Open Source/Content and Value Systems

In trying to think about the success factors for Open Source (OS) projects, and evaluate their character and structure, as well as thinking about extending this idea to other areas, I had the insight that the essential character of OS project organization is anarchy. As a political/intellectual movement, Anarchy is probably the most pure form of Libertarianism. Forget any associations you may have with the idea of creating anarchy in communities or societies by throwing bombs and other disruptive acts, since these are both factually incorrect, and have nothing to do with what Anarchy advocates. The correct association is of anarchy with “a state of nature”, the Garden of Eden, if you will.

Humans, being highly social animals with highly advanced systems for communication of symbolic knowledge, have the ability to impose rules of all sorts on this original state. In principle, there is nothing wrong with this, but history shows many examples where “the rules” become highly oppressive. In tribal societies, the social unit is a small group where social “norms” can operate effectively, and it can be argued that the “norms” are essential for the survival of the tribe, but human development did not stop there. With the development of agriculture, the stage was set for creating hierarchical structures, monetary systems and large scale warfare (i.e. beyond inter-tribal conflicts for territory).

It is well know that Libertarian thought is pervasive in the highly technical software development community, and it is easy to see the attraction of these ideas to a class of highly intelligent, somewhat individualistic people. Add youth to that, and you get a lot of contempt for conventional systems of power and authority. In the beginnings of the software industry, there wasn’t much of a market for additional copies of specific programs, and a lot of development happened in academic and other research labs, so there wasn’t much thought or attention from the capitalists. Programmers freely shared their code with anyone who asked, and nobody thought about cashing in by selling millions of copies of a program. Richard Stallman created the GPL in reaction to the way code sharing was being closed down by the potential to cash in by selling code over and over.

Now that the OS concept is getting mature and people are starting to do academic studies of the organizational structures developing around OS, and others are attempting to extend this model to other forms of intellectual property (IP), they are finding a conspicuous lack of planning or formal thought in these areas. Someone starts with an idea and writes some code, then shares it and begins to develop a small tribe of followers, and delegates some of the core responsibilities within that tribe. Within these groups, social norms control the interaction, and sometimes things go badly, but because the code itself is in the “commons”, anyone can “fork” their own project at any time. Of course, this doesn’t happen often because for the fork to be viable, it must represent a real split in the community, not just one or a few upset people. Typically, the original developer (or small team) retains control of the project for as long as they care to, but this is just another social norm that acknowledges the contribution, skill and insight that it took to get things started. It is often stated that OS project leaders are “dictators”, but they must be benevolent because good will is the only thing that holds the tribe together (ok, so there is also the large amount of code to maintain if you do start a fork, but there are many OS projects to work on these days).

All of this is the essence of an anarchistic organizational system. Yes, formal structures are developed and put in place, but only with the tacit support of the community. It only works because everyone is free to participate or not, according to their desires and interests. There would be no debate about any of this if we weren’t embedded in a system of market capitalism where value is equated with money, and money is necessary for each of us to be able to live and make choices. Some of the most vocal critics of the GPL actually try to claim that OS projects take away their livelihoods by making it hard to make money writing software. I won’t go into all the ways this is wrong here, but it does open up the question of how OS developers can support themselves and their families.

Clearly, the large and growing community of OS users, both individual and corporate, demonstrate that they value the contributions made by core developers, and they often find ways to support them. I take the position that both in the interest of fairness, and to better promote the wide and open sharing of IP of all types, that we need to have more and better ways to compensate significant contributions, without having this dominate. Yes, there are many other motivations for people working on IP projects, and many can work on OS projects with the approval of employers who need features and functions that might not otherwise be developed, but many skilled people cannot afford to forgo employment to work on OS full time, or find sufficient time to do this as a second job. Academics often need publication credits to satisfy their institutions and get grants, but this also tends to distort the work to satisfy the sponsors.

The bottom line is that while monetary systems and markets work well to efficiently distribute scarce commodities, they also tend to simplify complex systems of values into a single dimension, and they are particularly bad at promoting the efficient development of IP resources that gain their greatest value the more widely they are shared. It should be clear to most of us by now that this one-dimensional value system becomes non-functional in an information economy, as well as undervaluing the diversity and quality of the natural environment necessary for our long-term survival. The way forward will involve the emergence of new value systems based on sharing of information. To get there from here, we need to operate in the context of market capitalism, and actually exploit it to fund the transformation. This will involve convincing those who control the money to fund the rapid development of the IP Commons for the benefit of everyone.

