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The Power of the Individual, Modeled by Open-Source Development

Doc Searls

Issue #164, December 2007

Are Linux geeks leading the way to long-awaited business reform?

Somewhere in the massive oeuvre of Peter Drucker, the late great management guru reminds us that the modern corporation is a new breed of institution, hardly much older than our oldest human beings. The largest members of that breed, he said, hold just three main advantages over individuals: global communication reach, access to capital and provision of benefits, such as health care and office space. He also said that two of those three advantages are mostly gone, and the third might also go away.

But, will there be a reciprocal rise in the power of individuals? Progress in open-source code development suggests the answer.

Throughout his long career, Drucker often compared employees to skilled musicians and managers to orchestra conductors. But, that was an ideal. Reality was different. In a 1996 interview, he said:

When big business first emerged throughout the industrial world around 1870, it did not emerge out of the small businesses of 1850—it emerged independently. The only model available, the most successful organization of the 19th century, was the Prussian Army....The Prussians succeeded because they had created an organization. They were the first ones to use modern technology effectively, which in those days meant railroad and telegraph. Business copied the command and control structure of the Prussian Army, in which rank equaled authority. We are now evolving toward structures in which rank means responsibility but not authority. And in which your job is not to command but to persuade.

Recent business lingo has grown beyond the vocabulary of command and control to include those of manufacture and capital as well. Employees are no longer workers but “human resources” and “assets”. By any label, they're still org-chart filler on the ranking model of armies everywhere.

But, the world is still changing to one that favors corporate gigantism less and less. In his book The World Is Flat, Tom Friedman named open source as one of ten “flatteners” that are changing the world from one dominated by large governments and corporations to one where anybody anywhere can contribute to whatever he or she likes.

I think it helps that skilled programmers and other technical experts tend not to think of themselves as soldiers, resources, assets or org-chart filler of any kind. Instead, they regard themselves as skilled and useful contributors—and not just to their employers' missions, whatever those happen to be.

It's a cliché to talk about technology “changing the world”, and technologists as “change agents” or “innovators”. But change and innovation both veer away from a deeper point. Open-source code creators are not here to change the world as much as they're here to make that world in the first place, and then to create and improve the tools and building materials we need to build a free and open civilization on top of that world.

The new world is the Net. Linux set root and grew there, and now supports tools and building materials in countless hundreds of thousands of varieties—perhaps millions if we count hardware as well. Contributing to those code bases is like contributing to nature itself. The difference is that nature's primary building materials are limited to the portfolio of elements in the periodic table. Even when we're working with wood, or life forms transformed by death and time into fossil rocks and fuels, there are finite limits to both the source DNA and the final sum of supply. Not so with constructive works of the human mind.

It is interesting to note how modest and simple the motivations are behind the creation and improvement of essential infrastructural code such as Linux. Linus Torvalds titled his autobiography Just for Fun. On our last Linux Lunacy Geek Cruise, Andrew Morton was asked what he liked most about working on kernel code. “Stamping out bugs” was his reply. He also had a revealing answer to the question of whether Linux would be around 200 years from now. Andrew said, “yes”. He also told me he expected Linux to prevail on desktops and laptops as well, in the fullness of time. I believe him.

There is an almost brutal meritocracy to the fun-making and bug-stomping of kernel code creation and re-creation. And, for that matter, to the building of less-familiar open-source code bases. You either contribute or you don't. And when you do, your satisfaction goes beyond the respect of your peers or the money you get from employers. It goes to knowing that you're contributing to the world itself.

There is a growing ironic distance between the vendor sports coverage that fills most tech media and the plain fact that companies are neither the architects nor the general contractors building this new world. Individuals are building this world, and they're doing it by working together on construction projects that in most cases do not conform to the shapes, or bear the names, of any company.

There is modeling here. Open-source code development is showing the way down the vector of progress that Peter Drucker talked about all his career. And, there is a limit to how much time will pass before the obvious advantages of freedom and practical merit outweigh as well as outperform what we used to think only companies could do.

Companies would be well advised to follow the lead of their best engineers, because those engineers are the ones building the world where all the world's technical creations and innovations are going to live.

Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal. He is also a Visiting Scholar at the University of California at Santa Barbara and a Fellow with the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University.

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