Not long ago I wrote that hard economic times could be a good thing for open source. Andrew Keen, author of Cult of the Amateur, seems to be arguing the opposite: that hard times will knock all of this open source / open content silliness out of people's heads.
In a piece for Internet Evolution entitled "Economy To Give Open-Source A Good Thumping", Keen asserts that in hard times, "only Silicon Valley's wealthiest technologists can even consider the luxury of donating their labor to the latest fashionable, online, open-source project." He goes on:
When, in 50 years time, the definitive histories of the Web 2.0 epoch are written, historians will look back at the open-source mania between 2000 and 2008 with a mixture of incredulity and amusement. How could tens of thousands of people have donated their knowledge to Wikipedia or the blogosphere for free?
Actually, go and read the whole thing first so my comments will make sense in context. You're done? OK.
From what I see, Keen conflates and confuses two completely different things. Contributing to Wikipedia (open content) is substantially different from being a Linux kernel contributor (open source). So why does he mention them both in the same breath? Probably because -- as he argued in his book -- he finds the here-comes-everybody ethic expressed in both of them as an attack on the very idea of quality, and six of one's as good as half a dozen of the other.
As far as open source goes, Keen sounds like he's using an already-dated understanding of how open source software development is currently practiced. It's not a Hobson's Choice between a) a bunch of unshaven idealists huddling around decade-old computers writing dodgy imitations of commercial software or b) donations of labor by Silicon Valley's wealthiest technologists, as he puts it. This hasn't been true for some time now. It's a development model, one of several, and not the sum total of how a company does business.
I'll admit that open content -- e.g., Wikipedia -- is in roughly the same state right now that open source itself was several years back. How, indeed, is it that tens of thousands of people donate their collective intelligence to blogs and wikis for free? Possibly because "free" here does not imply that you get absolutely nothing back. If I start a Wikipedia article -- and I have, incidentally -- I'm not simply throwing information into the ether(net). I become part of, however small, an exchange of ideas between myself and all of the other people who read it, add to it, reply to it in the Talk: section of the article, cite it, and so on. My own understanding of the very subjects I wrote about or contributed to is enriched. The process is as important as the content. It may not fill the belly, but that's not the only thing that needs filling.
The rise of open content and open source haven't made proprietary content / software entirely obsolete -- and to be honest, I don't think they ever will. What I do see coming to the fore is a sense that not all kinds of content have to be compulsorily proprietary to be valuable, and not all software has to be proprietary to be useful, either. I don't see the value of a textbook that costs $125, is used for one year, and represents a body of knowledge that hasn't changed in any appreciable sense in decades, like algebra. The book publisher does see value in such a thing -- but not if it's no longer salable. And if I'm not dropping $125 on a textbook, that's that much more I can put into my pantry.
But back to the software argument, because that part is what I have the hardest time swallowing. Don't you think, in hard times, that an open source company which charges $1,000 for a year's support contract on a given product, one with a proven track record, isn't going to make the kind of money it needs to as opposed to a proprietary software company that charges $50,000 for the same year's contract? Maybe you won't make billions running such a company, but if you can post a profit and a decent amount of growth a year (and many commercial outfits based on FOSS do just that), isn't that enough?
I don't believe open content and open code are fads. They can be implemented well or badly, and each implementation will live or die on its own merits. That will remain true in both good and bad times.