| September 2, 2010 5:34 pm

Fire DanceI’ve always been amazed that In the wilds of the Internet, fires can be ignited, extinguished and forgotten at terrifying speed.  Certainly, we say that the Internet has a long memory; we even occasionally visit Google to demonstrate it.  (Usually by uncovering the evidence of past drunken exploits.)

And such sayings may be true.  But they’re true in the way that libraries archive knowledge or that history never forgets.  The information is accessible and available, but to find it requires work.  (Sometimes a lot of work.)

The meme does not apply to the living memory of the Internet, that body of knowledge that the denizens (and it’s most important search engines) have within easy recall.  The living memory, like the Internet’s attention span, is extremely short.  Non-existent, even.

This means that if you wish to contribute to a particular discussion or flame-fest, you had better do so quickly and concisely.  Otherwise, the opportunity may pass you by forever.

In many respects, this is a good thing.  It’s an important reminder that most of our concerns are temporary and that most debates have about as much importance as that of metaphorical angels dancing on the heads of imagined pins.

In other ways, though, it is a true shame.  If you’re trying to respond quickly, it’s not always possible to say something insightful or profound.  You may not even address the points of the original article because you are too busy formulating a comeback.

(Maybe this is why virtual fisticuffs so often resemble the dynamics of sibling squabbles?)

One such article appeared on the Interwebs nearly a month ago, written by the emerging polemicist Benjamin Humphrey.  Entitled “Dude, you’re a 35 year old with a neck beard”, the thing set off what can only be described as a forest fire.  It brought up Linux ideology, geek stereotypes and religion within the same posting.  It even had the audacity to suggest that, at least as far as technology goes, ideology should serve progress and not the other way round.  (Very brave positions, all.)

Predictably, people jumped all over it.  There were hundreds of angry comments, email flame wars and even a few scattered blog responses.

Note: I sincerely hope that Humphrey doesn’t become too gun shy with his writing.  He’s a fantastic contrarian and has a knack for making me think.  This article will be the third response I’ve written to his work, and that says something.  The world needs more provocative opinions and controversial ideas.  And even though discussions of such material may occasionally – or even frequently – explode doesn’t mean that they should be avoided.  Humphrey is very good at bringing these such topics to the attention of the open source community.  It would be a pity if he stopped simply because he’s occasionally gotten himself burned (even if they were third degree and required skin grafts).

I think Humphrey’s article prompted such an explosion because the points he proffers are interesting, important and timely.  They highlight changes that are happening in the open source community and demonstrate that, though Open Source may have started as an ideological movement (complete with its own priesthood), it’s not going to stay that way forever.  Humphrey also offered the opinion that this is a good thing, and that the purity police (in his language, the “beardies”) needn’t destroy their own legacy to prevent it from changing.

I largely agree with this message, but being the longwinded and engaged sort of fellow I am, I had a few points that I wanted to add.  More logs on the fire, if you will.

However, real life and other responsibilities got in the way.  I wasn’t able to sit, formulate my thoughts and respond in a timely manner.  For that reason, I’ve arrived late to the conflict.  And though I bring material, explosives and (most importantly) fuel, I’ve found an otherwise spectacular disaster reduced to barely smoking embers.

But since I’ve written the damn thing and I’m infatuated with the sound of my own voice, I’m going to breathe some life back into this flame.  Over the next few days, I’d like to take Humphrey’s argument and extend it to a logical conclusion.  Specifically, there are three points I’d like to explore:

  1. Humphrey is correct, the open source worlds are changing and Purity of Thought is taking a back seat to innovation and progress.  This is a scary, although not a bad, thing.
  2. The shifts are happening because the open source tent is expanding.  This is a necessary step to eventual world domination, or as Mark Shuttleworth, to “crossing of the chasm.”
  3. Ultimately, these changes will be a Good Thing.  Even though new people are entering the community and they’re kind of strange, that does not mean that there should be battles to the death.  Both the interests of the beardies and those of the new denizens can align and influence one another.  Open Source if a process, not a product, and works best by combining the interests of many.

The Italians have saying:

Since the house is on fire, let us warm ourselves.

Thanks to Humphrey, the house has already burned down (in addition to sizable parts of the garden and grounds).   But that does not mean I can’t make use of his magnificent ruin, or its smoldering remains.  I intend not only to warm myself, but to dance amidst its flames.  I sincerely hope that you’ll join in and help raise a mere blaze to a proper firestorm.


3 Responses to “Dancing Amongst the Embers – Part 1: An Introduction”

Stephen wrote a comment on September 10, 2010

The Free software movement has been about freedom of being able to use software – they feel that they have battled long and hard to establish and maintain those freedoms, so naturally they can get protective and touchy about what is seen as an assault on this territory.
However, this does not mean there are not certain legitimate criticisms.

*Is it free if it is not available and accessible to all?

** Some of the mailing lists used to be full of attitude the lines of “you don’t know how to use a computer, so you do not belong here. Go away until you know how to use a computer” – such attitudes discourage those who came to learn, and gave the message that this software was not for all, only the initiated

**I have found Ubuntu message boards to be different altogether – arguably they have promoted more freedom for more people than the purists

* Cross platform is a legitimate form of freedom because it adds a dimension of choice and flexibility – I use R on Windows because Windows is a corporate diktat; whereas at home I can use Linux, Mac or (more than one version of) Windows. This means I am not tied to one OS and there is the start of competition, which in itself can held drive at least freedom of choice.

I am not quite sure what the chasm is – is it to main stream accessibility or is it towards closed source?

Closed source is not necessarily a bad thing, if there is choice, and if people are still free to operate their own other choices (including free software).

Propriety data formats may be more of a problem than closed source because it means there is limited opportunity to exercise choice.

Rob Oakes wrote a comment on September 10, 2010

Hi Stephen,

Thanks for this thoughtful comment. On most of your points, I could not agree more.

In fact, you managed to hit three of the five points in the next article, only more succinctly than I could have said it. (Speaking of the next entry, I shall post shortly. I am up to my eyeballs trying to finish the writing book. The publisher has finally laid down a hard deadline and I really need to comply.)

I shall post the next entry as soon as I have a bit more breathing room. (Deadlines suck.)



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