November 12, 2012

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I’m on a list where the subject of patents is being discussed. While thinking about how I might contribute to the conversation, I remembered that I once cared a lot about the subject and wrote some stuff about it. So I did some spelunking through the archives and found the following, now more than twelve years old. It was written during Esther Dyson‘s PC Forum, and addressed via blog to those present there. So, rather than leave it languishing alone in the deep past, I decided to run it again here. I’m not sure if it contributes much to the patent debate, but it does surface a number of topics I’ve been gnawing on ever since. 

— Doc


I think I could turn and live awhile with the animals…
Not one is demented with the mania of owning things.

Walt Whitman


PC Forum 2000,
Phoenix, AZ. March 15, 2000.

Source Coders

Six years ago, at PC Forum 94, John Gage of Sun Microsystems stood on stage between a twitchy Macintosh Duo and a huge projection screen, and pushed the reset button on our lives.

He showed us the Web.

It was like he took us on a tour of the Milky Way — a strange, immense and almost completely alien space. With calm authority and the deep, warm voice of a Nova narrator, he led us from the home page of a student in Massachusetts to a Winter Olympics report archive in Japan, then to a page that showed everything useful piece of data about every broadcast satellite, compiled and published by a fanatic in North Carolina.

We all knew it was fabulous, but why? How could you make money in a world of ends where nobody owns the means? How could you make sense of a network that is nobody’s product and everybody’s service? And where the hell did it come from?

  • Not Compuserve, AOL, Prodigy or any of the other online services
  • Not Novell, 3Com, Crisco, or any of the infrastructure companies
  • Not AT&T, MCI, Nortek or any of the phone companies.
  • Not Microsoft, Apple, Sun or any of the other platform companies.

Sure, it ran on all of them; but it belonged to none of them. And since they couldn’t own it, they never would have made it. So who the hell did make it?

In a word, Hackers. Programmers. Guys who were real good at writing code. Lots of those guys worked for companies, including the companies we just listed. Lots more worked in the public sector, for schools and government organizations. What they shared was a love of information, and of putting it to work. They put both passions into building the Net, working cooperatively in what Eric Raymond calls a “gift culture,” like Amish farmers raising a barn.

Hackers didn’t build the Net for business. They built it for research. They wanted to make it easy for people to inform each other, no matter who or where they were.

Several days ago Tim O’Reilly and I were talking about information, which is a noun derived from the verb to form. We use information, literally, toform each other. So, if we are in the market for information, we are asking to be formed by other people. In other words, we are authors of each other. It follows that the best information is the kind that changes us most. If we want to know something — if we are in the market for knowledge — we demand to be changed.

That change is growth. Our identity persists, yet who-we-are becomes larger, because we know more. And the more we know, the more valuable we become. This value isn’t a “brand” (a nasty word that comes to us from the cattle industry). It’s reputation.

What these hackers made was an extraordinarily vast and efficient market for knowledge — a wide-open marketspace for information — where everybody gets to participate, to contribute, to grow, and to increase the value of their own reputations.

Utopia

It turns out that the Net is also good for business, even though it was not written for business. In fact, “good” is too weak a word. The Net is a Utopia for business.Think about it. This is a place where —

  • The threshold of enterprise is approximately zero.
  • All you need to get millions of dollars is an idea that looks like it could be worth billions more.
  • You can create those billions of dollars in value just by impressing people with your idea.
  • The value of your idea can grow from zero to billions in a matter of hours.
  • You see investment as income, because you’re obligated to burn it, and you don’t need to hock your house or your car to get it.
  • Promise of reward far out-motivates fear of punishment, because there is no punishment.
  • Failure informs and therefore qualifies you for more money to fund your next idea, because both your knowledge and your reputation have grown in the process

To succeed in this world, your business only needs to be Utopia-compatible. That is, your people need to be in the market for information — or, in the parlance of The Cluetrain Manifesto — in the market for clues.

Yet many companies, especially traditional industrial ones, are not in the market for clues. They neither supply nor demand them. They put up a Web site, strictly as a pro forma measure. The corporate face is blank, the voice robotic. David Weinberger writes, “Companies that cannot speak in a human voice make sites that smell like death.”

