Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Lanier's Well-Tested Conjecture

Something has been eating at me for the last few days since Jaron Lanier's article Long Live Closed-Source Software! first came through my feed reader. I couldn't put my finger on it at first but maybe after letting the thoughts percolate a bit through my mind I'll be able to dig it out by the time I'm done here.

On the surface I guess the reason I was initially bothered by the article was the fact that I came across it while thumbing through my slashdot feed. Honestly, it's probably more my fault for reading /. in the first place (I get really annoyed when I see articles that seem as if they are begging for attention).

It wasn't until I finally got around to reading it that I realized it was something I needed to consider. If you make exception for phrases like "there's a reason the iPhone doesn't come with Linux" it seems as if Lanier makes several valid points. Later in the article he even makes statements that make him appear sympathetic with the open source movement. So he can't be all bad, right? Though, again, that wasn't what has been itching me as I don't tend to get too stirred up by those sorts of issues.

What really gave me a sour taste was the idea that he would be in any position to judge innovation based by his "evidence". Personally, examples like the iPhone seem ridiculous when its basic functionality is comprised of nothing more than things that I have wanted on my phone since the late 90s. The trick that will make billions for Apple is that they have done it a fashionable way. To say that it doesn't come with Linux wouldn't even be true if you consider many of the web applications on which the iPhone experience relies are are indeed running on Linux and open source. Though it wouldn't have been as catchy, Lanier should have directed his statement towards the Linux community if that was indeed what he was hinting at, "the iPhone doesn't come with [the ideals commonly expressed by the Linux community]". I guess I was wrong--that does sound catchy!

But how do communities innovate? How does one even recognize that innovation? I'll tell you how--not very easily. Let me continue along those lines and explain that I'm more accustomed to hearing people talk about innovation long after the particular innovation in question has actually been innovated. I studied Spanish golden age literature in College. For some strange reason though it wasn't called golden age literature at the time of it's writing. I even see a parallel in the field of music strangely enough. I played in several bands whose prime preceded the dawn of YouTube and MySpace, that is to say their existence is presently only in my mind (and a few other minds). I wouldn't even say our music was innovative but I do feel that in the hundreds of shows we played I was exposed to innovation through the people we encountered. Few of those bands are still around today in any form yet these underground cultures are alive all over the country. They share with each other through tours and festivals and now more than ever with the advent of communities such as Last.FM. I don't want to spend much more time on this particular topic so suffice it to say:
When people call the iPhone innovative it gives me much the same feeling as when one of my hip-hop aficionado friends from Spain considers Coolio to be innovative.
I only mention Spain because I lived there for a year and a half and those situations came up far too often. The idea is simply that the majority of Spanish teens are too far removed from hip-hop culture to make any judgement on west coast music from across the ocean (they would be, however, more knowledgeable on hip-hop from Iberia). The only thing they ever experience from the US, in my opinion, is culture that happens to be profitable. I believe Lanier's definition of innovation borders dangerously close with "it's popular ergo it matters".

I just don't buy the any statement that claims the open source movement doesn't innovate. People innovate, period. Closed source projects fail as commonly (and for many of the same reasons) as open source projects. The vast majority of closed source software is miserable in much the same manner as the sundry projects on [Insert your favorite repository here] are. It's just too simple to think of examples and counter examples for any theorem that aims to prove a function of Open/Closed sourcedness to innovation. Surely things are more complex than that.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It's strange how people still argue there is no innovation coming from the free software community. do they know about bittorrent?


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