Get Back in the Box Thought Virus #2: Open Source and the Authorship Society

Time for a new excerpt from the book. I’ve decided to base my choice of excerpt on the conversation that developed over the last one. So here’s a natural extension of the idea that the people we used to call “customers” are now in the lead, and should be welcomed into the process of innovation as equals.

In the book, this section is followed by some examples of businesses inviting participation – from Adobe inviting users to create plugins via their “Studio Exchange” website, to John Fleuvog soliciting shoe designs from his customers. Those who are confident in their own core competency have nothing to fear from employees or customers with good ideas.

Here, I contextualize the open source ethos as part of a bigger renaissance: the emergence of an “authorship society.”

The market for products enabling the do-it-yourselfer is still growing. Home Depot and Lowe’s equip the consumer with professional grade tools, while Vitamin Warehouse and herb shops supply the self-healer. Amateurs are now more responsible for formerly expert-only aspects of their own lives, and they’re comfortable with it. The “no user serviceable parts” warning on the back of a radio or TV set is now taken as a challenge.

It’s pure renaissance. Like gamers learning to play, then use cheat codes, and then finally program for themselves, people feel they can be trusted with the code. And they are willing to go ahead and do the hard work of learning it if they feel they can improve upon what already exists.

This renaissance ethos of authorship isn’t limited to some isolated group of “cultural creatives” in New York, San Francisco, and Cambridge. No, it’s a mainstream “red state” American trend, as well, emerging as crafts fairs, a NASCAR culture of car modification, gun kits, backyard farming, and even home schooling. For every Northeasterner musing on how he would have drawn up the plans for New York’s street grid to include bike lanes (and then working through the city council to create some) there’s a Midwesterner challenging the curriculum of the local school system, and rewriting his own version based on the facts and values he thinks are more important to teach a young person.

This is the spirit of authorship presaged by the Internet and now extending to every area of our lives. The hacker mentality is all around us, evidenced in everything from the hubris to learn the entire genetic code and attempt human cloning to a growing stack of new translations of the Bible. Meanwhile, our unintentional impact on the environment, from melting polar icecaps to mercury-toxic oceans, only underscores how much influence we wield.

It is the real legacy of the open source movement—misunderstood even by many of its participants as solely a way to develop computer operating systems, and underestimated in its potential impact by even its staunchest opponents. As I’ve come to see it, the deeper cultural agenda is based on three far-reaching assumptions:

1. The systems by which we live are inventions and conventions.
2. The codes underlying those systems can be learned and rewritten.
3. This process best takes place collaboratively.

It’s those same three stages of renaissance we’ve been looking at all along: moving from passivity to gaining a perspective and then to attaining the power of authorship. Finally, the desire to acquire and spend social currency fuels a spirit of collaboration. We play the game by the rules, we learn enough codes to cheat, and ultimately rewrite the game and share our creations with others.

Approaching work this way offers us a path not only to greater innovation, but also to a more cooperative and less painfully competitive style of doing business. Still, it requires that we relearn both our own areas of expertise from the inside out, as well as the way we think of how to share them with others. Luckily, the two go hand in hand.