Free as in Beer, and as in Speech

With the benefit of a century of hindsight, the authoritarian high-modernist idea that form can follow function in a planned way, via coercive control, seems like wishful thinking beyond a certain scale and complexity. Two phrases popularized by the open-source movement, free as in beer and free as in speech, get at the essence of problem solving through serendipity, an approach that does work1 in large-scale and complex systems.

The way complex systems — such as planet-scale computing capabilities — evolve is perhaps best described by a statement known as Gall’s Law:

 A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked. A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be patched up to make it work. You have to start over with a working simple system.

Gall’s Law is in fact much too optimistic. It is not just non-working complex systems designed from scratch that cannot be patched up. Even naturally evolved complex systems that used to work, but have now stopped working, generally cannot be patched into working order again.

The idea that a new, simpler system can revitalize a complex system in a state of terminal crisis is the essence of Promethean thinking. Though the geographic world has reached a state of terminal crisis only recently, the seeds of a simpler working system to replace it were actually planted in the eighteenth century, nearly 200 years before software joined the party. The industrial revolution itself was driven by two elements of our world being partially freed from geographic world logic: people and ideas.

In the eighteenth century, the world gradually rejected the idea that people could be property, to be exclusively claimed by other people or organizations as a problem-solving “resource,” and held captive within specific boundaries. Individual rights and at-will employment models emerged in liberal democracies, in place of institutions like slavery, serfdom and caste-based hereditary professions.

The second was ideas. Again, in the late eighteenth century, modern intellectual property rights, in the form of patents with expiration dates, became the norm. In ancient China, those who revealed the secrets of silk-making were put to death by the state. In late eighteenth century Britain, the expiration of James Watt’s patents sparked the industrial revolution.

Thanks to these two enlightened ideas, a small trickle of individual inventions turned into a steady stream of non-zero sum intellectual and capitalist progress within an otherwise mercantilist, zero-sum world. In the process, the stability-seeking logic of mercantilism was gradually replaced by the adaptive logic of creative destruction.

People and ideas became increasingly free in two distinct ways. As Richard Stallman, the pioneer of the open source movement, famously expressed it: The two kinds of freedom are free as in beer and free as in speech.

First, people and ideas were increasingly free in the sense of no longer being considered “property” to be bought and sold like beer by others.

Second, people and ideas became increasingly free in the sense of not being restricted to a single purpose. They could potentially play any role they were capable of fulfilling. For people, this second kind of freedom is usually understood in terms of specific rights such as freedom of speech, freedom of association and assembly, and freedom of religion. What is common to all these specific freedoms is that they represent freedom from the constraints imposed by authoritarian goals. This second kind of freedom is so new, it can be alarming to those used to being told what to do by authority figures.

Where both kinds of freedom exist, networks begin to form. Freedom of speech, for instance, tends to create a thriving literary and journalistic culture, which exists primarily as a network of individual creatives rather than specific organizations.  Freedom of association and assembly creates new political movements, in the form of grassroots political networks.

Free people and ideas can associate in arbitrary ways, creating interesting new combinations and exploring open-ended possibilities. They can make up their own minds about whether problems declared urgent by authoritarian leaders are actually the right focus for their talents. Free ideas are even more powerful, since unlike the talents of free individuals, they are not restricted to one use at a time.

Free people and free ideas formed the “working simple system” that drove two centuries of disruptive industrial age innovation.

Tinkering — the steady operation of this working simple system — is a much more subversive force than we usually recognize, since it poses an implicit challenge to authoritarian priorities.

This is what makes tinkering an undesirable, but tolerable bug in the geographic world. So long as material constraints limited the amount of tinkering going on, the threat to authority was also limited. Since the “means of production” were not free, either as in beer or as in speech, the anti-authoritarian threat of tinkering could be contained by restricting access to them.

With software eating the world, this is changing. Tinkering is becoming much more than a minority activity pursued by the lucky few with access to well-stocked garages and junkyards. It is becoming the driver of a global mass flourishing.

As Karl Marx himself realized, the end-state of industrial capitalism is in fact the condition where the means of production become increasingly available to all. Of course, it is already becoming clear that the result is neither the utopian collectivist workers’ paradise he hoped for, nor the utopian leisure society that John Maynard Keynes hoped for. Instead, it is a world where increasingly free people, working with increasingly free ideas and means of production, operate by their own priorities. Authoritarian leaders, used to relying on coercion and policed boundaries, find it increasingly hard to enforce their priorities on others in such a world.

Chandler’s principle of structure following strategy allows us to understand what is happening as a result. If non-free people, ideas and means of production result in a world of container-like organizations, free people, ideas and means of production result in a world of streams.

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[1] In the early years of open-source, these ideas were primarily framed in ideological terms, and the reasons for their effectiveness were poorly understood. With the benefit of 35 years of hindsight and experience, and the maturation of the movement from a fringe philosophy to a mainstream practice in both the non-profit and for-profit software sectors, the ideas today are best understood as a part of technology strategy. As Simon Wardley argues, the businesses that are most successful with open source are the ones that are “open by thinking” rather than “open by default” (i.e. as a matter of uncritically held values).