Webcast recap: Clay Shirky on open source and the cognitive surplus

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Today Clay Shirky joined us for a webcast on how open source takes advantage of the "cognitive surplus"—the way we use our free time more constructively for a greater cause.

Shirky explains that you simply can't separate technical and social issues. Mixing human models of motivation--new ways of giving incentive--and writing code goes back 25 years to the Xerox 9700 and the beginnings of open source software. What the Xerox 9700 did wasn't important, but where it went did. It went to Richard Stallman's lab in the 1980s along with the source code closed. It's the machine that he wanted to update so that it would send an email when a job was finished. When he realized he couldn't, he saw that this was where software was going--closed. And that was how he chose to spend his life seeing to an open alternative.

Less known is that the GPL failed for the first decade of its life. There was a handful of software produced, but there was no "wave of world-transforming software." Rather, this was the heyday of closed, proprietary software.

The GPL preamble is clearly a political document about user freedoms and not just about the practical issues for code. And then in 1991, along came the famous "Hello everybody out there using minix" email and the birth of Linux. Shirky called this the "beginning of a practical way of implementing the ideals in the GPL." The theory had been there, but the practice of code was still one of a leader with a tight, closed circle. Linus instead went where people who cared gathered and invited them all to participate. He only attracted a few, but those few attracted another few, who attracted another few until Linux became not only a viable operating system but the foundation for the cloud. "I can't imagine the cloud existing if you didn't have an operating system built on these principles," Shirky said.

While writing Cognitive Surplus, Shirky pondered what Linux is made of. Code, of course. But that doesn't explain the difference between Linux and proprietary operating systems. "Linux is made of cognitive surplus," Shirky said. "Linux is made of the free time, talent, and commitable capabilities of anybody who understands enough about operating systems to contribute to the project, and over time that group has grown very large."

And with the Internet, there's now a network that makes finding those people trivially easy and cheap. Combined with the modern surplus of free time and talent, large collaborative projects are possible in a way that they never have been before.

In the book, Shirky explains that by 2008, Wikipedia had taken 108 million hours to create. He chose Wikipedia to represent a usage of free time, as contrasted to television viewing as an example of passive free time consumption. In contrast to that 108 million hours, we spend well over a trillion hours per year watching television. Wikipedia's creation used a mere fraction of the time and talent resource we have at our worldwide disposal.

"The open source world got there first, but the attitude towards problem solving is now becoming general purpose and very powerful," Shirky said.

But the cognitive surplus doesn't just lead to great political, artistic, or cultural works. You also get a lot of silly things like LOLcats. Those who question the success of the Internet and possibilities of the cognitive surplus point to such things and ask whether that's really improving the world. "But here's the thing," Shirky said, "that always happens." It didn't take long after movable type was invented for the first erotic novel to appear. It took another 150 years for people to consider inventing scientific journals. That hardly means the printing press wasn't a world-changing invention. A group of people committed to making the world better were able to take the medium and apply it to create change.

So what can we expect from this particular participatory, worldwide medium? There's a common set of predictions following each new medium, from the telegraph to the telephone to television--and they were all completely wrong. "Every time that a tool comes along, somebody will line up to predict world peace," Shirky said. "Never happens." What does happen is a lot of arguing, more than we had before. The aforementioned scientific journal was exactly such an example. The attempt to understand matter--essentially alchemy--was a private activity in which a small group of people sworn to secrecy would document their results in obtuse ways. Those who invented chemistry took that practice and flipped it. They all agreed to publish the results in language they all understood in a way that would let them recreate one another's results: the birth of peer review. Highly structured argumentation is actually how projects progress and is what makes a medium successful. (Read more about structured arguments in our recap of Shirky's recent LinuxCon keynote.)

"I will end with an observation that is a core question for technical communities, best illustrated with a game called Nomic that Peter Suber used to show his students how self-modifying systems work," Shirky said. Changing the rules is one of the options in the game. There are A-level rules, which can't be changed, and B-level rules, which can be. It's a game of fixed points and flexible points. Suber's point regarding self-modifying systems is that if you make the rule "A-level rules can't be changed" a B-level rule itself, then you can change the A-level rules. That is, in the design of collaborative systems, it's possible to have a system in which all elements are open to change, but some elements are harder to change than others. Think of the Constitution as an example: it's much easier to pass a law than amend the Constitution, but not impossible.

Shirky concluded, "I think the great open question for these large participatory communities is this: We had 25 years of free software and open source, and for most projects there has been a charismatic leader or a leader with obvious final say at the helm. And yet we all hope that these projects outlast their helms."

At some point, this will inevitably lead to a succession crisis. How do you hand control to the group? Linus is certainly less involved in Linux now; there's a higher degree of delegation. At Wikipedia, the users have received enormous amounts of control already. In other cases, like the Apache Foundation, there is an explicitly elected group rather than a leader. Even given those examples, though, analogous to scientific journals, Shirky asked, "How do we use this medium to actually articulate the social agreement among a group of people so they can have profitable arguments, hash out their differences, and reach an agreement?" This is not itself a technical question, though it will take technology to solve. But how do we use those tools to take advantage of the cognitive surplus in a lasting, ongoing, successful way?

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Ruth Suehle is the community leadership manager for Red Hat's Open Source and Standards team. She's co-author of Raspberry Pi Hacks (O'Reilly, December 2013) and a senior editor at GeekMom, a site for those who find their joy in both geekery and parenting.


Even though I didn't really have the time, I was really looking forward to the Clay Shirky forum. So it is really It's too bad I was unable to attend.

I'm not a programmer, I'm just a writer who has (thanks in large part to Mr. Shirkey's "Here Comes Everybody") become a netizen.

Because I am not a programmer, I can't distinguish between good java script and bad javascript, so I use noscript. I already knew I have to grant permission for this site to be functional.

In signing up for the webinar I granted permission to opensource.com and redhat but that wasn't good enough. I granted dozens of temporary permissions... in fact everything on the list of what was blocked... and it *still* wasn't good enough. I know my limitations well enough to not to grant global permission, or to change the permission settings without having someone who does know sitting at my elbow. That's not possible today.

So. It was *never* going to let me in, so I selected the "join with limited functionality." Which gave me a black screen with a tab that says "click to play" Rather similar to what I get on YouTube. And just like when I click on a you tube video that is Flash, I can't play it. (I use the Trisquel OS, and avoid Flash.)

So. It would have been nice to be able to attend your webinar. Too bad.

Laura, no worries. We'll have the replay available in about a week.


One thing Clay said that has really got me thinking:
"The open source movement is the experimental wing of political philosophy"

I'm not sure whether I should thumbs up or down this comment :) We're working on the replay.

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