I was prompted to write this after reading a paper I found at an on-line journal, First Monday:

The Institutional Design of Open Source Programming: Implications for Addressing Complex Public Policy and Management Problems by Charles M. Schweik and Andrei Semenov

In their conclusions, they talk about attempting to extend the OS development model to other areas, which I fully support. On the other hand, I also think there is something about software that distinguishes it from other types of intellectual property. Specifically, it is the only type of digital information that is both descriptive and functional. Papers, music, videos, and even databases are not fundamentally “engineered” designs where the proof is largely in the way it functions. This places certain constraints on the process and facilitates “objective” feedback from the community. You don’t need to look at the source to know if it works or not, just to run it. This is true in a less direct way with the design and engineering of hardware and other physical devices. My instinct tells me that most types of IP will be harder to establish in OS models, but no less valuable when widely shared. This will make it even more critical that these projects are carefully evaluated for their quality and effectiveness, or most of them will never reach the critical mass necessary to be widely useful.

White Catholics: My Family and the Coming Election

On one of the pundit shows last Sunday, Cokie Roberts said that white Catholics are going to be the key to the election, and she was somewhat pessimistic about what that might mean for Kerry’s chances. Being born into a white Catholic family (which I gathered is true for Cokie as well), I might have some insight into this group as well.

On this past September 11, I was with a large contingent of my mother’s side of the family for the sad occasion of her younger brother’s funeral mass. My mother is from DePere WI, and she and much of her family still live in the Green Bay area. Unlike Illinois which is solidly in the blue column, Wisconsin is a swing state, and my family runs the range of political views as well.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and predict at least a minor landslide for Kerry/Edwards in November. I don’t really have a great deal of confidence in this prediction, just a feeling grounded in faith in the American people. This key swing group is my family and I don’t think even the most Republican of them are likely to be swayed by the tricks and tactics of Karl Rove and company. Bush probably lost one vote from my uncle who was a long time Republican and a veteran (served in the Marines in the ’50s but not overseas). I’ve been making this prediction for over a year, long before Kerry was selected in the primaries, and I have a 10$ bet with my brother in law. He lives with my sister and my dad in Las Vegas, and I know Bush isn’t getting any votes in that household either, but he’s just a pessimist.

If I end up being right, do you think I can get a job as a pundit? If I’m wrong, I may have to think about more drastic measures. I don’t want to leave my homeland in fear and disgust, and I don’t know that I’m ready to foment a revolution. Probably I’ll just have to sit back and watch the administration implode in a spectacle that will make Richard Nixon look like an honest man.

The Body of Christ

The first thing Lenore Ealy said to me when we met on Thursday before the Giving Conference in July was about how she was battling Phil for my soul. Frankly, my soul is in no danger, but I thank Lenore for the stimulating dialog on religion and politics. It is quite refreshing to be able discuss these subjects from very different perspectives without going negative.

The comments to the link above we discuss the idea that the Church is the Body of Christ. As a devoted heretic and Catholic Discordian Pope, I speak Ex Chathedra from time to time, and Lenore has been inspiring me in that direction:

My view is that before orthodoxy was imposed from above, that Christians met in someone’s home, broke bread together and had wide-ranging conversations telling the old stories and creating new and related ones. When a traveler came spreading the Good Word, it would start with ritual. Perhaps it would be better to call it the First Supper. You didn’t need a sanctified Church official to bless the bread and wine and call the faithful together, all that is necessary is to gather for food and conversation and remind the gathered of the founding events.

This brings me back the controversy about Kerry taking Communion, something that I have agonized over when I find myself at a mass for a family sacrament. With the understanding above I don’t agonize much anymore. I have always said that I don’t give the Pope authority over my faith and commitment, and I am completely comfortable sharing the sacrament of communion with my family and community even though the Pope in Rome might want to excommunicate me for my beliefs. Thankfully, I don’t have to undergo the scrutiny that John Kerry does on this issue as nobody really cares much what I do and do not profess, but my point is that Catholics generally understand that a man like John Kerry also agonizes about these things.

