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More Tech Than They Know What to Do With

An essay about how monolithic technology firms stifle the reach of the very technologies they invent.

DARPA has taken a step toward wider availability of the open source software they sponsor: DARPA: Open Catalog. Most major technology companies (including Apple, Google, Intel, Microsoft, etc.) have open source software they use and maintain. And lots of other companies (e.g., automakers) have some level of involvement in open source, too.

Why? Where does this wide spread come from? Obviously the players keep and maintain other software on a proprietary basis (both licensed and in-house). They keep some software close and closed because of a competitive advantage. Other software stays closed because it would be no value to others.

And yet, some software remains closed purely because of the cost involved in opening it up. That typically involves having people (both engineers and lawyers, at least) look over the source, vet it, clean it up, package it for public consumption. Some of those efforts will fail, resulting in loss, due to coupling between unreleasable and releasable source.

How much technology is being lost? Is that not an economic concern and a harmful characteristic of monolithic firms in an economy? We lose benefits because of the inefficiency of large organizations that have more tech than they know what to do with.

It’s not as obviously bad as some high-profile failures where time and budget overruns of projects costing billions eventually led to them being scrapped and gods know what happened to the tech developed on the public dime.

But it still hurts, and may be far more costly in terms of our special development. It is akin to firms competing outside of their core competency: that large tech firms develop tech that could stand on its own as a business, but is at best used internally and at worst overlooked entirely because they have no strategy to deploy it widely.

Firms competing outside of their competency means that, e.g., two ice cream shops may not compete on product quality and other metrics, but on something as foreign to ice cream as their ability to exploit tax loopholes. That sort of competitiveness on general business acumen rather than on niche values leads to ugly distortions of information and inferior products with irregular pricing.

Technology’s most disruptive roles have come when new ideas were leveraged against existing problems in unexpected ways. The constituent technologies of the electronic nicotine vaporizer have existed for decades, but only recently were combined to tackle an existing problem.

But that sort of disruption requires that potential entrepreneurs know or at least can find out about viable technologies. With large technology firms, the pool of potential entrepreneurs is limited to employees, consultants, and partners that are aware of the technologies available. That is a far smaller pool than the general pool of potential entrepreneurs.

Moreover, the privileged information regarding costs and profits of existing industries may thwart analyses that would indicate entrance opportunities, even when the technologies are known. We need to open more than just a few projects here and there, if we are to unlock the true progress that economics offers us.

Ownership and Inertia in an Open World

A look at some of the issues with open source, particularly the ownership/territorial issue and the inertial issues.

One problem that crops up in open source is ownership. If the user has a bug, and it’s not clear where that bug lives (ie, in the actual application or one of its libraries) it can be difficult to get traction toward a fix. This is true even if the user/bug advocate is somewhat knowledgeable about the environment.

The bug advocate goes to the developer community of the application that exhibits the problem, explains the details they uncovered, only to be met with a kind of skepticism or hunch on the part of the developers that it’s Not Our Bug.

The bug advocate goes to the developers of the library that may have the problem, and it’s the same thing: downstream is Doing It Wrong.

Neither sets of developers really wants to step on the territory of the other set more than they have to.

It can get worse. If downstream commits to an idea and tries to convince upstream, only to fail to walk away with a good outcome, they may fork or at least extend the upstream. And the next time, even if it’s a different upstream, they may be faster to fork/extend than to try to engage.

And that leads to the other problem of inertia.

A hardened outlook by downstream or upstream against third-party interactions can be a sort of inertia. Often times there are perceived allies, enemies (though probably not so harsh, simply seeing them as uncooperative), and neutral (or maybe nearly-abandoned) projects.

But there are other inertiæ as well. User inertia can thwart advancements in a project, as can the inertia borne out of developer visions. Often these can be overcome through more liberal forking policies.

Liberal forking policies are great and the best way to see projects advance, but they are hard to justify when the projects in question are very monolithic and complex. Forking the Linux kernel, for example, is not something anyone would do lightly. Small software is more liberal about forks, where the amount of code in question, and its complexity, is low.

Take Conky configurations and scripts, for example. There are thousands floating around, and it’s relatively simple to take one up and modify it to taste. As none have very widespread adoption, there will be little friction or burden in a fork.

But if you want to make fundamental changes to Cairo, so much code depends on it that it’s a major undertaking for changing more than amounts to a few minor patches.

Reddit is open-source, but it doesn’t see much third-party adoption because there are few projects that benefit from reuse of its code that aren’t full implementations of its services. If it is possible that some of the code from Reddit can be less-integrated, it would likely see more reuse and therefore more participation by third parties.

The bottom line is that while open source does have many benefits, it can have more benefits if we can come to terms with how to best dispose a project to participation and can work out some of the ownership issues that do thwart greater participation.

The Art of the Comeback

This is not a review of the Donald Trump book The Art of the Comeback. Rather, it is a look at the ways to foster economic growth and prosperity.

This is not a review of the Donald Trump book The Art of the Comeback.  Rather, it is a look at the ways to foster economic growth and prosperity.

There are three broad areas this post focuses on:

  1. Lowering/Removing Barriers to Entry
  2. Creating/Rearranging Markets
  3. Sitting Back and Watching [1] and [2] Kick Ass*

* This is actually part of the path, as you will see, and not merely a filler item to make this post longer.

Barriers to Entry

Let’s suppose you are pretty good at painting, maybe good enough to get some major commercial work, but you live in a city where all of the artists must attend a special art school prior to being licensed.  And the school costs ten times what you might make in a year.  And it’s booked solid for five years.

