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Raymond Runs The Great Brain Race

by Malcolm Dean
08/02/2001

Now for something really different: The social dynamics of open source, or The Great Brain Race.

Eric S. Raymond treated a roomful of attentive geeks to an overview of his fourth paper on the subject at the O'Reilly Open Source Convention in San Diego, along with a peppering of observations on the Linux kernel, Sendmail, libertarianism, and economics.

The "accidental revolutionary" and author of The Cathedral & The Bazaar said he is currently working to improve Linux kernel configuration, and is about to begin a project to make Sendmail.cf "comprehensible to human beings."

"The Information Age is over," said Raymond. "What we have now is 'dead bits' vs. 'live bits.' Bits are dead if there is no continuing input. Dead bits have rising costs of storage and management, and shrinking value. Live bits are steadily becoming more profitable and less costly."

In earlier days, land and capital were limiting factors, he observed. But human bandwidth is now the limiting resource. Publishers, and certainly television networks, are constantly concerned that their audiences can't "handle the bandwidth," which accounts for the increasingly trivial nature of the popular media.

Raymond said human attention is the key factor in the emerging economy. Allocation of gray matter is a bandwidth skill. And, yes, there are promising projects working on automating that very attention for which humans are now paid. Raymond believes such projects might very well succeed in the near future.

Eric Raymond. Photo by Derrick Story.
Eric Raymond at the O'Reilly Open Source Convention.

Comment on this articleAre we really evolving to what Raymond terms as "ex-corporations," organizations with a tiny nucleus and a common anchor for a community such as eBay, or will we remain status quo?
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(Let us propose here Project Senior Moment -- aimed at tapping the vast computing power and commercial value of all those unused brain cycles when humans are not paying attention.)

Forget about "in"-corporating, Raymond said. The emerging economy consists of "ex"-corporations, organizations with a tiny nucleus, and a common anchor for a community such as eBay. The cost of adding memberships and supporting auctions is trivial for eBay, he observed. Just add more bandwidth and a few servers. For a high-end auction house such as Sotheby's, on the other hand, the costs are very high. Experts must be procured, there are storage and security costs, and arrangements cannot be computerized.

Raymond pointed to the automotive and pharmaceutical industries as examples. Such efficiencies are being realized by special B2B exchanges for the major car manufacturers, or in research, as small research firms are able feed their intellectual product back to large drug manufacturers.

One final question from the audience: What did Raymond think of yesterday's historic debate between Red Hat CTO Michael Tiemann and Microsoft VP Craig Mundie? Unfortunately, Mr. Raymond was unable to attend, having stayed up all night playing the blues on his flute at a local club. Raymond was invited to sit in with the band, "and given a choice between a good blues band and Craig Mundie," he said, "I know who I'll sit in with."

Malcolm Dean is a broadcast journalist, technology writer and IT consultant based in Los Angeles.


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