidence, less clear. We remain uncertain what can benefit from "going open," we remain uncertain about exactly how the power structures work, and we remain uncertain about exactly who is in control. It's the difference between the interactions and activities of hierarchies and bureaucracies (which we understand so well) and those of networks. The importance of such knowledge and it's relevance in the coming century has been demonstrated by our need to understand the dynamics of networked organizations like Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. For the most part, our bureaucracies have trouble stopping them even with considerably greater resources due to networks decentralized nature. It's as though there's no point to attack. What is particularly significant about the events of May 1st is that Wikipedia and Digg are not equal in their openness. Specifically, digg was unable to control it's users and Wikipedia was. This seems to imply that digg is more open
than Wikipedia. Wikipedia however is promoted as more open than Digg and is designed with openness in mind. Digg's openness was, at least to some extent, accidental. Wikipedia has had to deal with more cyber-vandalism of this sort and so it was better equipped for the task. However, the same tools and methods of control that allowed them to prevent vandalism of entries enabled them to censor as well. Everything on Wikipedia is under an Open Source legal license (the GFDL). Digg's content is protected in no such way but it has fewer restrictions and administrative tools to control submissions and content. This is in part interesting because some people have suggested that Digg took advantage of its userbase to aggregate news content but this implies a control that is completely lacking. The suggestion at face value does seem a bit ridiculous when you consider that Wikipedia is doing precisely the same thing until you consider that Digg is a for-profit venture and grosses about $3 million annually. What's interesting about that suggestion is that it agrees with what we might imagine to be the case. Digg allows people to submit the news which people do because they enjoy it and Digg profits from it. But it's not that simple. Digg provides a platform on which people can author and vote on content and they profit from being an attention center of the web. Attention is becoming economically valuable. When companies use Google's AdSense they are essentially trying to buy attention. The web has made the reproduction of content an exercise in attention economics. All content, all video, audio, images, and text can be reproduced and distributed (effectively) for free. The scarcity has become one of time, one of attention. Hence the attention is the valuable thing. Sites on the web which get the most traffic are directly linked to the highest advertising profits. Digg gets the importance of attention and the users get the platform
. That's a very important distinction so I'm going to repeat it once more. The users don't get the content, they get the platform.
The essential defining element of any open source media, maybe any open source thing (so far as I can puzzle out) is that the users get the platform. The product, whether it's software, media, or otherwise is not what the users get. The users get the toolset that leads to the product and they (as the community) control the resulting product but that control is coincidental. As Jimmy Wales (founder of Wikipedia) said, "The big secret of course is that Wikipedia is not really about an encyclopedia, it's just a big game of nomic." The whole point is having control of the rules of the game. To this extent, I'm skeptical even of the claim that Wikipedia is more or less open than Digg. While Wikipedia locked entries from editing, the forums were still swamped with the Code they were trying to Censor. Moreover, as Jimmy Wales stated the rules could be changed at any time. While the platform has more controls and different power structures than Digg it still belongs to the users.
There have been numerous responses to the Code Frenzy over the last few days. One interesting reaction cited the entire movement as dumb because this sort of mass civil disobedience wasn't legal and wouldn't change the law or the decisions of the Content Corporations to use it and to use encryption. While those are all valid points I think they generally eschew the interesting aspects of this event in terms of hierarchies and networks clashing as social-organizational structures. Another reaction takes on the view of the necessary incentive to get people to spread sensitive information or participate in this sort of viral protest movement. Another still criticized Wikipedia for even trying to censor the number as it's effort would obviously be futile. The most interesting part is still Digg folding to it's user base. Businessweek had a cover story on Digg in August of last year and while Digg may make $3 million annually it's esteemed value is closer to 200 million dollars. Here's a 200 million dollar icon of the web being forced, more or less, to decide to work with or against their user base (which is the source of their power) and deciding to surrender to the whims of that user base even when that stance clearly flies in the face of the law and places them at odds with far more established and wealthy firms (the entire movie industry).
The Conclusion\Why it matters:
So, really, why such a big fuss about a little code and some cyber disobedience? Why the emphasis on new organizational structures? It is largely, for me, personal. I wrote this because these moments remind me of the little subtleties that I forget make Open Source special as an organizational form. I wrote this because I feel like I have a better understanding of makes something, anything, not just software, open than I did before the events of May 1st. But I'm also writing it because there's a direct connection between Economic\Material Progress and Innovation. New goods produce new profits and creativity is, I'm pretty sure, king. Google isn't open source but they've done the next closest thing. They've tried to foster good relations with their userbase and they allow their employees twenty percent time to work on what they want. That twenty percent time is motivating for people to produce. We all want to do what we want. I think that's a huge part of why Google's on top. They've found a way to make work not so worklike and in so doing increased the productivity of their workers. Eric Raymond once wrote that Enjoyment predicts Efficiency and I think that's a much more profound statement than he may have realized when he wrote it. If that's true and if, as I believe, Open Source fosters more enjoyment from it's participants than other methods of organizing production then it is a more efficient method of production than any other in existence. Open Production Models harness this enjoyment through voluntary selection of labor and many other motivating factors which I believe cause it to be potentially the most innovative organizational mode in existence. What's really fantastic is that I think it fixes a lot of the Spiritual Decay (which flies in the face of Material Progress) that Capitalism (depending on your view) has brought about. Finally, I think it's self-empowering and educating which ties into both the enjoyment and spiritual repair bits and also seems to foster a sort of social capital when many sociologists are concerned that our social capital is deteriorating, all the while providing public goods and services and reinvigorating the idea of a commons. Even if it just raises human efficiency in production and creativity, I'd say we can't ask for much better than that.
PS: I've underestimated the excellence of Radiohead's Kid A
PPS: Sorry this wasn't a short entry like I promised.