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Open Source

Video At Home with Tim O'Reilly (Videos 5 and 6 of 6) 6

Today's videos are parts five and six of our casual interview with Tim O'Reilly, founder of O'Reilly Media and one of the most influential open source boosters around. (You supplied the questions. He supplied the answers.) We had a lot more to say about Tim Tuesday when we ran parts one and two of our video interview with him. Yesterday we ran parts three and four. (Today's alternate Video Links: Video 5 ~ Video 6.)

Timothy O'Reilly: ...and, like when you think about again going back to Uber, it shows you there are about six cars. You don't go I want that one that's six blocks away, that would be the old thinking. It's going to show me the six cars and I'm going to pick one. No, it's like it gives you that information but it has this background process of actually what's going on is it advertises you to them and then...

Timothy Lord: But the user is not in the smartest place to make that decision, it's...

Timothy O'Reilly: Yeah, that's right. So anyway I think the same is true in this area of programming tools, I don't think anybody's really applying or at least I don't know of anybody who's applying machine learning to helping people weed through what's the best way to do something but it would be a pretty interesting thing to try.

Timothy Lord: Now Tim let me ask you a question about a different big arc in the software world and I'll read this question verbatim, so you can answer it as you like: "Mr. O'Reilly, why didn't you join the free software movement back in the day and subverted the community with your open source initiative?" Sorry could not resist.

Timothy O'Reilly: That's alright. I would just say somebody has been reading too much propaganda. The notion that the open source movement subverted free software I think is just fundamentally wrong.

Timothy Lord: You're also guilty of supporting quite a bit of free software with your books.

Timothy O'Reilly: Oh absolutely, first off he's what I would say: that when I got into the world of free software, there was a huge universe of stuff that I was using and was exposed to and only a small part of it was represented by the free software movement. I used the X Windows system, the Web came along, all these things that seemed really, really important to me. And then, I mean, obviously going back to '84 it was UNIX. I was sort of an early UNIX user and UNIX was not at all free by any of the free software licenses but it had all the characteristics in terms of community and user contribution and that was the world that I grew up in.

So basically you go: somebody's coming along talking about a quarter of the world you live in and saying "Our quarter is the only quarter that matters." So for me when I organised what came to be called the Open Source Summit, it was fundamentally about why are you guys talking about Linux and GCC and Emacs and you're not talking about Berkeley UNIX, which was this huge vibrant community which you basically copied most of the work of. Why are you not talking about the Web, which was the greatest work of free software in our generation, you know put it into the public domain... Why are you not talking about Apache, so I just kind of went and talked about the rest of the world that I was part of. It's nothing to do with subverting or not joining the free software movement, it was just like saying: Why aren't you joining the bigger world? Why are you limiting the story to your political movement when there's this much bigger, more important movement that we have to recognize.

So for me, I thought of what I was doing as being more inclusive and recognizing more of the important threads, so the notion that I was sort of subverting or taking away this moral goodness, I look at the moral goodness of Tim Berners-Lee and the moral goodness of Richard Stallman and I go, I would actually take Tim Berners-Lee over Richard Stallman. And one of them basically said: I'm giving this to the world, make of it what you will and we see what happened, it was enormous value creation. And I think Richard created some value, but by attaching so much more moral baggage to it, he actually limited the effectiveness and I think, and a lot of my, sort of, you could say arguments with the free software movement over the years were more around: "Hey, you guys ought to be thinking about this other thing, like it's not – like I'm perfectly happy for them to do what they do and it's not like I don't think that there's a lot of really interesting stuff there.

But, for example, in 1999 when I said "Hey Richard there's a real challenge to your model" and that it really depends upon this notion that software is being distributed. And what I'm seeing is we're moving to a world where software instead has performed on the internet, and I have been on the board of Nutch which was an open source search engine that I'd seen and they were kind of saying, the code is open source, the license is open source but we can't get the scale because it's too big and too hard and we can't afford it, so it's really just the research project and Doug went off and he did Lucene instead and they did Hadoop, so he went on to other projects but I was like "Oh the world is changing" and so I'm saying to Richard, your license is don't touch Google. That's just a fact. That's just a fact because they're not distributing software and your licenses are – and he was like, well it doesn't matter because Google's not running on my computer and I go "well that's just not getting the future."

And then, I was literally trying to say I'm trying to help you guys think about this new world and instead they were like "You're bad, you're not supporting our movement" and I'm like "Screw you, I'm trying to help you by telling you where the world is going and that you have to think about these things" and I guess I would also just say that my fundamental belief and my fundamental goals have always been the creation of value and I think that when I look at the free and open source movement, I see more value creation that has come from the people who have put things out with more liberal licences. And if I look at the value – and again clearly Linux matters and GPL software matters, but stuff that's put out under the more liberal Apache or Berkeley or X-style or MIT style licenses or even more broadly public domain with the Web has created way more value for society.

Timothy Lord: It's got a lower viscosity, it can seep into more corners.

Timothy O'Reilly: Yeah.

Timothy Lord: Now speaking of moral baggage and the internet, a reader asks "What can we do to ensure that the internet remains open?" and asks if you can share some things that people can do to help keep the internet relatively open. There's a lot of chatter like should we pass laws? Should there be specific legislation that you think would be useful? Or what would you say for people who are on the internet and not running the routers to help ensure that the internet remains an open place?

