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The Bigger Switch

Doc Searls

Issue #170, June 2008

An open-source angle on Nick Carr's latest book.

I've always liked Nicholas Carr, even when I didn't agree with him. He's a clear thinker, a solid writer, a fearless partisan for sanity and a member of nobody's cabal. His landmark 2003 article, “IT Doesn't Matter”, was voted the best of that year by the staff of Harvard Business Review. In 2004, Nick expanded that article into the book Does IT Matter?. He followed in 2005 with “The End of Corporate Computing”, in MIT Sloan Management Review. As usual, few reviewers agreed with him. Including me.

His main point: IT functions were turning into “commodity inputs” developed outside of IT organizations and becoming profoundly generic. He added that IT was declining in strategic importance within organizations, and instead was doomed to perform purely functional roles. From the Preface to Does IT Matter?:

IT's transformation from a set of proprietary and heterogeneous systems into a shared and standardized infrastructure is a natural, necessary, and healthy process. It is only by becoming an infrastructure—a common resource—that IT can deliver its greatest economic and social benefits.

I didn't see how much this thesis had in common with my own observations about open-source development until I read Nick's latest book, The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google. In it, Nick stays on the supply side of technology, detailing the sources of IT's—and everybody's—commodity inputs from pure utility service providers: Google/YouTube, Amazon, Skype and PlentyofFish. He sees good and bad in the trends. For example, although he agrees with some observations in Lewis Hyde's classic The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property and Yochai Benkler's more recent The Wealth of Networks, he also dismisses their optimism:

...there's a naiveté, or at least a short-sightedness, to these arguments as well. The utopian rhetoric ignores the fact that the market economy is rapidly subsuming the gift economy. The “gifts of time and ideas” are becoming inputs to the creation of commodities...businesses are using the masses of Internet gift givers as a global pool of cut-rate labor.

Yet, there is more to a gift economy than the charity implied by the g-word. As Eric S. Raymond put it in “Homesteading the Noosphere”:

Abundance makes command relationships difficult to sustain and exchange relationships an almost pointless game. In gift cultures, social status is determined not by what you control but by what you give away....

This abundance creates a situation in which the only available measure of competitive success is reputation among one's peers.

Eric's essay appeared on the Web in 1998. At that time, the LAMP stack was still four letters long. Now that stack is a pile that exceeds a half-million code bases. Most of that code was produced originally for very practical reasons: to solve a problem, to add a capability, to get some work done—or, in hacker parlance, to “scratch an itch”. Those code bases are what organizations, including companies large and small, use to build countless new “solutions” and businesses. What they benefit from is less the value of gifting and peer esteem than the value of re-usability, which matters not only to hackers but also to anybody who wants to save money and time.

Peer-built commodity code has given us re-usability out the wazoo. In fact, we have so much of it that the builder of anything technical has to cope with a surfeit of free loose parts, as if sitting in a vast bin of Lego pieces, all seemingly from different sets—a little Star Fighter here, a little Train Station there, a lot of who-knows-what—all of it useful, or it wouldn't have been made in the first place.

It is usefulness that lies behind the creation, expansion and ubiquitizing of what Nick calls the World Wide Computer. If it weren't for the LAMP heap, we would not have the scale of freeness and abundance required to scale up a Flickr, an Amazon Web Service or a Google Cloud Computer.

Consistent with Nick's prophesies, I've been hearing lately about troubles in IT-land. It seems that the gears where IT meets HR are stripped by the independence of what Peter Drucker prophetically called Knowledge Workers. It seems these workers are getting, and sharing, most of their knowledge through commoditized external services outside of IT's control. I know one company where the internal IT system is so locked-down and firewalled against usefulness that employees in one division are getting most of their work done on their own computers, with their own cell phones, using utility “social networking” services from Twitter and Facebook.

There is a natural tendency, of course, to imagine utopian scenarios for the future of the Net. Being an natural optimist, I have gone overboard in that direction more than once—and have been called on it by Nick himself, repeatedly. What still gives me hope, however, even after I discount my own optimism, is the almost brutally meritocratic and practical nature of open-source goods production, and the abundance of smart sources from which they come.

I don't see utopian ideals behind what Alvin Toffler called the Information Age (in The Third Wave, which came out in 1980). Rather, I see practical ones, modeled on the construction industry, complete with “architects”, “designers” and “builders”. The difference is in the materials. In the physical world, we are bound by the laws of physics and the periodic table. In the networked world, we are bound by what the human mind can produce. We have no equivalents of rock and wood, because our raw materials are far less limited and far more abundant than both. This creates new problems and opportunities in equal profusion.

But, for better and worse, the source is us.

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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