The Success of Open Source

In “The Success of Open Source”, Weber contrasts the Kissinger question of “When I call Europe who answers the phone” with the equivalent of “When Microsoft calls Linux who answers the phone” to show what is really being asked is “how does a hierarchically structured (government) deal effectively with a powerful institution structured in a fundamentally different way. Take this one step generalisation further and the question becomes what are the dynamics of increasingly dense relationships between hierarchies and networks”. He further asks “what happens at the interface, between network and hierarchies, where they meet?”

“Dimaggio and Powell…developed a powerful argument about isomorphism, detailing some of the pressures driving organisations that are connected to each other in highly dense relationships to change so they come to look more like each other structurally.”

“In the foreign policy and security field, David Rondfeldt and John Arquilla have for almost ten years been making prescient arguments about the rise of networks in international conflict and the implications for what they call ‘netwar’. Their policy propositions – ‘heirarchies have a difficult time fighting networks, it takes networks to fight networks, and whoever masters the network form first and best will gain major advantages’ – track the institutional isomorphism literature by encouraging hierarchical governments to remake their security organisations as networks to interface successfully with their network adversaries.”

“In international relations theory, Margaret Keck and Kathryn Sikkink have asked similar questions about relationships between transnational ‘advocacy networks’ and national governments. Other studies of global social movements talk about the emergence of ‘complex multilateralism’ to describe a form of governance that emerges in the interaction between international organisations and transnational networks. These are valuable perspectives as far as they go. But they still suffer from an unfortunate ‘bracketing’ of the hierarchical structure as that which is somehow ‘real’ or concrete, while trying to prove that networks ‘matter’ vis-a-vis more traditional structures. The next question they naturally ask, ‘Under what conditions do networks matter?’ is premature unless the answer can be well structured in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions. To get to that point requires a good conceptual articulation of the space in which the game of influence is played out. And that is still lacking.”

“The open source story as I have told it here points to a different way forward. Two distinct but equally real organisational forms exist in parallel to each other. The dynamic relationship between hierarchies and networks over time determines both the nature of the transition and the endpoint. One form may defeat the other through competition. Both may coexist by settling into separate niches where they are particularly advantaged. Most interesting will be the new forms of organisation that emerge to manage the interface between them, and the process by which those boundary spanners influence the structure and function of networks and the hierarchies that they link together.”

“If my generic point about creativity at the interface is correct, it is then my strong presumption that this is a problem suited for inductive theorising through comparative case study research. The war against terrorism, the relationship between open source and proprietary models of software production, and the politics among transnational NGO networks and international organisations share characteristics that make them diverse cases of similarly structured political space. I am certain that some of the most interesting processes in international politics and economics over the next decade are going to take place in this space, at the interface between heirarchies and networks (rather than solely within either one). Comparing what evolves in diverse instantiations of that space is one way forward.”

One thought on “The Success of Open Source

  1. Bruce Dickson

    Resonance, monoliths and webs

    Mass stays, energy transfers. These are central ideas in physics. Little attention is given in school physics to the method of transfer of energy, usually left until the last month at school so it rarely gets full pupil discussion. Resonance remains a shadowy concept for all but those who meet it fully at university.

    Yet resonance is likely to be the reason why quarks, galaxies and everything in between stay together. It certainly is how radio and all the other waves bear information from transmitter to detector. It explains how a shaking molecule causes its neighbour to shake with the same frequency, and how a singing vocal chord triggers vibrations in eardrums. Extending the chain to brains of singer and audience is reasonable: thoughts of composer become pleasure in listeners, by resonance. In physics terms, the receiver is capable of vibrating with the frequency given out by the sender. Resonance with the thoughts of an evil politician can swamp conscience. Resonance with the flashing light of a jewel or a pendulum can beguile the mind. Humour mixes resonance with discord. Good weather causes resonance with our feeling good. Air pressure changes cause dissonance between our organs, breaking the normal resonance patterns. The list is endless because every energy transfer apart from buying batteries depends on it, and even then resonances between shopkeeper and customer affect the deal.

    Forgive the homily, but all the examples have many applications to both resonating networks of people in and out of corporations. To me the fundamental freedom of not needing to resonate in a closed box is why the corporation will remain a no-no. Corporates must ban blue-sky thinking for fear of damage, except in lauding the T in SWOT. Street market communities are driven as much by outcry as by the actual goods on the counters. Computer clubs and other student communities are successful, lasting lifetimes, because the comforts of the resonances between members outweigh the inconvenience and tedium of laughing at the same jokes. Corporates also suffer from having to pay and perk the bosses for the risks they take. Hence lack of trust by the merely employed, and teabreak shadenfreude. Britain suffers from this in spades: even the best of the grammar school hacks lack the flair, verve, nerve and bald-faced cheek of the publicly schooled. From them, resonating with the confidence of outgoing schoolmasters and dons from the top drawers of society, there is no need to watch the back, or agonise over disaster plans. Where crabbed minds take over a school or a business or any institution, the resonance is immediate. Hence the strength of Raymond’s bazaar. As soon as the mind is crabbed, the system will fork. Interesting vibrations from something touching the web will alert all the sensitive builders of the web via their Slashdots and Registers.

    Kissinger’s alleged comment to a future head of Amex ‘You understand power and you know how to use it’ suggests the understanding of multiple interfaces and sensitivities, and the resonances between them.


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