Archive for August, 2008

The benefits of openness, a modern example

In the last post I talked about how the information exchange that trade and the printing press allowed started off the modern society. But this revolution is not the only information revolution in history. In fact, the first one probably was the inventing of writing. It wasn’t as big or sudden as the invention of the printing press, and neither was a third revolution that came with the inventions of the telegraph, telephone, and radio.

But the fourth one is as big as the printing press. In fact, it might be bigger, and it’s happening now. It’s called the internet.

The internet started out improving information exchange by making information more readily available. In a radio you only have the information when it’s being transmitted, but the benefit of the radio is that it can transmit information fast. The information of books is available any time, but you’ll have to go to the library. The internet is like having a gigantic library in your home, and it spreads information just as fast as radio.

The easy accessibility to information also means it’s very hard to censor information. This is of course the reason that totalitarian countries try to restrict internet access, or in extreme cases forbid people to own computers outright. But even in countries like China that filters internet content for it’s citizens, everybody with computers now have access to information about democracy and human rights. And this means that slowly, slowly, the government has to ease up on the oppression.

If it had stopped there, it would only have been a minor revolution, but it didn’t. Because the internet also means easy information sharing. Wikipedia is now the worlds largest collection of information. The reliability of the information varies, but it’s a great starting point almost for anything you want to know. The biggest and best encyclopedia ever. And, it’s made by having an enourmous amount of people all contributing a little bit.

Wikipedia is surely the best example of an open society in function you could have. Big enough to warrant it’s own article in the future.

And while Wikipedia concentrates on encyclopedia and facts, the blogging revolution has made sharing opinions and news available to everyone. Blogs started shaking the world when some American news was broken by bloggers a couple of years ago. This year, the Swedish political landscape was changed when a massive protest against a new law swept the Swedish blogosphere, while the traditional media was ignoring the issue.

Internet is not only giving people access to more information, faster, but are letting people share information, and collaborate on a scale never before imagined.

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Interesting conference: Mission Future

Via Clarification I found out about a very interesting conference in September. It’s called Mission Future and is about open source and future economy and other things related to open societies.

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The benefits of openess, an historical example

It may be easier to explain why we need an open society so badly if we look at some examples of how societies have opened up and what has happened as a result of this. And as a starting point we’ll go back to what is often called the Dark Ages; the early medieval Europe.

Many historians are fond of claiming that the Dark Ages wasn’t dark at all, pointing at the wonderful paintings and illuminated manuscripts, and the amazing Gothic architecture, and also pointing out that peoples lives weren’t much worse than before or after, really. This is of course true, but when you read something like history of philosophy, you see that intellectually this time was, if not dark, so at least rather murky. Sure, there were some important development in theology, but mostly nothing much useful happened intellectually. No great discoveries of science, and most philosophers spent their time mostly trying to come up with arguments for why God existed and why you should do what the church told you to. Notable exception like Roger Bacon and William of Ockham of course exists, but they are just a few during a period stretching almost a thousand years from which we have many philosophical writings preserved. Compare that to the few preserved writings of Greek philosophers during the thousand years before that, and the number of philosophers and important concepts that appeared there. No, the dark ages was truly dark from an intellectual standpoint.

And why was this? Well, it becomes apparent when we look at the decline of darkness that started around 1300. It started in the city states of Italy. States which had at this time more freedom than most places in the world, and also was trade centres, and therefore had contact with many parts of the world. The result was that you in places like Florence came into contact with more ideas than you would anywhere else, and you also had the freedom to share these ideas. The result was the Renaissance, a renewed interest in the classical literature and philosophy, this time regained via contact with Muslim cultures, who had not had any Dark Age, and instead produced a string of philosophers called Al. It quickly becomes obvious that the cause of the Dark Ages was the monopoly of intellectualism that the church had during these times.

The Renaissance didn’t get really up to speed until a bit later, though, when printing in it’s modern form was invented, mostly by Johannes Gutenberg. This now meant that the ideas you had or received from other places now could be spread ever more widely. In the beginning the church loved the printing press, because one problem up to now was that each Bible, being hand-made, was different. Sure, there was a sort of standard approved version, but it was hard to enforce this standard when all people did was copy each others non-standard Bibles. The printing press would change that, thought the church, by letting them print proper Bibles centrally and distribute them to the churches. They were right, of course, but what they didn’t see that printing would make books so cheap that almost anybody that was anybody could afford them. This lead to an explosion of information distribution, and soon everybody could compare different ideas for themselves, and the great ideas battled the not so great in a head to head fisticuffs. And of course, slowly great ideas prevailed and the church finally had to admit that OK, the earth was not the centre of the universe and actually, whatever you do you can’t prove that God exists.

Rationalism and science had prevailed in a way it never could have done without the open information exchange the renaissance and the printing press made possible. Society opened up during the renaissance, and as a result we got science, the industrial revolution and the modern world.

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Open source and the third world

It is ironic that those who best could benefit from open source tend to shun it. The third world has little money for software, but plenty of labor and manpower to improve and develop software. This means that the model of open source, where you pay forward by helping improving the software or the documentation or help support it, is ideal for the third world.

Yet open source is seen with suspicions in the third world. Microsoft software rules Africa’s IT-sector, to great cost. Many countries refused to be a part of the ground breaking OLPC project unless you could run Windows on the machines, thereby completely defeating a lot of the benefit of the project. (Read about the amazing impact the OLPC had in a small village in Peru). Of course, piracy is widespread in poorer countries so they don’t actually spend that much money on the software, but that also means that there is no support available when needed. You can’t call Microsoft’s hot lines when you neither can afford the software nor the call charges. So they can neither use manpower to improve the software and adapt it to their needs, nor get help when they need it.

The unwillingness to use open source in the third world seems to originate in a deep seated fear of sharing information. Of course, knowledge is power. This is true everywhere, and no more so than where the monetary forms of power are less readily available. But what is also true is that sharing knowledge does not diminish the power. This is somewhat counter-intuitive. You would think that the more people having the same knowledge as you do, the less your power would be, but that is not the case. Yes, giving information will increase the power of others. But you still have the same information and the same power. And by sharing information to others, they will also be more likely to share information to you. Together we can therefore raise our knowledge and our power to unheard of heights, if we just share information and our knowledge. And the more people share, the more power we will get, and the greater the opportunities in front of us.

The poorer countries in the world could easily propel themselves to the forefront of information technology in ten years, if they adopted open source and a culture of information sharing. But changing attitudes is often difficult and will probably take much longer than the ten years needed once the attitudes have changed.

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