The medium is the metaphor

Their problem is conceptual. They literally concieve markets — including the vast information market of the Net — in obsolete terms. They see them as real estate, as battlefields, as territories, as theaters, as animal forces. And none of those metaphors work for the Net.

Three years ago, at PC Forum 97, George Lakoff told us how metaphors work (a good source is his 1980 book, Metaphors We Live By). We were taught in school that metaphors were poetic constructions. In fact, metaphors scaffold our understanding of the world. Conceptual metaphors induce the vocabularies that describe every subject we know.

Take life. In a literal sense, life is a biological state. But that’s not how we know life. If we stop to look at the vocabulary we use to describe life, we find beneath it the conceptual metaphor life is a journey. We cannot talk about life without using the language of travel. Birth is arrival. Death is departure. Choices are crossroads. Troubles are potholes or speed bumps. Mistakes take us off the path or onto dead end streets.

Take time. Our primary conceptual metaphor for time is time is money. We save, spend, budget, waste, hoard and invest it.

Conceptual metaphors are equally ubiquitous and unconscious. They are the aquifers of meaning beneath the grounds of our consciousness. Think about how we turn what we mean into what we say. When we speak, we usually don’t know how we will finish the sentences we start, or how we started the sentences we finish. Think about how hard it is to remember exactly what somebody says, yet to know exactly what they mean. Conceptual metaphors are deeply involved in this paradox. They help us agree that we all understand a subject in the same metaphorical terms.

Now lets look at markets. This morning Steve Ballmer told us that Microsoft’s first principle was “to compete very hard, do your best job, study ideas, move forward aggressively.” What is the conceptual metaphor here? Easy: markets are battlefields. There are two sets of overlapping vocabularies induced by this metaphor: war and sports. So you can talk about “blowing away” competition and “level playing fields” in the same sentence. (Microsoft’s problems derive from a confusion between the war and sports metaphors. “All’s fair” in war, but not sports.)

There are related metaphors. One is markets are real estate. By this metaphor, companies can own market territory, or lease rights to it. To a large extent, both the battle and playing field metaphors derive from the real estate metaphor.

There are unrelated metaphors. One is markets are beings. The investment community describes markets as bullsbears, and invisible hands. They growand shrink. They have moods. They get nervouscalm or upset. Another is markets are theaters. Companies perform there, for audiences, who they would like to enjoy a good experience.Another is markets are environmentsIn The Death of Competition, James Moore speaks of markets as ecosystems where companies and categories evolvecompete in a habitat, for resources like plants and animals, and evolve or become extinct.

So what the hell is a market, really? The answer isn’t complicated when we subtract out all the modern metaphors.

Markets are markets

The first markets were markets. They were real places where people gathered to talk about subjects that mattered to them, and to do business. Supply and demand, selling and buying, production and consumption, vendor and customer —all those reciprocal roles and processes that describe market relationships — were a handshake apart. Our ancestors’ surnames — Smith, Hunter, Shoemaker, Weaver, Tanner, Butcher — derived from roles they played in marketplaces. They were literally defined by their crafts.

Yet the balance of power favored the buy side: the customers, buyers and consumers who were one and the same. The noun “market” comes from the Latin mercere, which means to buy. That’s why we call malls “shopping centers.” Not “selling centers.”

The industrial revolution changed everything. Our ancestors left their farms and shops and got jobs in the offices and factories of industry. On the sell side, they became labor, and on the buy side they became consumers. As the Industrial Age advanced, the distance between production and consumption grew so wide that we came to understand business itself in terms of a new metahor: business is shipping. Now we had content that we loaded into a distribution system or a channel, and addressed for delivery to an end user or a consumer. Eventually, industry came to treat market as a verb as well as a noun. Marketing became the job of moving products across the complex distribution deltas that grew between a few suppliers and vast “markets,” where demand was perceived categorically, rather than personally. Every categorical subject or population — consumer electronics, cosmetics, yachting, 18-34 year old men, drivers, surfers — were all “markets.”

