Saturday, April 15, 2006

The Most Significant Ideological Battle

Cultures, societies and ideologies will war against each other as we move into the future, just like they have in the past. Of course, each side of a conflict will be convinced of its own righteousness and the inherent evil of its enemy. Each side will marshal an array of evidence to justify its actions to the world at large. But one thing will be constant across all cultural, social, military and ideological wars. This constant is the most significant philosophical issue in our day and will continue to be so into the foreseeable future.

The most important philosophical issue we will all grapple with is the conflict between open source and closed source systems.

For regular readers of my blog and for technologically-minded people, this statement most likely triggers thoughts of Linux in a battle against proprietary operating systems like Windows. While this is certainly one battleground for the conflict between open and closed source systems, it is not the sole context for conflict. People around the world are coming to terms with the differences between systems that are closed to scrutiny and collaboration and those that are open to input from the outside as well as participation in the formation of the system. Just like in any war, there are arguments for and against the righteousness of both sides of the debate. And as usual, each side tends to offer arguments and evidence that make their cases clearly compelling. The truth is rarely consolidated on either side but is often a synthesis of both.

A tangential discussion of the dynamics of dialectics might be useful before moving on. The process of dialectics has several different flavors to it but the basic dynamic is that an idea is put out into the marketplace to compete against other ideas. People will tend to organize and judge ideas in terms of a thesis and its antithesis. Over the course of time, the marketplace will take ideas and use them and turn them against each other so that eventually, there are fairly clear relationships between a thesis and its antithesis. If there is enough interest in these ideas, people will use them to form a synthesis, which is the result of a lot of churning and debate over the thesis and antithesis.

The ideal objective of the dialectic process is to find either lower case truth or upper case Truth. Both forms of truth tend to be slippery and elusive since humans tend to approach the search for truth with presuppositions and biases that are not shared by everyone. The quest for truth is, in the end, a personal search that may find other people who are sympathetic to a particular version of truth but as the tragedy of human history shows, the one global truth that all can agree with has never been found. Even saying that upper case Truth is found in God does not help us arrive at Truth because people have widely divergent views of who God is, what God values and what God desires of people.

So it is on this point that I take issue with several philosophers who have articulated the value and process of the dialectic search for truth. I do not believe that the dialectic process leads us to upper case Truth but it does help us get to lower case truth. Even this though is discouraging because lower case truth lasts only for an age. Eventually the synthesis becomes a thesis and it undergoes yet another iteration of dialectic churn. Furthermore, the process of debate and churn is not linear and it does not focus on one neatly defined thesis at a time. It's like a long-simmering stew. You know the ingredients that went into it but after a while, the ingredients stop being distinct and come together as the stew. As it cooks, you take some out and taste it and make adjustments.

We are in the midst of the dialectic process for open and closed source systems. For those of you who have read my blog and my articles on the computer industry's open/closed source battles, you know that I have taken issue with the idea that open source software holds the moral high ground over proprietary or closed operating systems. Open source zealots assert that software developed with the open model is inherently more secure and better designed. I think the body of my arguments against this assertion has pretty much dispelled that idea. Nevertheless, both camps are engaged in what is for some, a fight to the death. What I suspect will emerge from the fray is something that synthesizes both ideologies into something useful and more palatable. In my opinion, Sun Microsystems leads the way in synthesizing the zealotry of open source and the ubiquity of closed systems.

There are numerous other battlegrounds where the notions of open and closed systems are creating debate, struggle and churn.

Journalism, for example. For hundreds of years, the printing press was the most potent source of influence and dissemination of ideas. The maxim then was to never go head to head with someone who buys their ink in barrels. The primacy of the printing press lost ground when radio technology emerged as a means to reach larger numbers of people with the spoken word. With radio, people heard vocal inflection, different voices, and sound effects. They began to be entertained as well as informed. Radio's centrality was loosened when television emerged as the dominant source of information and entertainment. Television held sway over news reporting for decades and the maxim changed so that one should be cautious about taking on anyone who owned megawatt broadcast towers and vast cable networks.

The big three networks had a stranglehold on the dissemination of news and the spin that was placed on news. The cost of acquiring information on newsworthy events could only be paid by commercial networks that offered vast audiences to advertisers. Because of the capital investment required to enter the broadcast market, there was little competition to challenge the slant of reporting.

