Thursday, September 16, 2004

Open Your Windows!

There's something in the air. Something new and fresh, which I'm only just beginning to notice.

No, I'm not referring to the fragrances of early spring in Melbourne (and no, I haven't forgotten those wattle photos; be patient) .
Nor am I necessarily referring to Linux, although that is closer to the mark (and should give a hint as to where the title of this piece is coming from!).
Open source is certainly a part of it. A very big part.

But there's something else. Step back, and see:
  • Open source (obviously) : groups of people coming together spontaneously to produce code to share
  • Internet: the underlying architecture of which was designed to survive nuclear warfare by avoiding central, easily targeted, switches
  • Blogging: online diaries accessible to all, and visible to all (if that is desired)
  • Wikis: webpages to which anyone can contribute and correct
  • Wikipedia: an online encyclopedia to which anyone can contribute: and correct
  • Companies (a few): abandoning the old 'management knows best' philosophies, in favour of a workplace democracy, where all staff get to participate in defining the work (check out Ricardo Semler)
  • Surveillance: check out David Brin's thesis in 'The Transparent Society' that the best answer to the old question: 'who watches the watchers?' is: the watchers themselves.
  • Disaster Response: New York: Sep 11. Official Emergency services were overwhelmed by the magnitude of the attacks. However, volunteers appeared out of nowhere to assist. A similar thing happened in Bali a year later.
Two common themes are emerging here:
  • 'decentralisation': It's a very human reaction when faced with a crisis to tighten controls and yet it's the worst thing for a manager to do. Why? Because it prevents other people from contributing: and actually helping out!
  • 'self organisation': given sufficient information, and effective means of communication, people don't usually need to be told what to do and where to do it. They will usually manage to organise themselves into effective teams. Yes, there will be leaders, but they will change with circumstances, and different skills are needed to be applied.
Decentralisation? Self-Organisation? Ugh! Both these terms are rather clumsy so, for the moment, let's lump them under the one label:
It isn't really that new but, in the past, it's foundered on the tyrrany of distance that diminishes and distorts the free interplay of ideas that nurture it. Not to mention the vested interests that thrive in closed, tightly controlled environments. Control is a habit they are very loath to give up.

Of course, like any new idea in its early stages, it's very easy to get enthusiastic, abandon all caution, and extrapolate wildly (and Openness is, by its very uncontrolled nature, particularly susceptible to this). How widely applicable is Openness? Could a company really be run by its philosophy (Semco seems to have managed for 20+ years) ? Could a government?

Could a world?

But there! I'm allowing my old insular habits to assert themselves. For now, let us sip this heady brew; see where the winds of change take us.

And, I'll let you be the judge.


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