In Pursuit of a Flat World
The open source community is abuzz with a new way to characterize the progress that open source software is making. Tom Friedman, a Pulitzer Prize winning columnist at the New York Times, is a leading voice of an analysis which says that the traditional barriers preventing collaboration in various areas of technology are coming down. As he puts it “It’s a Flat World, After All”.
Barriers and Problems
The main problem with this new optimism is that it’s too easy, too simplistic. In reality, while some barriers are crumbling and many efficient, intelligent, and even cheap ways of doing things are coming on the scene, just as many new barriers are cropping up. From a distance, all worlds look flat. It’s only when you get close enough to see the details that you can make out the contours. The new digital information world appears flat until you run over the new potholes.
“From a distance all worlds look flat.”
Unfortunately, many of the underlying barriers and problems reinvent themselves in the new digital era. The virtual worlds of the Web and open source software are not enough to change the shape of the real world where poverty and exclusion are the ground realities. In the absence of will to eradicate poverty and disenfranchisement in the real world, the virtual worlds may never have enough power to materially improve the lives of people. Worse still, in many parts of the world, both the digital gap as well as the material gap are painfully widening. Even where the digital gap can be narrowed, the coming digital paradise looks a little tarnished when you see the kinds of things that it is actually used for, like graphic violence and spam.
Other technologies from earlier eras have also tried to flatten the world. As the creator of the original “global village”, radio, and then television, teaches us that mass communications ultimately becomes engaged in little more than entertainment. Just as often, it serves equally as a voice of propaganda for the political and cultural majority. Is this radio and TV world a flat world or a dumb world, or just another world with its own challenges and problems? Similarly, is the Internet a flat world? Perhaps it’s instead a world of chaos or maybe it is just another world with challenges and problems?
Open source - a new force to flatten the world
As a new force to flatten the world, open source software is a complex mesh of industry and community interests. It’s also replete with its own challenges and problems. Perhaps the greatest challenge is that meaningful collaboration is often limited to the club of wealthiest participants. The inclusiveness of the open source community represents an ideal which can flatten the barriers to entry and spread the benefits of participation in the world-wide IT revolution. But just being invited to the party, does not convey an ability to fully participate across the digital divide. The goal must be to enable an adequate standard of participation. Unfortunately, the barriers to participation inevitably boil down to resource as well as language constraints.
So to really flatten the world, using the open source method as a means as well as an end, the people responsible for much of today’s progress must not just drink from the golden goblets of benefits but also commit resources and effort in action to those who cannot cross the digital divide on their own.
Flatness is not enough. Bridges must be built and the flat world must also be paved with the resources needed by everyone to drive on the new roads of opportunity.