2008 Couchiching conference opening keynote by Bill Buxton

I glanced at CPAC earlier this week, and noticed Bill Buxton giving a talk. I looked things up, and found out this was at the 77′th annual Couchiching conference and that CPAC’s Video on Demandhad this full talk (and even longer Q&A session), as well as a fewothers from the conference that I also plan to watch later (watch thensoon, as CPAC only keeps the videos available for a limited amount oftime).

While there are some things that Mr. Buxton believes that I don’tagree with, I find that there is more I agree with than disagree. Whilethe whole conference titled “The Power of Knowledge: the New GlobalCurrency” appears to have themes which tie in directly with anyone whoreads my blog,. I want to recommend you start with Mr. Buxton’s talk.

I am not going to offer a review, and at over 2 hours and 20 minutesof a talk I can obviously not offer commentary on all the things hediscussed, or even all the things I would love to have a conversationwith him about. I have narrowed to a few things that stuck in my mindto comment and expand on.

He spoke about being in a flight with his wife reading a review ofan art show, and he was reading a review of the One Laptop Per Child(OLPC — I watched his talk on my XO-1).The art review, like other reviews of culture, puts the show in thecontext of other shows, while the OLPC review read as a parts list. Hejoked about how a book review done the way that the OLPC review wasdone would sound: (paraphrasing) “It has a hard cover. When you openit, the pages do not fall out. I can turn the pages. The font is 12point Times Roman, and I can read it easily with my glasses. The pitchis good, and the paper looks like it will last a long time. There aresome pictures in it, and a story, and the price isn’t that bad comparedto some other thing.”

Technology clearly has an impact on our culture, and Mr. Buxton asksus to question why we don’t review technology the way we do the outputsof the cultural industries.

The fact that this hardware review was for the OLPC is interestinggiven that this is an educational project that just happened to usetechnology, not a technology project. The commercial marketplace hadnot yet offered the tools in the form of hardware and softwaresufficient to meet the needs of the educational project, so theybrought hardware and software people in. Decisions were made about thedesign of both the hardware and the software from the perspective ofthe educational model they had chosen, with this including a decisionthat as much of the software as possible should be able to be (legally)studied, modified and shared by students (I.E. that it would beFree/Libre and Open Source).

As someone keenly interested in the global education goals as publicpolicy, I have been watching this project closely. I have noticed manypeople focused on the hardware, and not just the reviewers. From what Ican see one of the key spokespersons for the project, NicholasNegroponte, has become too excited about the laptop aspect of theproject, including embracing software that is not able to be studied,modified or shared. To me the hardware is interesting (I use mine everyday), but of the hardware or software it is the software that is therules which most define how this technology will impact the culturethat it will be introduced in. It is like comparing the physicalarchitecture of our parliament buildings and what impact it would haveto build a similar building in another country, to our democraticprocesses and legal system and what impact it would have to introducethese in another country.

I suspect the best way to review the OLPC project is to referenceand think about things said by people who are not involved in theproject at all.

Lawrence Lessig, introduced some concepts in his book Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace (See also Code Version 2).He spoke about software as being the set of rules which a computerobeys, and the connection to policy/regulations/law which are ruleswhich humans obey. I am a strong believer that software should beanalyzed not from a natural sciences point of view, but from a socialsciences point of view with a focus on law and politics. From thisperspective it is clear that there is a difference between rules beingused where the destination country (or individual citizen, asappropriate) can clearly study, modify and share modifications from aset of rules where such studying/modification/sharing is specificallyprohibited.

Where Lessig offers governance insights, Yochai Benkleroffers important economic insights. Mr. Buxton mentioned the work ofNobel laureate Ronald Coase, which is referenced in Benkler’s Coase’s Penguin, or Linux and the Nature of the Firm. He suggests that the methods used to produce Linux is an example of a new, third mode of production beyond markets and firms.

I mention Lessig’s insight as I believe it is a key piece of thecultural impact of digital technology that is dangerously missing fromnearly all conversations about technology. Mr. Buxton mentioned anumber of other technologies which he likes from the Amazon Kindle,Sony e-book Reader, Apple’s iPod, Microsoft’s Zune, and even some gameconsoles. While Mr. Buston never intended to do a review, my critiqueof nearly all the digital technology that he mentioned (with theexception of the hardware/software primarily used by the OLPC project)is the same: these are technologies which are locked down where theperson who possesses them (most often even “owns” them) do not hold thekeys. I may have a technology background, but this is not atechnological observation on my part. It is an observation of a policydecision with huge cultural impacts — wetware issues — where the veryexistence of the policy decision is clouded in noise generated bytechnologists, disallowing us a a civil society to adequately debatethis policy decision.

Mr. Buxton was asked a question about government regulation aroundthe issue of paying for content. His answered very well by saying thatas a designer that he noticed the question was not asked in a very“designerly” way. A designer will look at an issue and propose a numberof different solutions (the number 5 came up). That way there is not aone-to-one relationship between the person and the solution offered,allowing critiques to not be personal. It also means that you canbetter evaluate the good and the bad of each proposal. A question thatwas asked from the perspective of government enforcement of businessmodels for creativity was not “designerly” because governmentenforcement is itself only one possible solution, and we really need tothink about what those other 4 options are.

