TITLE: The Tension Between Free and Expensive AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: June 12, 2016 10:33 AM DESC: ----- BODY: Yesterday, William Stein's talk about the origins of SageMath spread rapidly through certain neighborhoods of Twitter. It is a thorough and somewhat depressing discussion of how hard it is to develop open source software within an academic setting. Writing code is not part of the tenure reward system or the system for awarding grants. Stein has tenure at the University of Washington but has decided that he has to start a company, SageMath, work for it full-time in order to create a viable open source alternative to the "four 'Ma's": Mathematica, Matlab, Maple, and Magma. Stein's talk reminded me of something I read earlier this year, from a talk by Matthew Butterick:
"Information wants to be expensive, because it's so valuable ... On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower ... So you have these two fighting against each other."
This was said by a guy named Stewart Brand, way back in 1984.
So what's the message here? Information wants to be free? No, that's not the message. The message is that there are two forces in tension. And the challenge is how to balance the forces.
Proponents of open source software -- and I count myself one -- are often so glib with the mantra "information wants to be free" that we forget about the opposing force. Wolfram et al. have capitalized quite effectively on information's desire to be expensive. This force has an economic power that can overwhelm purely communitarian efforts in many contexts, to the detriment of open work. The challenge is figuring out how to balance the forces. In my mind, Mozilla stands out as the modern paradigm of seeking a way to balance the forces between free and expensive, creating a non-profit shell on top of a commercial foundation. It also seeks ways to involve academics in process. It will be interesting to see whether this model is sustainable. Oh, and Stewart Brand. He pointed out this tension thirty years ago. I recently recommended How Buildings Learn to my wife and thought I should look back at the copious notes I took when I read it twenty years ago. But I should read the book again myself; I hope I've changed enough since then that reading it anew brings new ideas to mind. -----