DRMacIver's Notebook

Free and Open Source Social Technology

Free and Open Source Social Technology

From Where Good Ideas Come From by Steven Johnson, page 242:

As Lawrence Lessig has so persuasively argued over the years, there is nothing "natural" about the artificial scarcity of intellectual property law. [...] Ideas are intrinsically copyable in the way that food and fuel are not. You have to build dams to keep ideas from flowing.

This is in the context of Johnson talking about what he calls the fourth quadrant - ideas generated by networks of people operating outside of market incentives. The fourth quadrant is in fact a great source of innovation, and a large part of that is this relative lack of intellectual property dams. If someone comes up with a great idea and isn't interested in making money off it, they're usually delighted if you copy them. Good etiquette requires that you credit them, and ideally (in the spirit of open source) if you make any improvements to the idea you pay it back by telling them or others about it, so as long as everyone behaves like a vaguely good citizen sharing ideas that you don't intend to monetize is a net positive for everyone.

One difficulty is when ideas escape the network and into the market - if you share your idea and someone goes "that's a great idea, I'm going to make money off it", that's less good. Firstly, you feel exploited (in many cases this will be literally cultural exploitation) and secondly now there's an entity who likely has more money (and thus power) than you who is liable to claim ownership of the idea and/or make demands of you, and because you gave the idea away for free you have little leverage.

If I sound bitter, this is of course because we run into this problem in FOSS a lot.

But there's a nice example where this doesn't really come up that much, which is social technology. You do get people "selling" social technology through writing books and doing consulting or training courses, but even there it tends to be pretty much part of the network rather than the market, with members of the network also making money off it.

A lot more people are developing social technology, and more general technologies in the form of the techniques of being human. In the last year or so I've been hanging out with the group who I tend to refer to as "feelings Twitter" - a very loosely aligned group of people who basically do a lot of weird therapy and talk about their feelings and the tools they've used to explore them. This is very much an example of fourth quadrant innovation, with people mixing and matching, generating new techniques, boosting ideas that have worked well for them.

So far this all seems to work out pretty well, and I think a large part of that is that even though you can make money off this sort of thing very few of us are trying to do so (I suppose I kinda am trying to make money off it, in that the newsletter is paid, but I'm pretty far from being there). Being better humans is our work but not our job.

At the moment I don't see much risk of us falling into the FOSS trap of having to support companies who are using our stuff for free (providing free therapy in your DMs is a lot more likely, but I think quite a different problem and not necessarily a problem at all), and if a company uses our ideas that's generally going to be somewhere between neutral an positive for us (it might be a bit annoying if and when they butcher them).

And, to go back to the original quote, a lot of that is because you can't patent social technologies. Lets keep it that way.