Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Tourism today

Here's Richard Stallman talking to an audience in Stockholm, at the Kungliga Tekniska Hogskolan (Royal Institute of Technology), in October 1986. I've edited a bit to draw out the point I want to make. Please see the original transcript for further detail.
Now "tourism" is a very old tradition at the AI lab, that went along with our other forms of anarchy, and that was that we'd let outsiders come and use the machine. Now in the days where anybody could walk up to the machine and log in as anything he pleased this was automatic: if you came and visited, you could log in and you could work. Later on we formalized this a little bit, as an accepted tradition specially when the Arpanet began and people started connecting to our machines from all over the country.

Now what we'd hope for was that these people would actually learn to program and they would start changing the operating system . If you say this to the system manager anywhere else he'd be horrified. If you'd suggest that any outsider might use the machine, he'll say ``But what if he starts changing our system programs?'' But for us, when an outsider started to change the system programs, that meant he was showing a real interest in becoming a contributing member of the community.

We would always encourage them to do this. [...] So we would always hope for tourists to become system maintainers, and perhaps then they would get hired, after they had already begun working on system programs and shown us that they were capable of doing good work.

But the ITS machines had certain other features that helped prevent this from getting out of hand, one of these was the ``spy'' feature, where anybody could watch what anyone else was doing. And of course tourists loved to spy, they think it's such a neat thing, it's a little bit naughty you see, but the result is that if any tourist starts doing anything that causes trouble there's always somebody else watching him.

So pretty soon his friends would get very mad because they would know that the continued existence of tourism depended on tourists being responsible. So usually there would be somebody who would know who the guy was, and we'd be able to let him leave us alone. And if we couldn't, then what we would [do] was we would turn off access from certain places completely, for a while, and when we turned it back on, he would have gone away and forgotten about us. And so it went on for years and years and years.
In sum:
  • Everyone can change the system. In fact, everyone is openly encouraged to change the system.
  • People who make good changes rise in the ranks and eventually help run the place.
  • Everyone can see what people are up to, and in particular what changes they're making.
  • Vandals are locked out and generally go away after a bit (likely to be replaced by new, nearly identical vandals). Sites can be blocked if blocking individuals doesn't work.
One of rms's main themes is that this is The Way Things Should Be. Now, it's all well and good to have this sort of semi-anarchic meritocracy in the hallows of academia, with access physically limited to those who worked in the lab or wandered in off the street. It might even work on the early Arpanet, several orders of magnitude smaller than today's wild and woolly web. But surely it'll never work on a big scale in the commercial world. After all, one of rms's other main themes is that commercialism killed the AI lab (at least in the form he describes) and threatens environments like it.

The obvious counter-argument is that open source software (a term, I should mention, that rms disfavors) works quite well on the same basic principles, albeit not always strictly according to the FSF model. It's a good point, but the average open source project is a fairly small system. I doubt there are many with more than a few dozen active participants at any given time. Such projects also tend to have a limited audience, a limited pool of potential contributors, or both.

However, there is at least one very large and prominent system, with hundreds of thousands of participants, that the bullet points above describe almost as though I'd written them with it in mind (which I did): Wikipedia.

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