Heresy is the Only Choice

I read that someplace recently and had to laugh. I had to move on incomplete post out of the way for this one. The post if I ever complete it reviews Art Kliener’s The Age of Heretics which he gave me as a gift after an email exchange about the roots of the term heresy:

The term heresy connotes, etymologically, both a choice and the thing chosen, the meaning being, however, narrowed to the selection of religious or political doctrines, adhesion to parties in Church or State.

Josephus applies the name (airesis) to the three religious sects prevalent in Judea since the Machabean period: the Sadducees, the Pharisees, the Essenes …

So you can see that heresy more or less means “choice”. It comes around again and again, we have this analogy: Orthodoxy :: Heresy as Absolutism :: Relativism. Relativity is the only absolute, unless you are God, and I only claim the role of Pope in my own theology. And, even in this radical heresy I recognize my place in a tradition that goes back through St. Patrick and all the Saints to Jesus. The Communion I participate in includes all those who have broken bread together in the spirit of peace and cooperation

The Design and Construction of a Virtual Roof

The central problem of creating a Virtual Network Organization (VN0) is creating the Virtual Roof (VR) that protects and sustains it. First we must consider the VR’s purpose and discuss the types of structures that need to be designed and built, and the materials and tools available. We will certainly need to construct many of our own tools, and even invent them. We will struggle with the inadequacies of our current tools as well as dealing with change as the tools evolve while we use and refine them.

The purpose of the virtual roof is to provide what the member of the network need to do the work of the VNO in a similar way to how the Firm (cf. Coase’ Penguin, Market, Firm, Commons modes of production) does, only with a commons based democratic meritocracy rather than the capital based controlled hierarchy of the Firm. Just like the Firm’s functional groups (e.g. HR, Finance, Operations, Sales, etc.), the VR needs to provide a whole host of varied services to the organization, but we also virtuallize the services so that just about everything in the VR is immaterial and these services are actualized in the network of geographically distributed MicroOrg Nodes (i.e. the members of the VNO). Customers are also members, Nodes of the virtual network and the VR is designed to meet their needs as well. What I would expect is that most of the individual people as well as the MicroOrg Nodes, within which many of them do their productive work, would find themselves variously in the roles of customer, clerk, manager, worker, leader depending on the task context.

Many of the VR structures will be constructed with networked information systems and software, but perhaps more important are the legal and organizational processes and rituals that the information systems support. Because all of these are immaterial informational forms, they need to be understood and designed in information theory terms and structures, which means talking about flows of information representing energy, desires, values and all sorts of resources.

Our long term goal is to achieve extremely high productivity through maximal sharing of the knowledge gained in the process of designing and operating a network of many VNOs and all of their MicroOrg Nodes. By working almost exclusively with Open Source software projects, and developing ethical sharing practices for the instruments of organizational design (e.g. contracts, cooperative forms, collaborative database systems and more), as soon as a new practice or process is available, anyone in the network that needs it can put it to use and provide rapid feedback to refine it further or move to alternatives, and best practices can be found and spread quickly. Not having to reinvent something always increases productivity, and it is central to the value proposition of Free/Open Source Software.

Organizational Forms and Structures

In a comment in this post at Gift Hub, Phil asks:

Maybe you could post a summary? Be good to collect these “for-benefit” business models; how they are set up legally, how they governed, how they become self-sustaining.

Well, I can try, but I don’t feel like much of an expert. What I know is in bits and pieces and not all the details have emerged yet, and even more of them escape my reach or grasp, but I will attempt a short summary of what I am have surmised to this point.


The new forms and structures work on several levels. In the past there have been only a limited number of legal forms in corporate law designated for organizations to establish there structures, rules and governance. There are some alternatives to the traditional profit maximizing capital directed corporation. Even with non-profits, the structures and rules are often skewed towards donors, those generous souls who provide the operating funds, and therefore these organizations often take on the same hierarchical control form as for-profits. Cooperative forms are an alternative that do exist to include more constituents in the governance process. Michael J has both a lot of experience with cooperatives, and has described hybrid forms, for example an LLC/Cooperative that represents the interests of three constituent groups, stockholders, worker and customers.

Phil noted an aspect of how ManyOne is designed as a for-benefit organization that goes through a growth structure starting as a for-profit, transferring the significant intellectual property to a non-profit foundation, and then the foundation acquires ownership of the for-profit service providers. It still matters what the details of the governance system is and whether the organization stays vital through the lively participation of many people with diverse interests.

