Groping in the Dark

by on December 9, 2005

James DeLong: “I am not a programmer.”

He can say that again!

He’s got a whole post on the implications of multi-threading for open source software. All he really proves is that he doesn’t understand the software development process:

IMHO, much of the general discussion of FOSS, Microsoft, patents, and other software issues has been based on an unspoken premise that software is a mature industry, with its great leaps of innovation behind it, and that public policy should be devoted not to fostering innovation but to turning software into a cheap commodity and to preventing its purveyors from milking products for which they have already recovered the creation costs.

If this premise is wrong, if the situation is one in which massive leaps of creativity are needed, along with the funding for such leaps, then a great many currently popular policy recommendations–such as “no software patents” or “FOSS preferences”–go out the window.

It’s hard to even know where to start. I don’t know of anyone on the copyleft side who bases their support for FOSS on this “unspoken premise.” (although it is, by definition, unspoken, so who knows?) Open source advocates argue that their development model is a better way of fostering innovation because it allows for the collaboration of thousands of the brightest people around the world. They believe they are the cutting edge of software development, at least in certain domains. For example, there’s a reason that Apache, MySQL, PHP, and Perl are among the most popular tools in web development.

The policy implications he cites are just non-sequiturs, and they show the same tendency to misrepresent (or maybe just fail to understand) his opponents. Programmers oppose software patents because they impede innovation by requiring software companies to hire lawyers in order to navigate the patent landmine. As is explained here, software is different from other kinds of inventions. Now, DeLong might not find that argument persuasive. But he should at least do us the courtesy of characterizing our arguments accurately. If he’s going to knock down straw men, he should make some effort to choose straw men that are at least tangentiallly related to his opponents’ actual argument.

The “FOSS preferences” argument is equally nonsensical. That debate is about things like office software and mail servers. These are not applications at the cutting edge of high-performance computing. Whatever the merits of using commercial software in such circumstances, certainly promoting the development of better multi-threading software isn’t one of them. If someone proposes FOSS preferences in the military or the National Weather Service, then we can talk, but as far as I know no one has.

These errors, I think, are a symptom of DeLong’s general cluelessness about how software actually works. Virtually every sentence he writes about technology is confused. (As just one example, some of the highest-performance commercial operating systems are “basically a spin-off of 1970s Unix.” So what?) I could make this already too-long post even longer by fisking every sentence of his post and correcting all the confusion found therein. But what would be the point? DeLong clearly feels his understanding of law and economics trump geeks’ understanding of how the policies he advocates affect their profession.

When geeks complain that software patents are impeding their work, he misrepresents and belittles their arguments without bothering to understand them. When they point out that open source development methods have compelling advantages for certain kinds of applications, he misrepresents and belittles their accomplishments without really understanding them. When we complain about the fact that DRM technologies lock open source software out of access to digital media, he pats us on the head and tells us that open source software isn’t that great anyway.

The problem is that most of the people making policy are just as clueless about technology as he is. So when he makes clueless but plausible-sounding arguments, most of them can’t tell the difference. And because he’s got a JD from Harvard and most geeks don’t, his arguments tend to carry more weight than ours do.

He says he “wants to hear more from the tech community.” That’s great. I just wish he’d listen.

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