So much for plan B, because plan B was Blocked by a Barrier to entry.

Barriers to entry are impediments to participation.  They are obstacles to ingress.  Ahem.  They represent lost economic activity, when people that otherwise would have taken the risk find it either unnaturally high or are otherwise prevented (eg, the cost and intricacy-of-work needed for the average person to launch a satellite effectively bars their entry into the space-courier market).

Removing barriers often means simply lowering the built-in costs of hiring.  Those include things like taxes and healthcare.  The problem there comes in the form of imbalance and uncertainty.  If the system doesn’t know how much revenue it has, or if a large portion of the population are not participating in healthcare, you get other irregularities.  It is much like wanting your lawn to be free of snow, and shoveling it onto your roof.  Then the roof collapses, but at least your lawn looks nice.

Those barriers are much more effectively cleared not by simply shrugging them off, but treating them as universal.  That’s no different than is already done with things like drinking water.  Nobody supposes that a large number of businesses will opt-out of hydration.  Even on separated plumbing systems, some of the costs are shared, such as the R&D for the equipment used and the development of hygienic standards.

The alternative actually just shifts the barrier and harms certain business models (eg, endeavors that cannot support paying for workers’ healthcare directly could not be created).

Other barriers are created by poor choices by government, such as contracting for equipment that cannot be reused and which do not offer residual benefits to the citizens.  That is, if our government spends a billion dollars on accounting systems, but businesses and individuals still pay full price for that same software, that’s a barrier that could be reduced significantly.

Google, for example, was able to exist and grow in large part thanks to the existence of free software which they could modify and build on to suit their needs at only the cost of programming (ie, no license fees).  If the government were to procure with an eye on the citizen’s right to use the non-physical public resources, it could lower a lot of technological barriers while also improving the quality of the technology the government uses (via contributions back to the software).

But the single biggest barrier to entry is education.  Historically, lack of education was literally used to bar the masses from participation in religion, but it’s also been used to bar people from voting (poll tests), and it is a prerequisite for effective participation in business and commerce.

Information is the lifeblood of the economy, and all major businesses started with the revelation of a need that could be met in a new way.

Shifting Markets

There used to be horse and buggy.  Then there were streetcars and trains, then cars and planes, and now the Internet and web.  With each shift in technology, there are shifts in the market structures that compose the overall economic system.

Used to be, liquids like beer went to market in wooden kegs.  Then glass bottles.  Today we have aluminum bottles.

Point being that technology can and will drive market shifts and therefore consumption patterns.

Building for cars as the primary means of movement has the consequence that it’s less likely for people to have chance interactions as they travel (ahem, without those interactions proving expensive, if not fatal).  It also makes it less likely they will visit a given establishment.

Consider the term flyover states.  Coasters (folks that live on coasts in the USA) call the rest of the land the “flyover states” because they don’t visit them (except maybe to gamble, ski, or hock their wares).

With trains you get an entirely different category of interaction, as people filter on and off throughout the journey.  With trains you get more buildup along the route.  No one is building a hotel in the middle of the country to accommodate the people that pass over it, ten kilometers up and moving at 500 km/h.

Now, we don’t need people to build a sprawling mass.  Trains help there, too.  If we have a comprehensive system in place, population density will be roughly in inverse proportion to the distance from the train lines.

But, other important technological market shifts remain to be seen.  Real security and monetary abstraction are two big changes that will foster economic growth.  In short, they will make it simpler and safer to engage in transactions online, which has been shown to be a boon to revenue.

There is the famous case of the $300 million button (User Interface Engineering: The $300 Million Button), but that’s something in the control of the website.

Many larger impediments to commerce require industry collaboration with banks, the government, and citizens.

Another market shift is the inevitable (yet ever postponed) US Metrication, which would increase its competitiveness across borders and simplify many supply chains.

Copyright reform, allowing the public domain to flood with thousands of disused creative works from decades and decades ago, would serve both for content creation and for inspiring design and invention.  Literally untapped ideas of generations past.

But, again, education is the biggest market shifter.  The more people know, the better they function as instruments of the larger economic system.  Nobody buys lead paint anymore, because they know better, not merely because it is illegal.

It is essential that people be educated on the issues of the economy, because they will be able to avoid bubbles in favor of real investments.  They will choose economic activities that have compounded results, choosing to purchase better products and services that support long-term growth over short-term fulfillment.

Sit Back

Given low barriers to entry and a system that allows for resources to be readily shifted, the result is a self-maintaining system.  It lowers the costs for all, while maintaining incomes.  It precludes messy government intervention that gives corruption an inroad.  It precludes market bubbles that lead to sluggish corners of the economy that produce drag.

If you ride a bicycle with rust on the chain, low air pressure in the tires, and a wobbly seat, you wont’ go as far as a well-maintained bike would let you.  If the roads constantly jostle you, if they have puddles and speeding cars and blind spots and traffic, you’ll find the journey more difficult.

A smooth road, solid bike, you let the momentum carry you.  You just sit back and cruise for miles at a time.  You get to your destination with much less effort.

Hell, you even have the time to think about something or just enjoy the scenery.  And that gives even more opportunity for further improvement.

You arrive calm and rested, rather than jumpy, irritable.

And that’s the biggest change that’s needed, as we have a society that’s overcomplicated itself and forced itself into a masochistic pattern of herculean tears of effort followed by inadequate recuperation.  But changing that requires the elimination of barriers, it requires shifting the markets.  It’s the most important, but it can’t come without the other changes, just like you can’t grow the flowers until you’ve tilled and weeded the soil.