The internet has radically altered the landscape of news reporting. The internet has atomized reporting and dissemination to the point where individuals can report on news and disseminate their reports to potentially large numbers of people over the web. The maxim has been altered to read: Be cautious about taking on 10,000 individuals each with their own web server. The web has generated a proliferation of information sources, each with varying degrees of trustworthiness and value. Nevertheless, the web has subverted the traditional media's dominance over news reporting and analysis. The cost to enter the information age is exactly zero because blogs are free and public computer access is free as well.

Journalism used to be a closed system using infrastructures that were relatively expensive. Printing presses, broadcast towers and cable network access were all beyond the means of individuals. Print, radio and television were effectively closed systems that were controlled by corporations. They may have solicited or responded to customer input but ultimately, they made their own editorial decisions, pursued some stories, and buried others. Credibility was a function of which J-school someone attended.

The web server has turned journalism upside down. It has all but invalidated the need for traditional journalistic credentials and it has eliminated high-cost barriers to entry. The web server has democratized journalism and reduced credibility to a single value: is what this person reports reasonable? Can it be substantiated? Is there reason associated with analysis? No longer do the traditional media channels own journalism. Not only do they no longer own journalism but the open system created by the internet forces a much more robust level of competition. And the recent failures by the New York Times and CBS indicate that the traditional media giants are not faring as well as they would like in the competition.

The music and movie industries are also experiencing a shift from a closed system to an open one. Again, prior to the internet, recording labels owned the studios, the marketing and the distribution. Recording studios handled acts like venture capitalists handle business startups: the strategy is to invest in a number of businesses with the knowledge that most will provide marginal returns but one or two startups will be gigantic successes. Both the labels and VCs rake in large percentages of successful acts and businesses to offset the development costs of less-successful endeavors.

The personal computer and the internet have largely eliminated the need for distribution through CDs and retail outlets. Users aren't buying entire discs full of crap music but instead are buying Brittany's sole decent song and mixing it in with other music. The labels aren't only afraid of lost revenue but the larger picture is that they are losing their grip on the music industry as a whole. They have already lost distribution and as bands and entrepreneurs work out decent business models, the labels will also lose their hold on marketing. It used to be that studio time for a band would cost $10,000 a day. Now, artists can set up a remarkably capable home studio for less than one day in a commercial studio with comparable quality and they get to own the equipment instead of merely rent it. The labels are looking at the disintermediation of their business' infrastructure. No one needs them for studio time, they aren't needed for distribution and they are going to lose their hold on marketing. The only thing left for labels is tour management but I suspect the entrepreneurial spirit will grab that too. The end result will be an entirely open sourced business model where artists and independent businesses take over what the labels have dominated for 60 years.

Consider the process of buying a car. Not too long ago, the buyer walked into a show room and was at a severe disadvantage to the salesman. The buyer had practically no information advantage and the salesman had all the information advantage. Now, buyers are more prepared to go head to head with a sales rep. Buyers know what the markup is, they can research specific option packages and the dealer cost of those packages. Buyers can have access to the back end rebates available to dealers. In short, buyers now have information parity with sales reps. Buyers have an entirely open field of information to them so that they can minimize, if not eliminate, the advantage previously held by dealers. With car buyers, information is power. With open systems, power is conveyed to users by sharing powerful information. With closed systems, the power of information is kept among a select few to their advantage.

Another example of the open/closed source movement is Al Quiada and the radical Muslim fringe versus just about anything in the West. There are two prongs of closed systems in conflict with open systems here. The first is the exclusivity of the Muslim vision for salvation. Not only are infidels not allowed into the Muslim vision of heaven but they must be eliminated from the face of the earth. The second, and more significant shift caused by Al Quiada has been to shift the nature of warfare away from conflict between sovereignties to conflict between ideologies. Terrorism is nothing new except to Americans. The PLO and the IRA have waged terrorist skirmishes for decades. bin Laden has completed the shift by having the courage to take on the United States.

The challenge of terrorism is that there is no single sovereignty to attack, threaten or negotiate with. Terrorist cells are connected through global networks and are governed not be nations but by ideologues. Warfare in the past was a closed system, where only sovereign nations were invited to the battle. Today, the United States is dealing with not only Al Quiada but also Iraq insurgents led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, plus insurgents in Afghanistan sympathetic to the toppled Taliban regime. After Truman nuked Japan twice, it was easy for him to contact the Emporer and say, "Surrender unconditionally" because the field of combatants was closed. Today, the US pursues three different ideologues engaged in combat to the death.

