Re: Nanotech: Open Source or Proprietary

From: Charlie Stross (
Date: Wed Jul 12 2000 - 10:05:16 MDT

On Wed, Jul 12, 2000 at 10:37:36AM -0400, Robin Hanson wrote:
> I'll grant this as a possibility, but counter than many people seem way
> too quick to assume that open source will take over. It is now only a
> small part of software, and an even smaller part of the other industries
> I mentioned, many of which have been around a lot longer.

I'm biased, because I'm an open source developer (even if only in
a small way). However, I wouldn't call 30% of the server market small!
Open source is also making in-roads in embedded systems. While most of
the software people _see_ is on their desktop running Windows, it's by
no means the largest chunk of the market; if nothing else, ponder what
your cash registers or car engine management systems or web servers
are running. We're now witnessing IBM getting evangelical about Linux,
as in combination with Java it offers a route to the sort of convergence
that SNA, OS/2 and so on were intended to bring about in the late 1980's
(with all of their platforms interoperating and talking to each other).

The thing is, we don't know where open source is going. We can see is
that it's come a very long way in the past decade; but looking back at,
say, the state of Linux, sendmail, and BIND in 1992 doesn't give us any
obvious pointers to the state of Linux, sendmail, and BIND in 2000.
Indeed, extrapolating those products from 1992 would give us a misleading
impression of what 2000 would be like.

The open source thing may sputter and fade, but then again, in fifty
years time we may look back on the commercial software industry as an
aberration that could only have existed during a period of extremely
rapid growth, new market development, and massive customer ignorance.
If it doesn't fizzle, then a whole new model for understanding how
resources are allocated under conditions of plenty will have emerged.

Or, to put it another way: our relationship to physical commodities is
determined by how easy it is to get more of them. As an open source guy,
I don't worry about buying software or paying license fees: I float in a
sea of the stuff, use whatever I need, and sometimes when my conscience
troubles me I give something extra back.

If nanotech designs work the same way ... we won't eliminate heavy
industry or big manufacturing companies: some enterprises will _always_
be needed to tackle projects where the risk of failure is such that
accountability is required -- airliners, for example, or the software
controlling radiation machines for cancer treatment.

But a lot of other types of enterprise will show up as concentrations
of power that don't actually add value to the new economy -- companies
who make and sell mass-produced desks, for example, or web browsers or
word processing software. These are essentially technologies that are
mature enough that teams of volunteers can produce effective, usable
designs (I'm thinking, for example, of the Konqueror web browser),
and where there's no critical requirement for accountability and
auditing because their use or misuse isn't life-threatening.

I'm not quite sure where the whole thing is going, but a wholesale
redefinition of our idea of what constitutes "added value" in consumer
goods is going to be part of it. Which suggests to me that our
working definitions of, say, capitalism (or socialism!) are going to
mutate considerably in the post-nanotech era.

-- Charlie

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