The liberty to collaborate - part 1

Uploaded by regebro on 29.07.2012

Once upon a time the people of the greatest city on earth
decided to build a tower so high it would reach the heavens.
You all know this story, and it's often told as a moral story showing that
you should not build for your own glory, or try to compare yourself with God.
But when you read the bible, those morals are not there.
What it actually says is that when humanity is united there is nothing we can not do.
And there might be something to that, because since the dawn of humanity,
most people have lived a life that was solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.
Life expectancy was not higher than 30 years, from the stone age up to around 1800.
Starvation was a constant threat.
People would die of diseases we today view as trivial.
But today our problem is not lack of food, but obesity.
Developments in hygiene, like plumbing, so we no longer throw our waste onto the street,
and amazing developments in medicine has given us a global life expectancy of
65-69 years.
In the western world, life expectancy is upwards of 80 years, and some years ago a report said
that half of everybody born today will live to be a 100.
Today we live long and in relative prosperity and peace.
And most of these improvements have come during the last 200 years.
And they have come because people have united to help each other.
And I'm not talking about giving money away, or working in political organisations,
or going on protest marches.
Those are good things, but it is also a very small part of humanity that does this
and it's very hard to do really great things or affect the world by yourself.
Even when you are a part of a political organisation and that organisation has power
you still have to fight everybody else in that organisation over
what to do, how and when.
No, you have the most power to improve the world when you make
your own little world better.
When you make your personal life better you don't have to fight against so many.
Maybe you wife, kids and work mates.
It's an easier battle than fighting a whole parliament full of politicians.
But this is not helping each other, you say, and you are right. It's not.
We get the real effect when we, in our attempts to improve our own lives,
come up with a clever solution to do so and share it with everybody else
so they can get the same improvement, and they then get time to come up with
other solutions for other problems that they can share back.
That's helping each other.
But this sharing was very unusual in most of humanities history,
because there was very little reason to share, or in some cases structures that
actively prevented sharing.
Because before the industrial revolution economic activities was always strictly controlled
either by kings, feudal lords or guilds.
The guilds saw their purpose to regulate the production, so a guild of blacksmiths
would make sure that there was not too many blacksmiths because that would lower the prices.
And they would make sure that the blacksmiths didn't compete with each other.
They all wanted the blacksmiths to have a reasonable amount of work and income.
And that sounds good, but it meant that your quality of life pretty much was fixed.
You had a place in society, and you could not do much to improve it.
But in 17th century England this was slowly changing. Wool was becoming a big industry,
and this industry was a “cottage industry” that happened in the country side,
where there were no guilds.
Also the iron industry started booming, and again it happened on the country side,
because that's where you had the coal and ore.
The feudal and guild systems had also been in decline for hundreds of years,
so by the beginning of the 18th century instead of feudalism and guilds,
England had an economic system with entrepreneurs who were constantly trying to
find ingenious new ways of producing things better, faster and cheaper;
and the industrial revolution was in full swing.
Let's look a bit closer on one of these entrepreneurs.
This guys name was James Watt, famous for inventing the steam engine.
Except, of course, that he did no such thing.
And to explain this, we need to take a look at the history of the steam engine.
The first steam engine to do real work was built by a man called Thomas Savery, in 1698.
Today we wouldn't even recognize it as a steam engine, it didn't use any pistons
or anything like that.
It was very inefficient, but could pump water from a mine.
At the same time frenchman Denis Papin had invented the pressure cooker,
and realizing the power created by steam also invented the piston and tried to make
a high pressure steam engine, but failed.
In 1712 Thomas Newcomen combined the ideas of Savery and Papin,
and created the Newcomen steam engine and succeeded in not only pumping much more
water than the Savery engine but doing so without the engine constantly breaking.
This type of steam engine, called an atmosperic steam engine, get their force
from the vacuum created when the steam condensed, after spraying in water to cool down the pistons.
And here is where James Watt comes into the picture.
Instead of cooling down the piston, he kept the piston hot all the time,
and let the steam cool in a separate condenser.
That made the steam engine four times as efficient, and it used four times less coal,
and this made steam engines much more economical, meaning you now could build factories anywhere,
without access to water wheels.
But soon high pressure steam engine got popular, thanks to developments in metallurgy
and improvements by William Murdoch and Richard Trevithick, and many others who
made many, many small improvements.
And we ended up with the type of engines that could be used in locomotives.
So James Watt's separate condenser was an important invention, yes, but neither the
beginning nor the end of the steam engine.
So who then invented the steam engine? Well loads of people did, together.
Many men, most of whom I haven't mentioned, some of them probably lost in history,
cooperated on inventing the steam engine.
The steam engine is a tower of babel, where people are working together,
talking the same language: Engineering.
But very few of these men saw it as cooperation.
Each of the men that created the steam engine, from Savery to Trevithick and beyond
did so for his own benefit.
It was in his own self interest to make something better.
And it was in their interest not only to make the improvements but also to
share the improvements with the world.
They would share it in a way of sharing that is often overlooked:
They would sell it.
Yes, selling is sharing. If you have invented a better steam engine, making those and
selling them will mean that more people get better steam engines.
The improvement has been shared.
And here is the important difference from the feudal and guild systems:
You yourself benefit from sharing. In this case economically.
Since in medieval times you couldn't compete on free market, then it was in practice hard
to make money by sharing your improvements, so inventions spread slowly,
and come into general use very slowly.
As a contrast inventions have spread very fast since the industrial revolution,
just because it has been possible to make money from them.
And this type of commercial sharing is important not only because it acts as an
incentive to share, but also because you can't tell a factory owner
that he should use a separate condenser, because he doesn't know how to build one.
He needs to buy a finished condenser from someone who does.
So sharing just by sharing the idea is not enough.
But there are other ways to benefit from sharing than selling your improvements.
Open source software, like Linux, drives the internet today.
The software is given away for free. And how can that work?
Well, works for the same reason, you benefit from sharing.
By saying “Hey, you can use my source code” many people will use it, and find problems,
and most importantly fix those problems.
You get improvements to your code, without having to spend money or time.
Open source code is an excellent example of a tower of Babel, where we have many people
working together using the same language, the language of computer science.
But open source is not full of idealists who work for free.
Most open source people make a living from open source, either as consultants or employees.
They make money because the pointy haired bosses
doesn't have any use of the source code, they don't know how to use it
just like the factory owners needed engineers to build and
run the steam engines. Open source people like myself
make money by sharing our knowledge to those who can't use it.
So in open source we share in two ways, both by selling our knowledge to those
who do not have it, but need it.
And we also share to other programmers, not for money, but for help.
We share so that people can share back.
So open source works because it is a system where it is beneficial for you to share.
We build a tower of knowledge and source together, because it's good for us.
But there is a big threat to this, and that threat is called intellectual properties.
And I'll talk more about that in part 2.