Steering Where You Look

When I learned to drive, my instructor told me “you steer where you look” — in other words, wherever you focus your attention becomes your destination, so keep your eyes on the road ahead and don’t worry about the stores at the roadside (or even too much about the kerb and the parked vehicles).

The same principle seems applicable in other contexts. We’re moving away from a hierarchical, post-industrial society and evolving into a meshed society of peers, interacting in variable roles on their own terms. That’s challenging established institutions, but sadly they have frequently “steered where they looked” and made the wrong choices.

The big media lobby — especially the movie and music industries, but also book, software and games publishers — is right to be concerned about systematic infringement of their copyrights by commercial-scale criminals. But they have let their eyes wander. They have looked so long in anger upon those crooks, invested so much time and money in frustrating them, that they’ve become fixated on copyright enforcement and forgotten to keep pace with the expectations of their customers.

They’ve let the market run away from them and failed to build new businesses around their fans and friends. Instead, fixating on copyright infringement, they alienate the very people that should be their best bet for the future by treating them as criminals. They may not go as far as chasing everyone with lawsuits, but the unskippable admonishments on DVDs and their like shout loud and clear “we may have some of your money but we still don’t trust you.”

Open source projects are another case, perhaps a little more subtle. Entrepreneurs see the word “free” and assume there’s a commons there to exploit for profit. But open source only has a commons once a community gathers — it doesn’t magically arrive the instant you apply an OSI-approved license. Moreover, the commons exists only by the collective agreement of its participants to set aside certain rights so that collaboration becomes possible. Entrepreneurs tend to be so focussed on leveraging a free network effect they overlook the actual mechanism that makes it happen.

An open source community is an example of a group of people choosing to synchronise a fragment of their mutual interests, each at their own expense, for the benefit of all involved including themselves. While there may sometimes be a non-profit organisation for administrative reasons, an open source community is inherently neither a non-profit or a for-profit organisation; profit is an orthogonal concept.

The process by which this distraction from core values happens is subtle, and undoing the error is hard. It probably happens incrementally as communities pass through the ranges described by Dunbar’s Numbers.

  • At first a community is small enough for everyone to have a set of direct trust relationships.
  • As the community grows through the first Dunbar limit, it becomes necessary to define the norms for the community, to make it clear to newcomers what the values of the community are.
  • As growth continues, those norms become rules and the frequency with which they are enforced increases.
  • Gradually, communicating the rules to outsiders becomes a common community function and the ability to do so becomes a community skill.
  • Over time, application and explanation of those rules becomes so important to the community that they overshadow the original core values.

There’s no canned solution for this; it takes a brave executive to step away from the weapons and chart a course for influencing the meshed society instead of attempting to control it. The news that Getty Images is allowing free embedding of their entire catalogue for non-commercial use was just such a bold, visionary move. I hope we will see much much more of that and many fewer anti-fan lawsuits and copyright-assignment-based open source projects.

[First published in the May 2014 issue of Linux Voice magazine]

4 thoughts on “Steering Where You Look

  1. Reblogged this on Wild Webmink and commented:

    I’ve been thinking about the concept in this article for a long time. I think the “steering where you look, not where you meant to go” concept is widely applicable, not just to technology but to religion, politics and other areas. Do please send improvements!


  2. Interesting concept. I’ve been looking at a niche that seems far removed from your starting points, but where the ‘steering where you look’ concept seems useful: debt advice in the UK.

    At one end of the spectrum are charities who give disinterested advice. At the other are predator firms, often short-lived, who spring up to make money from selling the couple of solutions that generate money for the advisor. But in the middle are a lot of commercial firms, many set up by people with good ambitions about helping solve debt problems. But the dividing line between ‘debt advice’ and ‘sales’ can get blurred and the firms become too focussed on the few solutions that make money. In the long run they lose brand creditbility and also pick up costs from having clients who have been sold inappropriate solutions which tend to collapse.

    Short term profits, long term undesirable. But as you say, it takes a brave executive to step back from that road.


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