Grow Your Own Sofa

Charles Stross on Extropianism and the future of the Open Source movement:

“Extropianism is a fascinating movement. It’s the idea that the human condition is changeable–and for the better. Smart drugs, life prolongation,mind uploading, personality augmentation, improvement. I’d callit Panglossian, except that Dr Pangloss‘s name has become a dirty word. All too many people who look at the future do so with dismal, malthusian expectations, and the key feature of extropianism (once you strip out the tendency for American Libertarians to jump on the boat) seems to be techno-optimism.

The open source movement is also fascinating, but unlike the extropians, it’s one with muscle in the real world–enough muscle that Bill Gates and the music and film industries are scared witless by it. Free software (open source is merely the commercially-correct politically sanitized version of the term) addresses the key contradiction I mentioned earlier in the concept of “intellectual property”–it’s free as in speech, not free as in beer. You can sell free software: the only thing you can’t do with it is prevent people from copying it.

I think if legislators don’t crush it the free software movement–which, incidentally, has its roots in the culture of scientific research and information sharing–will be one of the big industrial drivers of the next century. Forget software for a moment and think in terms of mature nanotechnology or biotechnology. Both these fields are distinguished from previous technologies in that they will work with self-replicating systems that can be programmed to produce end products. One can see the free software movement as a precusor for a “free hardware” or “free wetware” movement–one that will provide free libraries of designs for biological or nanotechnological products that replicators can be programmed to churn out. Just as I don’t spend money on email clients or text editors when there are really good free ones available, why would I (for example) spend money on a sofa when there’s a really good free template for one available on the web and I can grow it myself in my ACME Home Factory(TM)? Or even grow a GNU Free Factory in it, and stop paying ACME royalties?

The combination of techno-optimism and self-replicating technologies and free software for controlling those technologies is going to be explosive. Sometimes literally so.”

Taken from an interview with Lou Anders

The Open Source movement has been getting software developers excited for many years now, and is partly the reason why software and web development has been such a ground-breaking industry. But it is when open source principles start being applied to other industries, especially more traditional capitalist sectors, that things will start to get really interesting.

Already, the music industry, for all it’s power, has found itself having difficulty assimilating the new download culture. The technology is moving too fast for behemoth conglomerates to react, so the people defining the new playing field are the bedroom geeks, and (more importantly) the consumers themselves. And what the young consumers of today are advocating is “sharing“, just like our mothers taught us to do as children.

This trend is starting to spread to movies and TV too now. Consumers know what they want, and how much they are prepared to pay for it, and if the traditional sources can’t cater for that need, new sources of distribution are appearing to fill the demand. It is an emergent phenomenon, what we used to call “grass-roots” organisation. It is not anti-establishment particularly, these are still capitalist forces at work, although, in the case of the music industry, it might be theorised that traditional sources are also being shunned in reaction to years of consumer exploitation.

Any companies who intend to survive into the next few decades will have to start thinking of new ways of doing business if they are to meet their consumers needs. Because their consumers, especially the younger generation, already are.

If you liked Stross’s words above, you may also like to know that he walks the walk too; he made his 2005 book Accelerando (and many of his other works) freely available for download under a Creative Commons license.

posted July 23rd, 2007

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