Archive of UserLand's first discussion group, started October 5, 1998.
Re: A History of "Open Source"
Author: Joshua Allen Posted: 8/20/2000; 12:35:20 AM Topic: A History of "Open Source" Msg #: 19845 (In response to 19844) Prev/Next: 19844 / 19846
Would it be fair to say that this piece isn't meant to be objective or balanced? I find this article interesting for what it demonstrates about history. Those of us who live through events are often surprised at the way those events are ultimitely distilled to history. This particular account of "Open Software" reminds me of "The Hacker Crackdown" by Bruce Sterling. It was good reading, full of interesting characters and having a sense of authenticity that made the reader feel like they were there. I am sure that Bruce researched his book, but I do not think it should be regarded as much more than entertainment -- he wasn't there. More peculiar, most authors since have skipped over the research part entirely and paraphrased "hacker crackdown" in their works. Or consider the works of John Markoff. Would anybody claim that his articles on hacking are more than 5% accurate? Despite his absolute ignorance on the topic, it is remarkable how many journalists rehash his work as if it is history. So when thinking of "history", there are some "laws" which I think all history follows:
- Iterative Cariciturization - History is an iterative process. Writers write about things they find interesting, and once enough writers have written about a thing, other writers begin to be influenced by those previous writings. As I have watched various histories form, the process reminds me of a Mandelbrot set. There is a wide and beautiful range of things that happen in reality, but as the experience gets pumped through the feedback loop of history-making, most of the meaning flies toward infinity and is never heard from again. The pieces of history that resonate through enough iterations end up forming a strangely bug-shaped impression that seems vaguely similar to the mind of the historian and all other histories that have been written before. Another way of thinking about this is a portrait that goes through successive simplifications, quickly becoming a caricature of the original subject.
- Hero-making - There is a saying; "great people talk about ideas, normal people talk about things, and simpe people talk about people." Or maybe it is just because 75% of the population fit the Meyers-Briggs "S" profile. In any case, history isn't history without heroes to symbolize the salient points. Heroes seem to be chosen through this "strange attractor" process detailed above. For example, why is it that Tanenbaum is never mentioned in open-source histories?
- Self-reference - Storytellers are interested in storytellers. Wall and Stallman are people who (in my opinion) are storytellers first and software people second. They like to communicate, persuade, excite, and define. They are flamboyant and attract attention. Their stories are interesting to other people who write stories, and they become symbols of their stories. In a sense, "Richard Stallman is famous because he is famous". There are a whole range of things contributing to the phenomenon that many choose to call "the open source movement". To really do justice to the issues is complicated and difficult. There is this whole industry of people just doing their thing, and above it all you have these opposing egos that are attempting to define it. And they are attempting to define things by comparison or contrast to what the other storytellers are saying.
- Selectivity - Definitions need names, or labels. The label is a starting point for debate and ultimately history writing. In the open-source case, you point out the debate between "free" and "open". A person like myself might say that "community" development and idea exchange has been around since the invention of 300 baud modems, and that the ability for developers to collaborate and share has been enhanced incredibly by the rise of ubiquitous communications networks. (I would also point out that developers would naturally be the ones to benefit first from the spread of cheap communications) But what I describe as "community" development is swallowed by "open source" in another's rhetoric, and "free software" in another. As history slides toward one attractor, the others are selectively diminished. For example, I would contend that Marc Andreesson is one of the great heroes of "community programming". In my history, he would deserve a place next to Wall, K&R, and the others. But of course his symbol does not fit when you choose the label "open source" or "free software".
Of course, open source isn't the only history being made this way. Sometimes I wonder about Eric Bina -- how many "history of the Internet" pages are out there? For fun sometime, I suggest you browse the Internet to find the history of the Internet. You will find that Eric Bina was one of the few symbols that made it into that history, which has been paraphrased all around the net. But then where did he go? This says some very interesting things about history.
Some of our best-selling magazines are about people who pretend to be other people who do real things. And how many shows do we see each year where people who pretend to be other people give tributes or awards to people who also pretend to be people who do real things? Am I the only one alarmed that the Biography channel gets more views for telling the life of Harrison Ford or Whoopi Goldberg than from talking about people who are at least credited with doing real things? It is not enough to read a magazine about home decorating anymore -- we want to know about "ten celebrity homes". And now, as if our own lives are not interesting enough, we have the San Jose Mercury telling us about "The Dogs of Silicon Valley": http://www.sjmercury.com/svtech/news/special/dogs/.
I'd rather stick to building the future, Thank You! :-)
There are responses to this message:
- Re: A History of "Open Source", Dennis Peterson, 8/20/2000; 2:43:11 AM
- A History of "Open Source", Part II, Eric Kidd, 8/20/2000; 11:05:22 AM
- Re: A History of "Open Source, Erik L. Neu, 8/21/2000; 7:41:15 AM
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