The Organis Design for a living, growing organizational form really isn’t as much about the legal corporate forms as above as it is about the evolving operational structure of entire ecosystems of virtual network organizations (VNOs) and MicroOrg Operations Nodes (MOONs perhaps?). These nodes grow by replicating role filling skills in peer training processes and then split geographically or functionally when they reach a critical size in a process whose form replicates cellular growth, division and differentiation.

I’m not sure how to categorize the Chaordic Commons which is based on the organizational forms and principles developed by Dee Hock from his experience helping create VISA. Perhaps it is worth reading Dee’s book to understand this better, but I don’t yet understand how values and ethics come into this structure. With Organis and ManyOne, this is based in an ethical sharing agreements like GPL or CGPL or organization like Earth Charter, and no doubt many more.

Quick Questions for Assessing Structures

Phil responded to the above posts with an excellent new post at Gift Hub. Phil is very good at asking questions, and these are exactly the ones to be asking about organizational structure and governance of for-benefit initiatives. This would also be an excellent set of planning questions for those in the process of creating a new initiative.

  1. Who owns it, or is it a nonprofit?
  2. Who governs? The owners, management, customers, stakeholders?
  3. Where does cash flow come from? Annual gifts? Endowment? Goods and services sold? Dues?
  4. What is the role of mission? (Does it inspire constituents to give of themselves?)
  5. How does the org replicate itself, expand, or otherwise grow?
  6. What prevents the org from being hijacked away from its mission by buyers, or by later generations?

Brainstorming around these issues, the funder might consider for-profit (closely held) versus non-profit (charity, membership org, or foundation), or the funder might consider a hybrid (a for-profit owned by or funded through a program related investment from a foundation, or whose intellectual property is owned in a trust).

You can get lost in the complexity, but the real questions are about money into and out of the org, the sources of work effort (hired or volunteer) and control, now and in the future. What strikes me hardest is the way a good for-benefit org can inspire constituents to make sacrifices for the good of others. That is social capital in the best sense. We are compensated for doing work we may dislike, but we embrace work that gives our life direction, meaning and effect. For some talented people, all they ask is to put their talent to work, while making ends meet. That spirit of giving is thwarted too often in for-profit public companies and represents a real potential asset, and competitive edge, for creative social entrepreneurs.

Clearly there is a lot of complexity in the details which require the council of specialists in legal and organizational domains, but it should be clear from all of the above that the important part is to end up with something that is transparent and gives authority to the person or people closest to the problem domain. It’s not necessarily democracy in the extreme where everyone debates and votes on everything, but more about empowering anyone with a specific concern or issue through openness and transparency. Whenever hierarchical structures do arise, it is based in the need to coordinate teams and actions rather than command and control by a self-appointed elite. In this world, leadership is legitimized by ability to inspire and motivate and to get the most from your team, and not by some a priori status or claimed mark of divinity.

GNU Design Labs


Establish a nonprofit organization to support community and economic development through programs in leadership, education and design. The organization will determine goals based on the needs and desires of constituents in a participatory process, and will be guided by the principles of sustainable development, respect for all members of the extended community, and the open sharing of knowledge.

Organization / Leadership

    • Networked Organizations – linking participants and organizations globally in networked relationships coordinated under a “Virtual Roof”
    • Group Forming Network – take advantage of exponential value beyond peer to peer in group creation
    • Developing Leaders – encourage new leaders to find their vision and follow it
    • Software Freedom – link with and use Free/Open development projects both to support operations and as a primary source of interesting projects.
    • GGPL– Greater Good Public License which extends the software freedom of the GPL to include human rights and sustainable development

Design / Innovation

    •  Design Centers – established in partnership with educational and community organization
    •  Development Spin-Offs – commercialize production, support and services through new and existing industry partners
    •  GNUbook – a GGPL hardware platform designed for multiple uses from stand-alone to cluster servers
    •  Holistic Design – life cycle design, multi generational paths and user community connections are implicit in the design process


    •  Learning by Doing – participants join design projects sponsored locally and over the network
    •  Education Partners – compliment existing programs and staff with a developing multidisciplinary curriculum
    •  Employment Opportunities – acquired skills can be easily applied at commercial partners
    •  Network Growth – new centers can be easily established based on the success of the initial programs through shared network resources

