Friday, May 16, 2008

Can open source survive?

I have this friend from high school who is probably a genius. Both his parents have advanced degrees in economics and this kid used to take derivatives of functions while his dad walked him home from the fourth grade. He really is brilliant.

Back in High School when we were all taking our International Baccalaureate exams he presented this paper to the accreditation board which analyzed the behavior of a community of "genes." These "genes" were instructed to cooperate or cheat in order to maximize individual benefit. Ultimately the goal was to see if these would "genes" create a community or if they would take on the world alone. After creating this complex algorithm to model their behavior, he found that these millions and millions of "genes" all tended toward cooperation.

This was an amazing revelation and we were all really excited for him. At first it was the wild wild west until the "genes" understood that they all could benefit more from working together. But, after millions of "turns" one "gene" would always cheat and it would throw everyone off and the whole group would loose big except the cheater. Essentially the "genes" would end up in a prisoner's dilemma like scenario were no "gene" could trust another "gene." In essence, this cycle would repeat over and over. Chaos, cooperation, cheating, etc.

Now let's replace the word "gene" with "open source developer". We have come to this point where more and more people finally appreciate the benefits of "open" development and everybody cooperates. But, we may be at the beginning a stage where "cheating" or changing the rules yields HUGE benefits. I think open source is going the route of these little "genes" from my friend's high school experiment. Don't believe me? Check out this article from GIGAOM.

The good news is that at some point we will circle back to cooperation. We also tend to remember being cheated better than these "genes" did and hopefully we can avoid the same pitfalls in the future.

Absent some sort of regulation or governing body, open source initiatives are very susceptible to the ebbs and flows of the "gene paradox." There may be nothing we can do to prevent it because we are all part of the problem. Just sit back and enjoy the ride.

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