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Culture

A zero-sum game for open source and proprietary software?

Nonzero suggests that there's a different way of looking at competition....

It has been months since Mike Olson (formerly of Sleepycat, now at Oracle) handed me a copy of Nonzero on stage at OSCON's Executive Radar. It seemed odd to me at the time to be given a book (after all, I spent two years of my life giving books to people, so I'm not quite as adept at receiving them :-), but I made time to read it today on my flight home from Argentina.

I'm not sure why Mike gifted me the book, but I did enjoy it. It has implications for open source as a phenomenon, but also for how open source confronts and integrates with the existing proprietary software world.

If I understood the book correctly, even despite zero-sum skirmishes between open source and proprietary software vendors occupy our micro-level view of the industry, there's a rich macro-level coopetition happening in tandem:

To compete for high-status positions is to play a zero-sum game, since they are by definition a scarce resource. Yet one way to compete successfully is to invent technologies that create new non-zero-sum games. This is one of various senses in which the impetus behind cultural evolution, behind social complexification, lies in a paradox of human nature: we are deeply gregarious, and deeply cooperative, yet deeply competitive. We instinctively play both non-zero-sum and zero-sum games. (27)

The author, Robert Wright, was not speaking of open source when he wrote this. Yet the book is laced with ideas that apply very well to open source.

From the Big Man (Soni) of New Guinea convincing his followers to give of their abundance to feed 1,100 people in the hope that "We shall eat Soni's renown" at some later date when payback time comes (37) (Source of code versus source code), to society's progress toward multiple inventors (each inventing non-zero-sum technology/information that others benefit from) (48) (open source multiplies the possible sources of innovation), I infer from Wright's central thesis that the outcome of the hue and cry of "Proprietary versus Open!" will likely be a fair amount of value for both sides.

That's the theory, anyway. Being the human being that I am, intend to keep fighting my zero-sum battle. But it's comforting to know that the industry should still benefit even if I don't "win."