Monday, May 28, 2007

Word and concept of the day: agalmics

Another person tries to make a compact characterization of the economics of open-source and other freely copyable goods: (via Notional Slurry)

agalmics (uh-GAL-miks), n. [Gr. "agalma", "a pleasing gift"]
The study and practice of the production and allocation of non-scarce goods.

agalmia, n.
The sum of the agalmic activity in a particular region or sphere. Analogous to an "economy" in economic theory.

My own particular interest is in how open source economics interfaces with the "normal" economics of scarcity -- ie, while it's wonderful that software can be given away for free, until potatoes can reproduce themselves as easily it will be problematic for people working on open source to feed themselves. Back in the embryonic days of the FSF I made this argument, but nobody paid me much attention, and as it turns out my objections, while valid, did not stop open source from taking over the world. And many people seem to be able to support themselves while working on free software, one way or another.

I still suspect there is something screwy about the economics, and I'm not the only one. It seems like programmers are collectively undermining their own value in the for-pay economy, to the delight of big service corporations like IBM.

what we're seeing playing out among coders is what I'll term the Programmer's Dilemma. Because skills in open source programming are increasingly necessary to enhance the potential career prospects of individual programmers, individual programmers have strong motivations to join in - and as more programmers join in, the incentive for each individual programmer to participate becomes ever stronger. At the same time, the total amount of money that goes to programmers falls as open source is adopted by more companies. Individual programmers, in other words, have selfish motives to engage in collectively destructive behavior.


goatchowder said...

It's a problem that has plagued creative endeavors since the dawn of the industrial age. It's gotten really bad since the postwar era.

The music business has been like that for a long time. The arts business too.

Humans want to express themselves creatively. We're willing, even eager, to do so without pay. It's the essence of humanity. The question becomes: how do we eat then? There are lots of clever solutions, usually involving selling the tools of creation (i.e. PC's, musical instruments, art supplies), or making something creative which can be used for the production of something else (i.e. writing custom software to automate business processes, or licensing jingles or commercials or movie soundtracks), that is then in turn used to make money.

But I think it is the wrong question. The question that I prefer to ask is: why is it a zero-sum game in the first place? Why is the exploitation of scarcity (as in the case of environmental destruction) or its artificial creation (as in patents/copyrights or the monetization of all social exchange) required for survival? I understand why competition is good, but why has it become necessary for everything?

And that is a problem as old as money.

The only answer I've found is: because banks have a monopoly on money, and make it artificially scarce. The solution that seems to have most promise so far, is to create Open Source money. Basically, take Stallman's ideas, and extend them to the field of money.

I've been recommending Bernard Lietaer's book "The Future of Money" for years. It is a real eye-opener.

By the way, the people who farm potatoes are in the same bind as the people who write software. How many family farms are there in 21st-Century America? Can one make a living farming potatoes any more easily than by writing free software?

Sure, potatoes will never reproduce themselves, but there must be other ways for people who want to farm potatoes, or write software, to make a decent living doign what they love.

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