November 8th, 2007 | Published in Uncategorized
Linux caught my attention from the time is was a command line only operating system. The idea that a free operating system could be built by volunteers on the Internet led by Linus Torvalds fascinated me. I was no programmer, just an observer – a fan even. It was like discovering a Cinderella team and watching how far they could go. When it got to the stage that Linux was favored by researchers who seriously needed computers to go from months without rebooting in remote places like Antarctica I realized it gotten further than I ever dreamed it could. Something extraordinary was happening. Since those days I have watched Linux steadily gain on Microsoft – a company massively successful in its own right. It is not like Microsoft is incompetent or has stood still. Yet, Linux is a mainstay in the world of servers and it has achieved viability on the desktop. Real competition. Over the years I’ve put dozens of distros on my computer but none were good enough to meet my everyday needs until I tried Ubuntu about a year ago. I haven’t looked back. It is a perfectly usable alternative for most things I do, but I still retain a Windows machine to run programs that are only available in Windows.
So, how can a group of unpaid volunteers compete with a massive and successful industrial giant? Remember Bill Gates beat IBM at their own game. Linux has challenged Microsoft using a non corporate model. In my opinion, no single writer has done more to answer that question than Eric S. Raymond, generally acknowledged as the philosopher of the Open Software Movement. His The Cathedral and the Bizarre (Freely available for download) is the best introduction I know to this new world where a chaotic collection of volunteers manages to work more efficiently than highly organized and managed teams of professionals. While McLuhan predicted that new worlds, with new rules, would emerge from any change in the technological and media environment he died well before the PC and Internet revolution occurred. Raymond, on the other hand, lived through and participated in the emerging world of Open Software and has the kind of mind that could both participate in and theorize about what was happening. Raymond explains how Linus Torvalds was the first to leverage the new opportunities provided by the emerging Internet:
Linux was the first project for which a conscious and successful effort to use the entire world as its talent pool was made. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the gestation period of Linux coincided with the birth of the World Wide Web, and that Linux left its infancy during the same period in 1993–1994 that saw the takeoff of the ISP industry and the explosion of mainstream interest in the Internet. Linus was the first person who learned how to play by the new rules that pervasive Internet access made possible.
Raymond deliberately replicated Torvalds methods in developing his own Open Software project fetchmail. In the process he saw much more deeply into the social aspects of why this unlikely model of software development truly worked in its own right and wasn’t just a one off phenomena.
Another vital factor was the development of a leadership style and set of cooperative customs that could allow developers to attract co-developers and get maximum leverage out of the medium. But what is this leadership style and what are these customs? They cannot be based on power relationships—and even if they could be, leadership by coercion would not produce the results we see.
Linus Torvalds had somehow inspired a remarkable degree of cooperation. What surprised everyone including Raymond himself, was that these excellent outcomes were motivated not by economic gain but by the boost to the contributor’s own ego.
The “utility function” Linux hackers are maximizing is not classically economic, but is the intangible of their own ego satisfaction and reputation among other hackers. (One may call their motivation “altruistic”, but this ignores the fact that altruism is itself a form of ego satisfaction for the altruist).
An important corollary to this idea is that people self selected to do the work because they found it an achievable challenge and therefore enjoyed doing it and then were further motivated by the ego satisfaction provided by recognition of their work.
We may view Linus’s method as a way to create an efficient market in “egoboo” – (ego-boosting, or the enhancement of one’s reputation…) – to connect the selfishness of individual hackers as firmly as possible to difficult ends that can only be achieved by sustained cooperation.
I find Raymond’s account is valuable because it provides detailed insight into the dissolution of 20th century modes of thought and boldly hypothesizes some new principles by which our emerging world of computer based culture operates. He certainly has his critics, but his work is original and challenges many settled categories of thought. He is a libertarian describing a software movement that embodies many of the ideals of socialism – consciously or otherwise. (See the Ubuntu philosophy). He quotes the anarchist Kropotkin in support of the free market mechanisms discussed above. He is a breath of fresh air in the middle of a culture war between all too familiar ideologies.
Crossposted at Yankeewombat.