Note: This is a follow up to my earlier blog entries "founding philosophers" and "the age of pragmatists". If you have not read that one yet, please do so before continuing here.
The most powerful things in the world can not be controlled. At best they can be influenced.
This can be written another, less catchy, way: a) there is a limit to the number of things that can be effectively managed simultaneously by a unit of management effort; b) management is a finite resource that demonstrates diminishing returns when scaled up in a purely vertical fashion; c) and there is a relationship between the power of a system and the size of the system. In that interplay there exists a threshold where the system loses the attribute of "controllable" as it increases in influence, and vice versa. This can be seen by analogy in natural systems like hurricanes and more literally in the complex interplay within biological ecosystems. It's simply an attribute of large dynamic systems.
Social movements attempt to shift the expectations and behaviors of people in large human systems, and they face the control/power challenge quite directly: they can't be tightly controlled if they are powerful, at best they can be influenced.
Through processes of social evolution, humans stumble upon culture and custom as a pretty decent way to manage this issue. Shared values, common expectations and communal goals allow individual actors within a large society to move in a generally coordinated fashion without requiring each to be directly managed.
Culture becomes a way to define, refine, transmit, reinforce and reassure each other of the precepts of the system. Art and ritual, governance and tradition .. they allow us to influence ourselves at uncontrollable scales. This allows hugely influential social structures to emerge that also have some measure of stability to them. On the down side, it's a slow process that is not overly efficient and can seem to work against pragmatic goals at times.
What does this have to do with Free software? It started with people defining common expectations and communal goals. To take one example: the GPL is a formulation of this in the form of a legal text. Participants communicated these social artifacts to each other, and this gave rise to a large, successful, somewhat uncontrollable movement that showed itself to have great effectivity and strength. Some pragmatic membership of some Free software communities, looking more at the costs of such an approach than the benefits, have over time steered towards mechanisms that are ultimately more manageable and controllable but far less powerful.
A common pragmatic approach is one that focuses on balance sheets alone. I was told by one well-known Free software company founder and self-appointed community leader that they invested significant amounts of money in a particular Free software project per year and then asked rhetorically "What do we have to show for it?" They were referring to a combination of community control and corporate profitability, two things they were still searching for. What they had actually gotten from it was more and better Free software and membership in the society that creates it, but that escaped them.
This kind of thinking is the result of optimizations done for the perceived benefits of the individual actors. The culture, is not being measured as part of the success or failure, and so suffers as a result. As this is a prime mechanism of ensuring stability and forward movement of large systems, this is concerning. It is also self-defeating, as without stability it is hard to build successful structures.
An interesting manifestation of this approach has been the rise of a new job position: the community manager. Managing a community is a polite way to say "We're trying to exert influence over this system of people and bring some control to it." The community manager positions currently around Free software are not community developers, community coordinators or even community "engineers" (whatever that might mean) .. they are "managers", and they are beholden not to the community but to the employer.
As such, it is not uncommon to witness a community manager repeat dubious ideas that are
slanted towards and which attempt to justify their employer's interests; to see divisions created as
much as unity; for the installment of systems based on loyalty-based
conviction (fanaticism) that encourage highly partisanship approaches.
This is not an indictment of the individuals who hold these positions. Community managers are not somehow "bad people". I know a number of of them personally and will attest that their hearts and minds are in the "right" place. It's a systems issue: no matter who was placed in that position the result would be the same. The measurements and incentives that come with these positions create the often unfortunate results we see, all in the name of hoping to construct and manage a group of people in support of the company's interests. And everyone's heart is in the right place the whole time.
The pragmatic nature that has overtaken Free software has increasingly left behind the idea of influence by idea and replaced it with the management of economics (monetary and otherwise). If the goal is to create a new economic model for technology, we've become focused on the right things. However, if it is to create a new model for technology in society, to ensure that technology aids humanity rather than erodes it, it probably isn't, because that requires systems so powerful they can only be influence and not controlled.
Building community on ideas that tie individual actors together, and letting those communities of individual actors interact freely, guided and driven by those ideas is critical. Free software needs to find a way back to the "age of philosophers" in some fashion without losing the power of the pragmatists. We need both, with each influencing from its strengths.
I believe it is unrealistic to ask others to do that which we are not willing to do ourselves. It can also be helpful to adjust the rules of the game slightly so that the desired behavior is rewarded more strongly. Which brings me to the useful conclusion of this blog entry series.
I've written about a bunch of history and a little philosophy in these three related blog entries, the next one will wrap it all up and be about the pragmatic results that this train of thinking has led to. In particular, I will introduce two key components of Make·Play·Live that were directly influenced by this train of thought: the add-ons content system and the partner network that was recently announced.