Yaba Yaba

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Posts Tagged ‘open source

capacity vs. capital

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When Stuart Feldman created Make in Bell labs in 1977, he wasn’t thinking of owning a product he could sell. He just wanted to get the job done. (sorry, I tried, but I can’t find a good reference for this story. still I’m sure I heard it from a credible source). The job, in his case, was to get a bunch of source files to compile together, in the right order, when needed. Dr. Feldman was fed up of typing a long sequence of compile and link commands to the terminal every time he changed one of his source files. And the most annoying bit was that you usually forget some dependency between files, miss out one command or the other, and the whole project is a mess. What Dr. Feldman needed was a program that could be given a set of rules, and when invoked would use these rules to determine which sequence of commands to execute.

So he wrote one, or rather, hacked it. After all, it had been a long day. Then he thought some of his team mates might like it, so he put it on the shared drive and emailed them.

Later that night he thought there were a few flaws in the rule-file syntax, things he would have done differently if he would have designed it properly. But by the time he got to the office the next day, it was too late. The use of make had spread throughout the lab and beyond. People needed it, and it was free, and easy to install. Make has been part of every *nix system since.

One of the sources of  power of the open source model is that it prioritises capacity over capital. Capacity is the ability to do things, capital is means of production – that might or might not give you power to do things.

IBM, Oracle, SUN and others fund open source not out of benevolence, but because there are places where the option of having something for free is worth more than owning it. In fact, sometimes ownership has negative value. How so? Well, if Dr. Feldman would have owned Make, no-one else would ever contribute to its improvement. No major OS provider would include it. As it is, make evolves through small contributions of many engineers, and whenever you find yourself at an unknown machine with some complex project to compile, you know you can count on Make.

Capacity is intangible, so material economies use capital as an approximation of capacity. Obviously, capitalism is based on ownership of capital. The assumption is, if you have the means of production, you can produce, and thus generate value. Of course, its not so simple: you may have boards and nails, I have a hammer, neither of us can build a shed. That’s what markets are for. You can sell me your stuff or I can rent you mine. But that’s an approximation, it doesn’t always work, and when it does, its not always be the most efficient model. As the old saying goes, I want a glass of milk, I don’t want to buy the whole cow.

Open source software production distributes capacity without bothering with ownership of capital. I use a wordprocessor to produce text, I just want it to be there when I need it, I don’t need to own it. That’s easier to do with software, because I can give it to you and still have it. But we’re seeing capacity-centric models popping up in other places. Take cloud computing as an example. I don’t care how many servers Amazon or Google own. I just pay them for the capacity I need, when I need it. Car clubs are another, more down-to-earth example.

So why aren’t we seeing more of this? I think the main obstacle is legal. Our whole system is designed to measure, monitor, and manage the flow of capital. Until we figure out good ways to regulate the trade in capacity, we’re stuck with capital.

Written by yishaym

June 19, 2009 at 10:06 am

they’re coming! they’re coming!

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RepRap is an open-source self-replicating 3D printer.

Translation: a cheap machine that can build a copy of itself. Sorta. But it can make cute flip-flops.

Written by yishaym

June 12, 2008 at 12:16 pm

interesting times in low-cost land

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With Walter Bender’s resignation from OLPC and Microsoft’s announcement the low cost scene is becoming the best show in town.

Open source is about freedom of choice and ownership. If people are free to choose, they are also free to make bad choices – such as running windows on their nice little low cost laptop.

The other side of the equation is, of course, they should be free to run the copy of OS they bought on any hardware they choose. To be honest, I’m not worried: a) I doubt it will hold in court. b) even if it will, it won’t hold in real life. Vendors will simply make it easy to upgrade machines after purchase. The only snag is the touch screen.

But the main scoop here shouldn’t be lost in the flurry of gossip: OLPC won. Remember Negraponte and Papert’s original claim? For years, computers have been getting more expensive when they should have been moving in the opposite direction. This was driven by producer agenda, not by user’s needs. If we want children worldwide to be a part of the global conversation and have access to the canon of human knowledge, we need to reverse the trend. When OLPC started is was a crazy dream. Now its a thriving market. And the more competition, the more options, the more flavours of hardware and software – the better for all.

