Russ Roberts’s excellent EconTalk podcast had an especially good episode last week as he had Eric Raymond of “The Cathedral and the Bazaar” fame on his show. ESR does a great job of explaining the economics of free software. And he offers a take on the network neutrality debate that is more reflexively hostile to the telcos than I think is justified, but that nonetheless gets the big points right: network neutrality is important, but government regulation isn’t a good way to protect it. He discusses his views in more detail here.
One minor quibble I had with ESR’s presentation: he distinguished Wikipedia from free software projects by saying that software could be judged objectively (either it works or it doesn’t) while editing Wikipedia is an inherently subjective activity. He suggested that for this reason, Wikipedia doesn’t work as well as free software. I think this ignores the central role of verifiability in Wikipedia’s editing process. The truth may be a matter of opinion, but it’s usually not a matter of opinion whether reliable sources have or haven’t made some claim. And as long as most of the reliable sources agree, which they generally do, it’s possible for an impartial observer to compare a sentence in Wikipedia with the corresponding sources and see if the sentence is a fair summary of the source.
Of course, this doesn’t work in every circumstances. Some topics are so intensely controversial that there is wide divergence among reliable sources, or sharp disagreement about which aspects of a topic to focus on. There’s just no getting around the fact that the Wikipedia articles on George W. Bush or abortion are going to be the subject of perpetual edit wars for years to come. But these articles are a relatively small fraction of what Wikipedia does. There are lots and lots of topics that are not especially controversial, and in those context Wikipedia’s decentralized editing process converges on the “right” answer (as judged by comparison to reliable sources) remarkably quickly.
On the flip side, it’s worth remembering that the free software movement has had a few bitter rivalries of its own over the years. Most of the time, free software converges on a reasonable answer and people walk away happy. Sometimes they don’t. Both free software and Wikipedia work astonishingly well most of the time.