As a final example of the battle between open and closed systems, I offer up the political sphere. Yet, again, the internet stars as the frictionless enabler of participatory democracy. We have a republic in the United States, which means we ourselves do not participate in every issue before our country or state or municipality. We elect representatives to vote for us. Prior to the internet, it took a lot of effort to monitor the records of our representatives. We could write letters to them but the lack of quick, accurate feedback about their conduct made it difficult to be involved in our government without a lot of effort.

With the internet, it is easy to remain informed with fresh information regarding how our representatives are conducting themselves and the government. We are provided with instant feedback on their votes, we can rapidly organize ourselves with other like-minded citizens and can make our desires known clearly. Again, the nature of information, its fluidity and its freshness work to our advantage by keeping us in tune with what is happening in government. Plus, keeping in mind the changes that open access to information has brought into journalism, we are less dependent on mainline media channels for not only the spin on news but also on what stories are published. In the last three presidential election cycles, open source journalism has brought information to light that the biases of mainline media would prefer not to cover because it exposes their bias as bias rather than just the news. No longer do we have to believe Walter Cronkite's assertion, "And that's the way it is." Uh, no Walter, it most certainly is not the way it is because I now have four other alternate sources of information on this event you just reported and they have a different perspective on it. I'm now empowered to come to my own conclusion.

We see this happening around the world as people become more aware of political issues. China is deeply intimidated by the disintermediation of information by the internet. The internet creates huge gateways into their closed society and it informs its citizens about the nature of freedom. China expends significant effort to tightly control internet access and traffic into the minds of its people. As China continues to gather steam in the global market, it will become increasingly difficult for the Communist government to maintain a culture of oppression and secrecy. Open markets tend to bring in not only new commodities to buy and sell but also new ideas. This openness is what the Taliban sought to suppress and it is why the Afghan people so quickly embraced radio, music and TV: these tools gave them exposure to new ideas that resonated with their desire for freedom and autonomy.

There's an interesting cultural dynamic that I think also has its root in the dialectic between open and closed systems. What sparked this idea in me the other day was a comment by an author I am reading right now. Dallas Willard said that we have a rejection culture. He said this as an aside and didn't fully develop it but the comment it triggered in my mind a connection between a rejection culture and reality TV. Underlying all of the reality shows on TV is the threat of rejection. Though the rules vary, fundamentally, each show has a dynamic by which individuals are eliminated. Some shows have votes, one has, "You're fired!," and some have contestants eliminate themselves. But the core of each show has people who are in and people who are out.

Being in and being out is one of the dynamics of the battle between open and closed systems. Open systems seek to involve more people in the activities of the system; closed systems seek to exclude people from participation. In open systems, responsibility for managing and leading the system belongs with the participants. In closed systems, there may be participants but they are not allowed to participate in leading the dynamics of the systems. Closed systems are intended to keep participants out of the core of the system.

I believe that the world will see stages set for the conflict between open and closed systems. Each will claim their own righteousness as a thesis over competitive ideas as antitheses. Zealots will marshal themselves for battle, each crying out that their just cause shall prevail. What really ends up happening however, is that the process of dialectics will bring polar ideas together in conflict where compatible ideas will rise up and the incompatible chaff will fall to the side. All of the open/closed systems I discuss here are currently engaged in battle. What we see in terms of the combatants today will be markedly different as the dialectical process works out over the next 10, 20 and 30 years. For example, the nature of socialism in China will probably shift more toward democratic capitalism as China is infiltrated by ideas that are antithetical to socialism. China will either adapt its notion of socialism or its leadership will crumble from the force of active dissidents informed from the outside by a free-er global economy.

The point to take away however is that what we see today in the battle between open and closed systems will be quite different than what we see in 10 or 20 years. By that time, today's systems will adapt into something different as a direct result of the conflict between ideologies. This adaptation will likely yield remarkable fruit in terms of economic, spiritual, governmental, social and cultural changes but this gain will definitely come at the cost of lives, ideals and ideologies. The churn and tumult will be significant but I believe the conflict between open and closed systems is deeply valuable. What we see will lead us to feel that this truly is the most remarkable time in history to be alive.