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Ben Brostoff

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17 Aug 2014
Open-Source Everything**

He published his first novel, Pebble in the Sky, in 1950. An immensely prolific author who penned nearly 500 books, he published influential sci-fi works like I, Robot and the Foundation trilogy, as well as books in a variety of other genres. Asimov died in New York City on April 6, 1992.
- Isaac Asimov biography, via biography.com

I read a similar short bio of Asimov in a paperback copy of Atom: Journey Across the Subatomic Cosmos , which pegged his book output at 475. I was not aware at that point that Asimov lived only to 72, meaning from 1950 on he was writing, on average, 11 books per year. Had Asimov made it a decade more, it’s likely he could have authored another 100+ - one need only look at writers like Philip Roth, who did some of his best work through his 70s (he has since “retired”).

Producing inspirational and field-changing material over an extended time period I believe represents the pinnacle of human achievement. I also view the production of this type of content as among the only reasons to roll out of bed in the first place. Faulkner (as per usual) probably said it best :

I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.
</br> The poet's, the writer's, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet's voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.

I believe this duty does not merely fall to the poet or writer. I see it as cutting across every profession. The only means humans have of preserving knowledge, at present, is through persisting forms of spoken or written communication (audio, video, essays, listicles, etc.).

To this end, I encourage myself and my non-existent readers to open-source “everything”, with the obligatory caveats. And what exactly are the obligatory caveats?

I believe there are forms and of art and science that depend on work being proprietary. Art and science may in some cases be inspirational and innovation-breeding to the extent that the methods behind the related work are not revealed immediately to a large audience. I do not have scientific or factual reasons for believing this (inspiration it seems to me will forever defy an easy proof). But perhaps a few anecdotal examples may be useful here:

  • Football - the NFL’s best teams enshrine themselves in secrecy and change signals / playbooks on a week to week basis (same really for all the major sports - the NFL to me just seems the most apparent). This recent Grantland article on Chip Kelly by Chris Brown serves as strong evidence of the ongoing arms race in the NFL to find the most effective strategies for success. There is a strong track record in the NFL of teams disagreeing on what constitutes best practice / best strategy, and the resulting different types of play is what I believe makes the league so great. Were every team to open-source every aspect of its gameplan / strategy / etc., I would contend Sundays would be materially worse. For one, we would be robbed of some incredible Peyton Manning v. defense audible battles (as teams would presumably know all his signals ahead of time).

  • Phones - The sheer number of different types of phones from different companies to me is the best evidence that not open-sourcing technology is breeding art and innovation. Moreover, in iOS v. Android, we have a good working example of non-open-source v. open-source competition, and it’s not clear at this point who is “winning”. The Apple perspective as depicted in Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs seems to be that control over a product by a small group of people can lead to more sensible and efficent decisions. I think it is difficult to refute this point, but Apple still in a sense is “open-sourcing” its work on iOS since there is (presumably) a large amount of documentation of iOS technologies within Apple (i.e. restricted to a subset of Apple employees) that would make it replicable (more on this point later). Additionally, Apple “gives” programmers more time to work on other open-source projects by not open-sourcing iOS, meaning there is some opportunity cost benefit to not open-sourcing everything (i.e. we don’t have a limitless array of options of projects to work on - although we really do in one human lifetime).

These examples to me also suggest that we need to rethink how we use the word open-source. The Patriots defense and the source code for iOS actually are open-source in the sense that the Patriots coaching staff and Apple’s engineers have access to and can contribute to each product. Ex- Pats staffers and Apple engineers likely have open sourced parts of their former organization’s work when they relocated to new organizations. I’m not quite sure where on the spectrum of “open-sourcedness” is the optimal point for maximum inspiration and innovation. There is no definite proof to suggest that more “open-sourced” is better than more “closed-sourced”.

The semantics here I see as less important than the fact that information is well-documented and passed on through generations. I believe it is a worthy goal for myself to try to leave behind as many valuable and persistent contributions that breed inspiration and innovation as I can.

For the most lucky of us, that’s about four decades to create value. Asimov hardly wasted a single second. The clock is always ticking.


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