Development and Planning

This organization will be designed from the start to take advantage of the expansive possibilities of the emergent Networked Society. Recent research has shown that the greatest power of the Internet is from its ability to promote group formation.3 Our leadership and organizational programs will seek to better understand these possibilities, and use them pragmatically to achieve near exponential growth of the network. This would seem overly ambitious except that there is an already thriving network of groups forming without much formal understanding of the phenomenon. The Internet itself was built in this way, and perhaps the best example is the robust network of groups and companies that have created the Linux operating system. These efforts have been wildly successful because they empower people to participate deeply in the design and development of complex projects. At the core of all of this is the principle of software freedom as embodied in the GPL2. It allows the student of technology to learn by doing, and to participate at whatever level they are capable.

While many activities would be appropriate for this organization, focus is needed, particularly at the early stages. Starting with a small number of programs and projects, our mission is to create a network of design centers to implement a curriculum in the design and engineering of open systems. Centers will be established in partnerships with educational and other institutions that wish to implement programs of our learning by doing curriculum. Participants will join and create various open design projects under the terms of the GGPL1, a license of intellectual property calling for free sharing under GPL, respect for human rights and sustainable development.

We are in the process of gathering sponsors and partners for the first phases of development. The organizational model can be described as a Virtual Network(ed) Organization (VNO). This model exploits network technologies to both extend the reach of our programs and to avoid duplication of efforts. To the fullest extent possible, we will seek to connect with other VNOs for services, support and perhaps most importantly for projects to implement. Many existing organizations are completely compatible with this organizational model even if they do not explicitly reference this idea in their charters, so this should not be taken to limit the organizations appropriate for partnerships. The bricks and mortar resources of many educational and community organizations are exactly what is needed to compliment the ephemeral nature of the VNOs.

One project, the GNUbook has been identified to give our curriculum concrete outcomes to focus on. This is a hardware design project that is closely aligned with our mission. Initially, there won’t be much difference between the design labs we are proposing and the GNUbook project itself, but at some point it is expected that one or both will grow large enough to take on a life of its own. This is the natural consequence of an organic organizational model, when it grows too large to function as a unit it splits. As with actual organic cell division, the structures and organs are duplicated and divided, and each resulting cell is ready to specialize as appropriate to its function.

The GNUbook itself is a compact computer design composed of modular components, requiring no screws, no cables and limiting environmentally damaging materials such as plastics as much as possible. It also taps into the emerging trend that extends the idea of software freedom to hardware design and design in general.

This project will also be the basis for economic development. Participants in our curriculum will be uniquely qualified to work in companies that will manufacture, sell, service and support the designs that they have helped create. Participants interested in entrepreneurial development will have the opportunity to help commercialize specific ideas whether by founding new companies, or working with existing companies who are interested in bringing products based on our work to market.

Synergy is central to understanding how and why all of this can work so well. An often repeated fact is that most job creation is within small and mid-sized businesses, and it is exactly these businesses that have the most to benefit from the kind of open sharing of ideas that has more in common with academic research than business development. The small business knows to focus on doing a few things very well, and needs to depend on sharing ideas to reduce the overall complexity of what they have to invent for themselves.

An excellent example is the way Linux is being adopted widely for embedded system development. Each individual company will extend Linux to meet their own needs, and the GPL keeps a competitor from taking and not giving back so that it remains in everyone’s best interest to keep contributing to the commons. More often than not, the companies work to complement each other rather than compete directly. The fact that the core intellectual property is freely available means that nobody has the opportunity to charge excessive fees because there are no high barriers for a competitor to enter the market. Reasonable margins and good execution could allow a company to maintain a natural monopoly in a small market.

The GNUbook design is excellent for promoting this type of cooperative development. Our programs will push this along by encouraging participants to take on specific design tasks and finding or founding companies to make prototype runs of each system component. Complex components could be engineered in part by the interested companies, and the community would serve to evaluate how closely the offering meets the design goals. Companies would be encouraged, but not required to contribute as much of their design work back to the community, although it is also reasonable to imagine several companies competing on a particular component. Once the project is mature, other companies will be enlisted to market, sell and service GNUbooks in the field.

