New Year Mutterings

December 31, 2011

Another year is racing past the finishing post. Queenie’s Birthday Honours List  is out.  Not bad for science overall, with  Knighthoods for selllotape and pencil heroes Geim and Novoselov.Weaker than usual for astronomy and particle physics. I could only find an MBE for Derek Raine – well deserved, but awarded for services to education, not science. (Embarassing note : in the original version of this post I had some others but thats because somehow I had downloaded last year’s list as well.. Doh.)

Of course I have the usual confused mixture of approval and discomfort. Its good that public service is recognised; the MBE seems particularly important, as it rewards those all the way up and down the social tree, rather than just giving an extra bauble to those already at the top of the tree. But on the other hand it seems a throwback to a fusty and repressive past. Knighthoods, Orders, Empires ? The nobility only exists because a thousand years ago some people were better at bullying, greed, and violence than others. But hey ho thats the way of the world. At least now we have community workers, and they can be valued and rewarded. With a medal. Not a banker-style bonus of course.

I guess these thoughts are sharper than usual as the world is in a strange state. Europe and America about to plunge into recession again. Ordinary people in the Arab world and in Russia openly challenging their rulers. Tea Party nutters showing no sign of backing off.

I find myself more confused about politics than ever before. Communism failed and real people didn’t want it. But now Capitalism is failing too. Is there a genuine Third Way ? Maybe what we want is actual genuine Free Enterprise Capitalism, as opposed to the fake Capitalism of the last thirty years. Can we in fact allow people to trade freely, without the need for “trade agreements” stacked in favour of rich countries, invasions to control resources, and the IMF dictating to elected governments ? Well ok, a chap is allowed to dream at Hogmanay.

Maybe I should be careful what I wish for. State investment in science and technology makes rational sense in an imperialist economy. Its not clear what would happen in a genuine free market system.

Oh. On a cheerier note, I just passed the fifth birthday of the blog !


Open the borders

August 11, 2009

Open source culture will destroy the nation state. Maybe.

I am reading Wikinomics, a book by Tapscott and Williams about how the open source approach is changing business culture and economics, not just in software but in many other areas. I just read a section which discussed the common complaint of critics that open source culture is a new kind of socialism, inimical to free enterprise and the profit motive. They interviewed Linus Torvalds, who said that the opposite was true. Linux, he says, is like the road system. Once it exists, it is much easier for people to form businesses and make money. It makes economic sense, even for competitors, to develop shared infrastructure.

Using the road system as an analogy sparked a thought in me.  Road systems are normally built by the government. We live in nation states where public goods are provided by the state, and free enterprise thrives on the back of this free infrastructure.  When we talk of “socialism” we normally think of what is really state socialism, where the number and degree of such state-provided public goods is maximised, and the state control of behaviour is also maximised. In our more typical modern mixed economies, state-provided goods are less extensive and we have partial freedom. Production of public goods is resourced by financial taxation, in which the citizen has no choice, and implemented by a professional civil service.

In open source culture however, parties with common interests come together by choice and develop shared goods. Note that these days “open source” does not mean thousands of amateurs in their bedrooms doing stuff for fun. It means staff at  IBM and Sun spending a percentage of their time working for Linux or Apache or Python as an approved activity. So production of public goods is again produced by taxation, but its taxation of effort, and the corporations taxed have a free choice about how much to put in.

Possibly more importantly, the communities formed, and the public goods constructed, do not follow national boundaries. They are horizontally global and vertically shallow. Like multi-national corporations, they begin to make nation states seem irrelevant; but the structures they can form are much more fluid than those rigid corporations.

You can drive for days across the USA without border controls or changing money. The same is now true in Europe. A short while back I went to a meeting in France. I flew to Frankfurt and caught a train to Strasbourg. It was only on the way home I realised I had been in two different “countries”. Actually Alsace is pretty much its own place, not quite France and not quite Germany. You can have sauerkraut and citron presse for lunch. Every day at home I roam the world on my broadband connection.

The nation state is quite a new thing in the history of mankind, but we have gotten in the habit of seeing it as somehow inevitable. How long before it seems a distant memory of savage times ?

Time to brush off your copies of Kropotkin and Proudhon.