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[tlug] The Commons Is Not the Code

Curt J. Sampson writes:

 >     Open source code itself is not a common pool resource but a
 >     positive externality of its underlying contributor
 >     community. Users can consume, or "appropriate," code at zero
 >     marginal cost, because what the commons actually manages is not
 >     code but attention. When developers make contributions, they
 >     appropriate this attention from the commons.

I'm going to have to read the book, but (in my professional capacity)
I have never thought of open source software as a commons, nor have I
thought of attention from the community as a commons, nor have I
thought of contribution as appropriation (of anything).[1]  And having
read that passage, I can still see no way to arrive at any of those
concepts. :-)  So I guess I'll have to read the book to see what she's
driving at.

That doesn't mean that there isn't a free rider "problem" in open
source (and more generally governance is a huge issue in the community
at large, although a lot of individual projects have viable and
sometimes pleasant solutions to governance).  But I also think there's
a really strong protectionist instinct (to some extent mixed with pure
communist appropriation, as in RMS-thought) on the developer/advocate
side.  That is, for a lot of people bitching about the free rider
problem, it's not that there's too little contribution to open source
software, it's that there's too little contribution to "my" open
source software (whether "my" means "software I develop" or "software
I use", or both).[2]

This arises because that well-known self-puffing non-economist
business consultant (Clay Christensen) was on to something with his
"innovator's dilemma".  Software is the quintessential case, because
you can create useful software with trivial amounts of effort.  I
(obviously) don't mean that all useful software requires trivial
amounts of effort.  I mean that some useful software can be created
and made durable with as little effort as defining a macro and saving
it to your editor profile, which is a couple of dozen keystrokes
(besides the useful work, which you would do anyway and therefore
costs nothing to include in your macro).  It may even be open source
available to the public (several of my Emacs buddies used to
automatically publish their .emacs files, or portions of them, to
their home pages, maybe they still do).

And that "trivial" software can grow incrementally.  Add complementary
macros.  Recode in the editor's extension language (if different from
the macro language).  Publish as a library.  Recode the library in a
general purpose language such as Python or even C so it can scale --
and now you have something that (if it's useful enough) could be a
category killer.  But at no stage of development did it require a Fred
Brooks to manage an OS/360-scale project.  OK, I exaggerate, stuff
like that doesn't happen at all often (but you can't say never:
there's the "L" in TLUG for one).

But several OSS projects happened to listserv, and then Mailman
happened to them, and then (maybe) Sympa is happening to Mailman right
now (although we @ GNU Mailman perceive the bigger threat to be more
along the lines of Discourse).  That's Christensen's story of the
cheap but barely adequate technology coming to dominate an industry
and promoting a ragtag fringe of vendors to industry leaders (下克上),
and it's a story that's around us all the time.  The folks in the
threatened projects worry (and sometimes complain) about it a lot.
Although not in the projects I've worked on (I'm going to need to
think about that, are there common reasons or is it an accident of my
personality and those of the people I worked with?)

 > Yet things akin to the tragedy of the commons do happen in the open
 > source community,

This isn't as obvious as you might think.  I'll have to read the book.

 > and what's really going on there and the reasons for it is a
 > substantial part of Eghbal's book.

 > [1]: If you immediately get the following joke, you may be an economist.
 > Two economists are walking past a Porsche dealership. Looking in the
 > window, one says to the other, "I want that car." The other says, "No
 > you don't."

Which joke are you talking about?  I can see at least three. ;-)

[1]  Appropriation is a unilateral action by the appropriator, while
attention is a unilateral action (perhaps instinctive, which can be
exploited, but still unilateral) by the attender.

[2]  I think you can still find my "Fear of Forking Considered
Harmful" essay somewhere on the XEmacs website.


What is that straight line for?
I don't know, I'm just the boke -- YOU'RE the tsukkomi!

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