Wednesday, March 4, 2009

What open source can teach us about failure

You only have to be half paying attention to have heard about the software revolution resulting from the open source software (OSS) movement. Put simply (and ported from the Wikipedia entry), open source software is
computer software for which the source code and certain other rights normally reserved for copyright holders are provided under a software license that meets the Open Source Definition or that is in the public domain. This permits users to use, change, and improve the software, and to redistribute it in modified or unmodified forms. It is very often developed in a public, collaborative manner.

That's the simple description; a more complex definition is available via The Open Source Initiative, which describes itself as "a non-profit corporation formed to educate about and advocate for the benefits of open source and to build bridges among different constituencies in the open-source community."

The OSS movement has had a significant effect on mainstream software companies like Microsoft and HP, who have had to work to maintain their "hands-off," proprietary presentation of products. Yet, as Clay Shirky points out, most open source software fails hard and fast and is no threat at all to major (or even minor) software companies. As proof, Shirky looks to, the largest collection of open source projects available for download. The most popular open source projects have been downloaded millions of times, but that's only true of the top handful of projects. Three-quarters of the projects hosted at SourceForge have never been downloaded at all. Not even once. For every Linux, it seems, there are a thousand GNOME Bulgarias.

It's not, after all, that most open source projects present a legitimate threat to the corporate status quo; that's not what scares companies like Microsoft. What scares Microsoft is the fact that OSS can afford a thousand GNOME Bulgarias on the way to its Linux. Microsoft certainly can't afford that rate of failure, but the OSS movement can, because, as Shirky explains,
open systems lower the cost of failure, they do not create biases in favor of predictable but substandard outcomes, and they make it simpler to integrate the contributions of people who contribute only a single idea.

Anyone who's worked for a company of reasonable size understands the push to keep the risk of failure low. "More people," Shirky writes, "will remember you saying yes to a failure than saying no to a radical but promising idea." The higher up the organizational chart you go, the harder the push will be for safe choices. Innovation, it seems, is both a product of and oppositional to the social contract.

The implications for education of the ideals of open source are enormous, if we can find a way to address the question of stakes. If a large-scale educational initiative takes a risk and fails, we risk failure for an entire generation of children—or at least that's the story we tell to help ourselves sleep at night. Of course, this is only true if we think the only space for innovation is in teachers enacting lessons in the classroom, the daily innovation or stability of knowledge transferred from one head to another. But what if the lessons enacted by teachers were part of a movement toward a different kind of learning environment, one in which failure is not only allowed for but common and not even particularly notable, one in which failure is valued as part of a larger process, the movement of the group toward collective accomplishment?

And don't tell me that schools are in any way set up for this approach to learning; I've heard enough students ask, in various ways, what they need to do to get an A to know that the whole machine is set up to reward the kind of achievement that feels safe—to all of us, governed as we are by the myths of universal curricula, core knowledge, and the SAT mind. We want students to learn how to follow the rules, how to work within the dominant Discourse or to be fully aware exactly how far outside of it they are. We want our students to learn their place in a world where competition reigns and failure is the way we decide who will rule and who will be ruled.


Anonymous said...


I'm not sure I successfully parsed this sentence: "Of course, this is only true if we think the only space for innovation is in teachers enacting lessons in the classroom, the daily innovation or stability of knowledge transferred from one head to another."

Fred said...

Hi jenna, thanks for this post, great insight and a good understanding of the power of competition and failure.


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