Conversations about copyright are often not very “designerly”. Theyalso lack in something else Mr. Buxton mentioned, which is that thecontext for different types of creativity are different. He spoke abouthow music, being essentially a performance art, can work quite well ifwe move to focusing on the performance and less the recorded artifact(recorded music). The same can not be said of literature which (eventhough some in the audience disagreed) isn’t really a performance art,and much would be lost if the only authors who could be paidprofessionals were those who were public speakers using their books aspromotion. The topic of relying on commercial advertising to fundcreativity, and the types of creativity that this works for and thetypes that would be lost this way, was also mentioned a few times.

Each different type of creativity exists in a different context, andthese 5 “forks in the road” that we should explore are likely to bedifferent for each. My involvement in the copyright policy debate hasenabled me to learn a lot about the music business, and trying tounderstand the 3 very different copyright holding groups (composers,performers and makers) involved in that industry. What I see as thecurrent dynamic in the music industry (”makers” dominated in thenear-past with expensive technology required for recording anddistribution, while composers and performers will dominate in thefuture) is very different than what I observed personally in thesoftware industry (productivity software slowly moving to peerproduction, away from industrial production/funding methods). Whileboth of these changes were brought on by changes in the costs ofcommunications technology bringing the marginal cost of production and distribution near zero, the impact of this change on each of these creative sectors has been very different.

I make my money as a software author and Internet/securityconsultant, and given this I come into contact with a lot of otherfellow software/Internet people. A common thing I hear is that music,books, television and other creative sectors should adopt the sametypes of production, distribution and funding models we areincreasingly doing in software. While I am a supporter of Free/Libreand Open Source Software, I believe it is wrong to presume that you cantransplant methods which work for one form of creativity in onecultural context onto something entirely different.

As a volunteer in copyright policy I hear very similar things fromlawyers and lobbiests for the cultural industries and culturalcommunities. While the government promotion and enforcement of foreignlocks on communications technology is what brought me into thisspecific policy debate, I cringe when I read some of the “one size fitsall” copyright proposals. The Creators’ Copyright Coalition in their Platform on the Revision of Copyright includes a suggestion that the private copying regime be extendedto include all categories of work covered by the Copyright Act. Whilethere are some categories of creativity in a given cultural contextwhere compulsory licensing is an ideal solution, this coalition made upof representatives of many creative communities seems to have forgottenthat there are other contexts where this same policy will have adevastating effect (See: Copyright: locks, levies, licensing or lawsuits? Part 2: levies).

I believe it is dangerous for both of these communities to thinkthat what has worked for them in their context can be transposed andimposed in very different situations, and not end up doing far moreharm than good.

The final question from Bill Buxton’s Q&A was around one ofthose areas we seem to share less ideas or experience. Someone asked aquestion about Open Source, and Mr. Buxton spoke about how it can’t beused to solve all problems. Fair enough, but I’m not convinced from hisanswer that Mr. Buxton has spent the time thinking about the necessarycriteria or diversity of currencies to look at when evaluating whenthis knowledge development methodology is the right answer and when itis not.

Free/Libre and Open Source Software (FLOSS) is really about anorganizational structure, and not about the outputs of the processes.Having the software be able to be run, copied, distributed, studied,changed and improved without additional permission or payment may seemlike a trait of the software, but it is better understood as a trait ofan organizational structure.

I could over-simplify my own thinking on when FLOSS is the bestoption and say that where there is so-called “Software Piracy” byprivate citizens, then the problem that this particular software wassolving should probably have been solved using FLOSS methods. I reallybelieve that what the Business Software Alliance (BSA) is doing maymake sense from the narrow perspective of its small membership, but isharmful to follow as a direction for public policy.

FLOSS methods are best at solving general problems where there are alarge number of people who need to have the same problem solved and itcan be solved with the same (or very similar) instructions to acomputer. FLOSS methods don’t work well when the problem is narrow to afew people, and thus where it is hard to motivate people (or theiremployers/customers, given quite a bit of FLOSS is commercial innature, and not part of the voluntary sector) to collaborate on aproblem which the collaborator has no interest in solving.

When there are a narrow set of beneficiaries to solving a problem,other organizational structures may be better. It may surprise peopleto know that the vast majority of software (by lines of code, not bythe generally useless indicator of vendor revenue) is custom softwareused in-house at a firm and never distributed to anyone else. Only asmall amount of software is widely distributed (solves generalproblems), and the “debate” about so-called “proprietary software” (thesoftware methods dominated thus far by Microsoft, and used by other BSAmembers) vs. FLOSS really only relates to that small amount of software.

I suspect that the person asking the question had the same bias thatI did when I first heard Mr. Buxton talk, which is that I wasdistracted by knowing his current employer. Mr. Buxton has only beenwith Microsoft for a few years, a tiny part of his long career.

For instance, when Mr. Buxton mentioned Open Source and the dictionary on CBC’s Spark,I thought he was suggesting that it was the author of the dictionary —and not the FLOSS community — that had coined the term. He wassuggesting something very different, which is that the processes usedby FLOSS, Wikipedia and other such collaborative systems are notrecently created processes. The same processes of collaborating acrossspace and time was used to create the dictionary, long before moderncommunications technology.

I agree with this, and believe that the recent change comes not thatthese are new processes, but that the reduction of the marginalcosts/transaction costs (cheaper communications technology) has allowedmore of this type of collaboration to happen than was practical in thepast.

I believe that it was my being distracted by his employer that leadto my misinterpreting this idea. I mention this in the hope that otherpeople will not make the same mistake, even when Mr. Buxton is sayingsomething they may not agree with. I find that I learn more from peoplewho I disagree with than I agree with, and despite the fact that I seemto agree with Mr. Buxton on quite a bit of what he had to say, I foundthe talk very thought provoking and educational.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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