Timothy O'Reilly: So I've always loved this passage from Lao Tzu, the Chinese philosopher, he said "Losing the way of life, men rely on goodness, losing goodness they rely on laws." And I've always thought that – the way I translate that is the way of life is the equivalent of science. It’s like this is the way things work. So my argument going back to open source versus free software is not a moral argument, it's an effectiveness argument; when you give stuff away, these things happen. And so that's kind of like, when you drop an apple, it falls to the ground. What are the things that we can find out about software and the way it actually works, in the age of the internet and what the effects are and how can we base our policies on that.

And so always my sort of first recourse is to say: can we line things up with the way of life or with science? And so, a good example of that is, the emphasis I've always put in my thinking about open source on architecture, certain architectures are more supportive of inclusive behaviour than others, the internet being a good example, the web being a good example, but also again in the case of, like why did Apache work and Open Office not work so well. One had an extensible modular architecture, the other one had a big hairy ball of wax architecture. Why do I love UNIX/Linux? Because it has a modular extensible architecture and lets anybody add something to the party. And that was one of the reasons that it ultimately beats something like Windows - because people could innovate in that context. So that's sort of a way of life argument.

But there is also a goodness argument, which is what's good for society? How do we encourage people to do the right thing rather than let's make a law to make them do the right thing. And I've always been much more of a fan of encouraging people than of making laws. Hear my talks to create more value than you capture, work on stuff that matters. I'm kind of like trying – I think people want to be good, they want to do the right thing and sometimes you can encourage them more effectively than you can use laws. And so a good example of this in the current context is my thinking about privacy. There are a lot of people who are sitting there saying: oh we need new laws. And I go: well we actually have some pretty good examples of laws that were designed to ensure privacy, like HIPAA for healthcare privacy and it's pretty clear they're having unintended consequences that are really stupid.

So for example recently, New York Times front page article: 'Baby pictures on the walls of your paediatrician’s office: cute but illegal.' It's like that's frickin' crazy, because it's violating patient privacy. And the parent gave them the picture to post on the wall but they didn't sign a release. That's where you go with laws. So like when I look at privacy I go: okay we can't think about all the consequences but what we can do is we can actually start to look for actual harmful behaviour. And we write laws that are very specific about the harmful behaviour. So you don't try to prevent people from doing something bad, you recognise when people do do something bad and then you deal with it.

And so in a similar way, like I look at my house: glass everywhere. Anybody who wants to break in, super easy, throw a rock through the window, turn that, turn that, turn the handle on the window, you're in the house. Why don't people do that? Well, we have laws because there are specific things that we prevent, and so much of the current thinking about privacy as well. We need to make sure that everybody puts bars on their windows. Now I don't want bars on my windows, I want to create a society where there are social norms that say: you don't do that thing and if you do, we punish you. And in a similar way I go okay so: what is it that we don't want people to do with our private data? Let's go figure that out. And then let's deal with that rather than saying "You can't have any of my data". So these are very broad brush things and that's again kind of like how do we think about keeping the internet free. Let's first of all like build architectures of freedom. And let's build technological support so that freedom is just the way it works. That's the first recourse. Second, encourage people to have social norms and they care about them. And then only in the third case go look for specific cases where there are harmful things and then laws that are as targeted and specific as possible.

Timothy Lord: That makes sense. Now it sounds like you're already talking sort of into what I'll try to make my last question for you here, which is that you have for years talked about the internet as a single system and talked about it as overlapping at least with a global brain, what are some implications of looking at the internet that way? Privacy is certainly one of them. Interconnectedness in general, what are some implications that you see? I'm thinking about the internet as a system. I mean it is a system, we all know that that's what it means, is the network of networks but what are some things that flow out of that?

Timothy O'Reilly: Well, probably the biggest thing that flows out of it is, it is a system that includes us, we are part of it. This goes back to when I first started writing about Web 2.0 back in 2004. The notion was that all the companies that survived the dot-com bust in one way or another were harnessing collective intelligence. And from as simple as Amazon has taken products from millions of sources and put them together. They're an aggregation point. But then how do they use comments to actually increase the intelligence and they actually used the comments and the flow and what people linked to and what people bought to actually show you, to help, in the same way as Google does to show you what is the most interesting result. And Google obviously did that, they basically used the input of their users to give you better search results, both in the original page ranked algorithm but then also all the ways that they mine the data. All the way down to something more modern like Waze, collective intelligence. Twitter, the aggregation of all of our 'in the moment' thoughts, kind of like thoughts flashing through the surface of the brain.

I think that the aggregation of human consciousness into a repository that we can build on is effectively civilization. And the next step in our civilization is, as that becomes digital how do we build new ways for all that collective knowledge, collective action, collective instinct, collective entertainment to kind of assemble and that is the twenty-first century. It's all about how's the network let us coordinate in new ways, think in new ways, build new kinds of collective products. And if you use that as a filter, you can say well, what ties together Wikipedia and Uber and new ways of network coordination, for example, you go, oh that's a really interesting filter to say: What's interesting?

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At Home with Tim O'Reilly (Videos 5 and 6 of 6)

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