Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Paul Graham on What Business can Learn from Open Source

The whole article is an interesting read (broadly: the value of paternalistic top-down structures over free-wheeling bottom-up ones is diminishing in many places at present, and is likely to continue doing so for quite some time). He does, however, make some wonderfully pointed remarks about typical corporate workplaces:

Another thing blogs and open source software have in common is that they're often made by people working at home. That may not seem surprising. But it should be. It's the architectural equivalent of a home-made aircraft shooting down an F-18. Companies spend millions to build office buildings for a single purpose: to be a place to work. And yet people working in their own homes, which aren't even designed to be workplaces, end up being more productive.


The atmosphere of the average workplace is to productivity what flames painted on the side of a car are to speed. And it's not just the way offices look that's bleak. The way people act is just as bad.
He also notices, in a roundabout way, something that I realised a long time ago about the worldview of many people who scorn capitalism:
The third big lesson we can learn from open source and blogging is that ideas can bubble up from the bottom, instead of flowing down from the top. Open source and blogging both work bottom-up: people make what they want, and the best stuff prevails.

Does this sound familiar? It's the principle of a market economy. Ironically, though open source and blogs are done for free, those worlds resemble market economies, while most companies, for all their talk about the value of free markets, are run internally like communist states.
My take on this is that corporatism is simply another word for using a firm (or firms) as the means of co-ordinating means of production, as distinct from using markets for the same purpose. An untrammelled excess of either creates harmful consequences. Many people protesting the evils of capitalism (private ownership of the means of production) are actually protesting the evils of very large scale corporatism (huge firms, whose executives wield enormous and largely unconstrained power over the masses). I consider this distinction important because most of the people I see/hear protesting capitalism actually advocate socialism, of one sort of another, unaware that they are advocating the construction of even larger corporations, which are even more dehumanising and, worse still, which have absolute monopolies in the areas in which they are to operate. The very problems that inspire such people to act appear to me to be the unavoidable consequences of the course of action that they advocate.

Anyway, enough rant. I really quoted Paul's article because of his amusing analogy of the extraordinary competitiveness of open-source software and blogging with encumbent software and media companies to the (not yet seen in the wild) idea of home made aircraft beating F-18s.

(It suddenly occurs to me that, of course, something akin to this has actually occurred. A handful of amateur criminals removed the World Trade Center armed only with box cutters... I'll stop now, really.)