Written by yishaym

May 12, 2008 at 1:02 pm

wear it on your sleeve

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Bazaar.org were pushing these sweet badges at the JISC-Emerge event last week.I often wonder why people subject themselves to software serfdom when there’s high quality free & open alternatives. One explanation is that if you give stuff for free, you can’t conjour a budget to buy superbowl ads. So its nice to see the European commision put their money to good use.

In fact, this just gives me an idea. I mean, this theory – that the only reason feudal technology (Mac, Windows, whatever) has a lead on the good guys is that they have a huge advertising budget – its just a thoery, right? So it needs to be researched and validated or refuted. And there are only two ways to research it:

(a) ban advertisment for commercial software / content.

(b) fund a similar scale budget for advertising free stuff.

If anyone’s game for writing a research proposal, say for FP7, I’m happy to elaborate b.

Written by yishaym

January 31, 2008 at 2:55 am

OLPC: the realisation of a Cultural Revolution?

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I just came across Ivan Illich’s Consitution for Cultural Revolution.  Strikingly relevant today as it was in 1971, if not more. Yes, Illich is radical, provocative. But its hard to deny he has a point when he argues:

The goals of development are always and everywhere stated in terms of consumer value packages standardized around the North Atlantic – and therefore always and everywhere imply more privileges for a few. Political reorganization cannot change this fact; it can only rationalize it. Different ideologies create different minorities of privileged consumers, but heart surgery or a university education is always priced out of range for all but a few: be they the rich, the orthodox, or the most fascinating subjects for experiments by surgeons or pedagogues.

Underdevelopment is the result of a state of mind common to both socialist and capitalist countries. Present development goals are neither desirable nor reasonable. Unfortunately antiimperialism is no antidote. Although exploitation of poor countries is an undeniable reality, current nationalism is merely the affirmation of the right of colonial elites to repeat history and follow the road traveled by the rich toward the universal consumption of internationally marketed packages, a road which can ultimately lead only to universal pollution and universal frustration.

His proposal? Establish access to educational goods as a basic undeniable equal right, open to free choice and trade:

A cultural revolutionary must fight for legal protection from the imposition of any obligatory graded curriculum. The first article of a bill of rights for a modern and humanist society corresponds to the first amendment of the United States Constitution. The state shall make no law with respect to an establishment of education. There shall be no graded curriculum, obligatory for all. To make this disestablishment effective, we need a law forbidding discrimination in hiring, voting, or admission to centers of learning based on previous attendance at some curriculum. This guarantee would not exclude specific tests of competence, but would remove the present absurd discrimination in favor of the person who learns a given skill with the largest expenditure of public funds. A third legal reform would guarantee the right of each citizen to an equal share of public educational resources, the right to verify his share of these resources, and the right to sue for them if they are denied. A generalized GI bill, or an edu-credit card in the hand of every citizen, would effectively implement this third guarantee.

I wonder, isn’t this percisely the agenda of OLPC? And in a broader view, the open source education movement? Public debate tends to focus on cost and benefit, technical specification, production politics. Its not about that. Its about breaking the feudal structure of knowledge production. About the right of any person to own the means of intellectual production. About equal access to the global conversation. Which is probably why the focus is on children rather than schools. As Illich concludes:

The social and psychological destruction inherent in obligatory schooling is merely an illustration of the destruction implicit in all international institutions which now dictate the kinds of goods, services, and welfare available to satisfy basic human needs. Only a cultural and institutional revolution which reestablishes man’s control over his environment can arrest the violence by which development of institutions is now imposed by a few for their own interest. Maybe Marx has said it better, criticizing Ricardo and his school: “They want production to be limited to ‘useful things,’ but they forget that the production of too many useful things results in too many useless people.”

I suspect Papert and Negraponte would agree.

Written by yishaym

December 7, 2007 at 7:01 pm