Opensource, blogging and the Upside of Down

While reading Thomas Homer-Dixon’s The Upside Of Down, [thanks! Kaliya] I was intrigued by his consideration of opensource in a chapter titled Catagenesis, which he defines as “the creative renewal of our technologies, institutions and societies in the aftermath of breakdown”.

I quote sporadically from the chapter:

Scientists have found that complex systems that are highly adaptive….tend to share certain characteristics. First of all, the individual elements that make up the systems….are extraordinarily diverse. Second, the power to make decisions and solve problems isn’t centralised in one place or thing; instead, it’s distributed across the system’s elements….Third and finally, highly adaptive systems are unstable enough to create unexpected innovations but orderly enough to learn from their failures and successes. Systems with these three characteristics stimulate constant experimentation, and they generate a variety of problem-solving strategies.

We’re all familiar with just such a system — the internet, and its subsystem, the World Wide Web. In one respect, humanity is extraordinarily lucky: just when it faces some of the biggest challenges in its history, it has developed a technology that could be the foundation for extremely rapid problem solving on a planetary scale, for radically new forms of democratic decision making, and most fundamentally for the conversation we must have among ourselves to prepare for breakdown. So far, though, we’ve barely tapped this potential. The Internet and Web — rather than becoming powerful instruments of problem solving, adaptation and social inclusion — have simply turned into venues for a screaming cacophony of electronic narcissism.

The situation may be changing.


So far, though, opensource approaches have been applied to solving technical problems like the creation of complex software or large databases. Now we urgently need research to see if we can use this kind of problem-solving approach — and the culture of voluntarism that underpins it — to address the ferociously hard social, political and environmental problems discussed in this book.


But even if opensource methods can’t give us clear and final solutions to problems that are ultimately rooted in politics, they’re still a powerful way to develop scenarios, experiment with ideas and lay plans in advance of breakdown. And, most important, they can help us build worldwide communities of like-minded people who, in the course of working together on tasks, become bound together by trust and shared values and understandings. Such communities would then be better able to act with common purpose in a moment of contingency and to seize the opportunity for catagenesis.

Thomas Homer-Dixon is a lot more erudite and reasoned and articulate than I am.  His words resonate a lot with me, and help define why I blog. I’m fundamentally a renaissance man, and I can see how a blogging culture, a true conversational and provisional opensourcing of ideas and opinions, how this will help us recognise, review, respond to and recover from the catastrophes that Homer-Dixon refers to.

Let me know what you think

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