This is where the project could start to expand to an even wider array of projects and involve many more job descriptions than the purely technical design jobs that will be important from the start. We envision that the GNUbook will be particularly attractive to nonprofit organizations interested in community development all over the world. Applications and use will be important now, and our curriculum would expand to accommodate this. An ideal situation would be to use community development funds to buy GNUbooks to be used for the communication and computational needs of communities everywhere. The nonprofit community in general is where the dynamics of VNO type organizations are developing, and computers and the Internet are the key enabling technologies. Supplying the technology to support this is a natural application of both the GNUbook and the organizational and leadership principles that we seek to develop in GNU Design Labs.

Our next big task is to formally establish a nonprofit organization with all the necessary infrastructure to carry this idea forward. A sponsor to help fund this initial work would be great. If we find an organization whose mission is very closely aligned with ours, we could put off forming an independent organization until we get far enough along to stand alone.

Step two is establishing the first design center. The best outcome here would be to find a partner institution that would provide most of the resources for the center. A program at the college level would start by forming a group of faculty and possibly well motivated students who would cooperatively complete the design of an initial curriculum. As soon as we get beyond the initial stages, all of the learning materials and communication facilities will be supported by network resources (primarily a web site, but not limited to this). These resources are known as the Virtual Roof of a VNO. This is what makes your physical location less important, and it means that several centers could be started in parallel, each with its own resources and group of participants. It would be up the the sponsoring institution to decide how to fit this into degree programs, and give credit. A natural way to handle this would be with a single open-ended design/lab course where students pick and propose projects under the guidance of faculty advisers. The student could keep signing up for the course until they complete their projects, or move on to a new phase of their education/work.


Man, I could use a smoke. Seems a little late in life, 45, to take up smoking though. But I could use one, all the same. I used to wander around campus with a phantom cig dangling at my side. It felt real enough, as if it were something I really could bend up to my lips and take a much-needed drag off of. I flirted with smoking in grad school. I felt better, in a weird sort of way, when I did, but I never inhaled. Yes, I never inhaledt hat, either, in case you were wondering.

Years before Clinton came along and made that claim, I never inhaled either the legal or illegal variety of cigarette. Used to make my fellow grad students nuts. And then when I refused free coke, that really insulted my fellow grad student/dealer. Free coke! You’ll never again in your life be offered free coke! Ah, well. Sorry to not help you line your pockets, fella, but just not my thing. You can all do lines in the back room. Me, I’m here to play a friendly game of poker. I just wanted the intense camaraderie that accompanied grad school. All the drama of M*A*S*H but none of the blood or actual suffering. Or the over the top acting, either. Was I the only one who found Alan Alda insufferable the longer that show went on? The show had a ten-year run, which was about five times longer than the Korean War itself. We were gluttons for treaclelous punishment, weren’t we?

As for me, my grad school career ended just as M*A*S*H went off the air. I left campus. Stopped my pretend smoking. Stopped my pretend drinking. Lost contact almost immediately with fellow sufferers, and disappeared into unemployment and subsequent underemployment as a part-time instructor. I shouldn’t have stopped drinking, pretend or otherwise. I should have drunk more back then. But I never really developed a taste for alcohol. Hence all the ice in the burgundy to begin with. Or maybe I’ve never really had a good wine ’til recently. In either case, I never wanted to relinquish control. Oh, I evidently had some choice words for the Chairman of Graduate Studies once. But I don’t remember what I said just that a grad student with more seniority was telling me I needed to apologize for being so forthright. So I did. Knelt down and offered the proper obeisance, as I recall. Later, they thought it a good joke if he drove me home, since a woman should not be out walking alone at that hour of the evening. Between his drunken driving and his later attempt at conquering me, I would have been much better off walking.

What I ended up doing was walking away from the entire teaching profession. Since I wasn’t married I couldn’t work for next to nothing while hubby supported me in my dilettante hobby, and I couldn’t wait for some guy in a tenured position to be carried out in full rigor, either. I was sad to have to give up teaching. I loved it. I loved the interaction with students, and I loved seeing the glimmer of a possibility that I’d gotten someone to think critically. Never mind the comparison/contrast paper we had to teach and all of the other formula we were forced to lockstep too. There were ways of teaching that went beyond that, if you were a dedicated teacher and not just marking time ’til retirement.