Steven Weber Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Power in the 
    Information Age: Conversation with Steven Weber, Professor of Political Science, 
    UC Berkeley, April 28, 2003, by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

Page 3 of 5

Political Alternatives in the Information Age

For the last two years you worked on your new book, The Success of Open Source. Tell us what open source is and why it's important for understanding the impact of the Information Age on economy, society, and politics.

The real answer to that question is, you have to read the book.

The book, yes, that's right.

But I'll tell you how I got interested in it, going back to this issue of being interested in large-scale collective action problems, how it is that people collaborate together over long periods of time to build things or to create institutions. book coverAbout four years ago, which was for me fairly early, but for many people fairly late, I heard from some of my friends who work in the computer industry about something that was bubbling up from the bottom called Linux, which is a rather complicated computer operating system that was being built, apparently, by a large group of volunteers who are spread out around the world who collaborated, worked together over the Internet. People contributed pieces of code to this joint project, and, somehow, out of this thing came a working operating system. I thought, "Well, that's actually quite interesting." In some ways, it's very reminiscent of "back to the world" that Robert Axelrod was talking about, an extremely institutionally thin world in which there is very little coercive capability -- nobody's organized inside of a company, or in Axelrod's case, inside of any particular kind of institution, and yet they manage to work together and cooperate over time. I thought, "That's worth looking at."

Once I started to look into it, it became more and more interesting, because it wasn't just Linux. In fact, there were large numbers of such projects. What I discovered was that sitting next to what we thought of as the traditional industrial structure for building software -- which is inside of a company, a division of labor, a hierarchy of command and control, where someone designs a system and tells other people what to do and they report back up, the way we build complex, industrial goods -- sitting next to this whole structure was an alternative way of doing things, which was a free-for-all when you first looked at it.

Being a skeptic about the stability of institutional cooperation, as political scientists are, I thought to myself, "It can't just be a free-for-all, there has to be some form of organization." People at the time who were writing about it, computer scientists, mostly, used the term "self-organization," which I always thought of as a wimpy term because what it really says is, "I don't understand the mechanism by which these people work together." I thought I ought to try to unravel this problem and see if there was something there to study.

Sure enough, the more time I spent with it, the more I became convinced that what was happening here was that people had essentially locked onto a new form of collaboration. In other words, not consciously designed: an alternative means of collaborating in a large-scale community and maintaining that collaboration over time. This community was built around a different notion of what it meant to own something; the core difference that open source software programmers had with proprietary programs was the way they treated the property rights around the software code that they wrote. The innovation in open source is to say that the code that I write is open, and anything it touches, any code with which it compiles, must be open, and you can do anything you want with it, except doing something that would prevent someone else from doing anything they want with it.

So, just the opposite of Microsoft?

Exactly the opposite of Microsoft and other proprietary software makers, who have a traditional property rights view, which is that source code is property. "If I own it, you don't. I can choose to license it to you and then you can use it, but you can only use it in the ways I tell you you can use it, which include not being able to modify it, not being able to redistribute it, not being able to give it away to others." That ecology works. It obviously produces software and it produces very good software.

But the ecology on the other side, the open source ecology, works as well. What I've tried to do over the last couple of years is unravel that story by understanding the political organization of the community that produces it. It's not a traditional command and control hierarchy. There are no real monetary incentives. There's no real coercive power in the community. Lots of the functions that you see in politics are there: there's leadership, there's decision-making, there's sanctioning -- people get punished when they do the wrong thing. There are people who are in the community and people outside of the community. But the boundaries are maintained in a very different fashion.

What I've tried to do is understand that. What's very interesting about it for me is that it's given me a lot of insight into an empirically researchable example of a community that has been changed by, or even in a fundamental sense created by Internet technology. You go off into the popular literature and you will see books and articles and tons of stuff about virtual communities and the Internet community. In many cases, we don't really know what those things are, because we haven't studied them in a definitive, empirical way. This community is out there and you can study it, it exists. Coincidentally, and nicely enough for researchers, because it exists essentially over the Internet, all the communications that the individuals have with each other take place via e-mail and they're all logged. There is, in a sense, almost a definitive and comprehensive history of the communities' negotiations amongst itself that you can read, and it's all out there on the web, and you can search. So it's almost like having complete access to the archives of someone trying to write a constitution.

You've laid the groundwork yourself by your background with George at Stanford, because it's exactly what he was calling for in his way of doing political science.

Right. It was a detailed process tracing of historical processes, which you can never do as well in selectively available historical documents as you can in the community that actually logs everything that it says to each other. It's very interesting.

You're suggesting in your work that not only is it interesting to draw out the implications of what's going on here, but it may foretell things about the future, in the sense that the operating principle in this network may tell us about the way new kinds of organizations are going to develop.

Right. As I said, this is one of the first empirically researchable examples of a community that's been empowered by the Internet. I'm sure there will be others. I've tried in the book to draw out some examples of other kinds of problem domains outside the software world that would be demonstrably available for people to try to organize problem-solving communities like this. And actually, now that the book is done, I'm beginning a collaborative project with some people here in the Computer Science Department, and Gerry Feldman [in History] and Anno Saxenian in City and Regional Planning -- to try and test some of those ideas in test beds that we're going to develop. So I do think it is a harbinger of an alternative form of organization of which we're likely to see more of, not less of, in the future.

That presents at least two really interesting problems. One is, what are the boundaries of the applicability of this model? In the book I use the example of The Machine that Changed the World, which you will remember was the book that some MIT researchers (James P. Womack, Daniel T. Jones, and Daniel Roos) wrote in the late 1980s about the Japanese "lean production" system for autos. They made the profound point at that time that what was worth studying was not the car that came off the assembly line, [but] the way of making things. Then they said, actually, it's not even about autos, and it's not uniquely Japanese; this is a generic way of producing things that can and will expand to other countries and to other products. And they were right about that. They weren't as careful -- and I hadn't really thought about it at the time -- of trying to understand what are the boundaries of lean production. How far can it expand? What kinds of industries can this actually work in? That's what we're trying to test in this project. So that's one problem: understanding the boundaries of the applicability of this model.

The other problem, which comes up in the open-source example, but elsewhere as well, is if you imagine a world in which there are, in fact, at least two different kinds of organizations of this sort: typical corporate hierarchies and open source communities. They have to work together; they have to cooperate. They may have to share stuff. They may have to fight with each other. In fact, Microsoft has de facto declared war on the open source community in a number of different ways. What happens at the intersection between those very differently structured communities, between networks and hierarchies, is a generic problem that I'm very interested in. It shows up in lots of different segments of human society. We're seeing it now in the international security environment as the United States reorganizes to try to fight a war against the terrorist network: a similar kind of problem at an abstract level.

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