Outsider, Insiders, And Open Source Solipsism

Funny how things feed back into each other. Just the other day, a book recommendation from a friend that was not at all related to computers made for an interesting parallel with a discussion elsewhere about open source vs. closed minds -- the closed minds being those of some open source advocates.</p>

Serdar Yegulalp, Contributor

July 16, 2009

5 Min Read

Funny how things feed back into each other. Just the other day, a book recommendation from a friend that was not at all related to computers made for an interesting parallel with a discussion elsewhere about open source vs. closed minds -- the closed minds being those of some open source advocates.

I speak of Matt Asay's notes on "Open-source extremism", which he describes as the "destructive group-think [that] plague[s] the open-source community". The attitude speaks for itself: Open Source Is Best, Microsoft Must Never Be Trusted, If It Isn't "Open" It's Evil, and so on. These attitudes reinforce themselves, mainly by way of their proponents being selective with the company they keep. Hang around people who think the same way you do, who come to the same conclusions the same way you do, and you've created an echo chamber effect.

I've run into this exact concept before in radically different environments. One of the first was by way of rock critic Lester Bangs, when he interviewed newly-minted aspiring punk legend Richard Hell. He liked Hell's stubborn individuality, but it was individuality to a fault:

A fellow writer told me that Richard once told her that the best thing about being a rock 'n roll star would be the option of constructing his environment so that he would never have to be around anyone he didn't want to know from, which not only sounds like building your own concentration camp but is just exactly what most of the declining rockstars of the Sixties have done to themselves.

Bangs was dismayed that Hell's idea of being an individual amounted to existing in a vacuum, and said as much in the essay said passage is from. (It's in his book Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, pp. 260-268.) The flipside of freedom, as he realized Hell had found out on his own, is do-it-yourself solipsism.

Fast forward to 2009 -- open source, groupthink, Matt Asay, &c. Before I even read Matt's essay, I got caught up in a long, sinuous discussion with a friend about how tough it is to challenge your own unquestioned assumptions about things. He'd been watching a Bill Moyers special about Wendell Potter, ex-health-insurance industry bigwig, and we wondered how many problems remain unsolved simply because too many people in the same room don't think there's a problem in the first place. He recommended a book on the subject: The Difference: How The Power Of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools and Societies.

The core thesis seems less like gimmicky a-ha!-ism and more like basic common sense. The more you step outside of your own circle of like-mindedness, the more you connect with others who have different things to bring to the table, the easier it is to tackle the unfamiliar and unknown. Painter Robert Rauschenberg had his own expression for it: "I am trying to check my habits of seeing, to counter them for the sake of greater freshness. I am trying to be unfamiliar with what I'm doing."

And then I bumped into Matt's essay the next morning, and the circle closed that much more completely.

The open source community -- that all-important word once again -- understands this to a fair degree. The guy working on a problem that only plagues educators may have a solution of immense value to folks writing statistical software, or games, or you-name-it. He puts his solution out there for all to see, and everyone else benefits from it.

This by itself is a wonderful thing. What's problematic is how the most vocal proponents of open source -- and of open source policy -- remain unwilling to examine their assumptions about what open source development is best for. Open source as a political ideology weakens open source as a design and engineering philosophy, because fixed ideologies are incompatible with the fluidity of thought and reassessments needed in any such discipline.

Matt's idea is that the OSI, one of the key mover-and-shaker outfits in open source policy-setting, should seat a few more people who represent the business and commercial side of open source -- not as a box-packing measure, but as a way to bring different points of view into the room.

Sadly, I don't think this will happen. Part of it is the fact that once you have a given behavior identified with a given label -- in this case, the OSI -- pressure emerges spontaneously from both inside and outside to maintain that behavior.

My idea is a little different. Create a parallel organization -- one similar to the OSI but with a broader palette of people, and which can craft policy that serves both the intrepid lone developer and the enterprising (pun intended) corporate mavens. Seek and you'll find common ground between them -- and ways to disagree without making the disagreement itself political.  Let's not just all sit around and tell each other what we all think we know. The choice does not have to be between Angry Young Programmers and Men With Dollars.

So if something like this won't start at the top, and won't manifest at the bottom, then maybe it's worthwhile trying to make it come in from the side.

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Serdar Yegulalp


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