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Monday, September 29, 2003

I Question Therefore I Answer

Once upon a time, long, long ago, this dude named Faraday noticed that if he wrapped a coil of wire around a magnet and spun the magnet, current would flow in the wire. At the time, nobody had even a vague clue about why this emergent phenomenon occurred, but they were all sufficiently amazed and impressed that they named the phenomenon Faraday's law.

Once upon a time, not so long ago, a dude named Eben Moglen proposed Moglen's Metaphorical Corollary to Faraday's Law: "If you wrap the Internet around every person on the planet and spin the planet, software flows in the network." In this corollary, software can refer to virtually any bitstream and includes music, movies, writing, news, analysis, and algorithms in addition to what would come to mind when you usually think of software. Just as nobody knew what current flowed when Faraday performed his experiment, most people are generally clueless about why software emerges on the Internet. Why does the major and free operating system called Linux exist? Why does Apache, the world's most popular http server, exist for free? Why does the free music website, have over 750,000 free tunes from over 250,000 artists? Why are there tens of thousands of bloggers, all producing news, opinions, and analysis?

You can't quiz the electrons that cause the current to flow in the wire. So it took physicists awhile to figure that out. On the other hand, you can ask the electrons/people who cause the software to flow in the network why they do it. Since I'm one of the electrons, you can ask me. Even if you don't ask me, I'm going to tell you anyway.

I've written a few patches and extensions for various utilities and drivers for Linux. Linux was the best choice for the applications I was working on at the time and the patches provided functionality that I needed. Since I was planning on upgrading to new versions of Linux and its supporting software, it made sense to submit the patches so I wouldn't have to fix the same bug again in future releases. It makes perfect economic sense to do so, especially since it took only minutes to submit the patches.

I'm one of the musicians. I enjoy composing music and produced two CDs to see what they'd sound like. Once produced, since I wasn't planning on selling the music, there didn't seem like any downside to publishing it on

Now I'm participating in a blog. My main motivations are entertainment and learning to write. I'm feel quite lucky to be able to participate in a blog with very smart people with significantly different viewpoints. I find it more interesting to debate with those that don't generally agree with me as opposed to "preaching to the choir".

The reasons for producing the free software are as varied as the people who do it.

Tyler Cowen, a professor of economics at George Mason University, worries about who will pay for news and other articles if people come to prefer blogs to major media sources. He asks "who will generate the underlying legwork behind the stories, and how will that commonly-shared infrastructure be paid for?" He has essentially answered his own question just by the act of publishing it for free. This looks to me to be a case of not being able to see the forest for the trees. Here he is, producing material on the web for free, but at the same time unable to imagine that other people will produce other information, and specifically other types of information, for free.

Once there are enough bloggers worldwide, they will just look out their windows and when something newsworthy occurs, they will blog it and that information will propagate rapidly to everybody else. This is already happening. Instapundit and Salam Pax in Iraq during the Iraq war are two out of many examples.

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