My work as a journalist flanks twenty-two years in marketing, advertising and public relations. These are professions which, in spite of good advice of gurus from Theodore Levitt to Regis McKenna, conceived marketing as the military wing of industry’s shipping system. Marketing’s job was to develop “strategies” for “campaigns” to wage against “targets” with munitions called “mesages” which would succeed by “impact” and “penetration. Those targets were not customers, but “consumers,” “eyeballs” and “seats.” There was no demand by those people for messages, but that didn’t matter because those people were not paying for the messages we insisted on lobbing at them.

So, by the end of the Industrial Age, we had not only forgotten what a market really was, but we had developed new and often hostile meanings for both the noun and the verb. We also understood both in terms of conceptual metaphors that were far removed from markets as places and as activities that defined those places.

Around the turn of the 90s, I began to float a new metaphor: markets are conversations. I liked it for two reasons: 1) it worked as a synonmym (try substiting conversation for market everywhere the latter appears and you’ll see what I mean); and 2) every other metaphor — with the notable exception of markets are environments — insulted the true nature of markets, especiallly in a networked world built by a gift economy, where product categories and their competing occupants all grow, often at nobody’s expense.

The idea didn’t catch on until it was put to work as Thesis #1 in The Cluetrain Manifesto. Now it’s all over the place. But it also has a long way to go. Conceptual metaphors such as markets are battlefields are huge reservoirs of bad meaning. Even highly clueful e-businesses make constant use of them.

Which brings us to patents, which operate on the conceptual metaphor inventions are property. This metaphor worked, more or less, through the entire Industrial Age; but it runs into trouble with the Net. While patents and properties may have been involved in the development of the Net, we don’t see them among the credits. As Larry Lessig puts it, the Net grew in the context of regulation, but regulation that broaded access to the very limits of plausibility, essentially by making cyberspace a form of public property — or, more accurately, nobody’s property.

But when we frame the argument over patents in terms of property, we must use the conceptual metaphor on which patents depend, and which also that deny the nature of the Net. We will also argue in terms of market metaphors that employ property concepts: war, games, real estate, theater, and shipping. We will not talk in terms of knowledge, information and conversation.

The challenge

This is where we found ourselves today, when Larry Lessig spoke to us. He said,

“…In the context of patents, the passion to regulate rages. Some 40,000 software patents now float in the ether; a new industry of patent making was launched by a decision of the federal circuit in 1998 — the business method patent. Gaggles of lawyers, my students, now police the innovation process in Internet industry. 5 years ago, if you had a great idea, you coded it. Today, if you have a great idea, you call the lawyers to check its IP.

“This change is the product of regulation. And while in principle, I’m in favor of patents, we should not ignore the nature of the change that this creates. Unlike open access, the regulations of patent don’t decentralize the innovative process. They do the opposite. Unlike open access, the regulations of patent don’t increase the range of those who might compete; for the most part, they narrow it. Unlike open access, patents don’t broaden the architecture of innovation. They narrow it. They are part of an architecture — a legal architecture — that narrows innovation.” (You’ll find this and many other speeches at his site.)

A year ago I defected from marketing. I went over to the other side, joining markets in their fight against Business as Usual. That’s why I write for Linux Journal. It’s also why I co-wrote The Cluetrain Manifesto.

Linux is the Amish barn operating system. It was conceived and built on the same principles as the Net. Not surprisingly, much of what we see on the Net is served up by Linux and other software described as “open” and “free.”

Cluetrain insists that we start to understand the Net on its own terms. This means we have to go back to our founding hackers and look at the virtues embodied in the Utopia donated to business by the hackers’ gift culture.

I suggest we start with these three:

  • Nobody owns it
  • Everybody can use it
  • Anybody can improve it

Eric Raymond suggests many more. So do Bryan Pfaffenberger (who also writes for Linux Journal), Larry LessigRichard Stallman,Tim O’Reilly,James Gleick and Dave Winer, to name just a few.

Let’s start there.

If we start with the industrial world, we’ll stay there. And we can kiss Utopia good-bye.