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November 25, 2007 » 10:49 am

Imposed Stupidity, Emergent Intelligence

In The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, Douglas Adams wrote:    (MR5)

The major problem — one of the major problems, for there are several — one of the many major problems with governing people is that of whom you get to do it; or rather of who manages to get people to let them do it to them.    (MR6)

To summarize: it is a well-known fact that those people who must want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it. To summarize the summary: anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job. To summarize the summary of the summary: people are a problem. (278)    (MR7)

I recently watched Linus Torvalds‘s talk at Google on git, the distributed version control system he wrote a few years ago. There are a bunch of gems in his talk, and it’s well worth watching. My favorite had to do with git’s views on decision-making in Open Source communities:    (MR8)

Maybe you don’t have this issue inside a company, but we certainly have it in every single Open Source community I’ve ever seen that uses CVS or Subversion or something like that. You have this notion of commit access. Because you have a central repository, it means that everybody who’s working on that project needs to write to the central repository. Which means that, since you don’t want everybody to write to the central repository because most people are morons, you create this class of people who are ostensibly not morons. And most of the time, what happens is, you make that class too small, because it’s really hard to know if a person is smart or not, and even when you make it too small, you will have problems. So this whole commit access issue, which some companies are able to ignore by just giving everybody commit access, is a huge psychological barrier, and it causes endless hours of politics in most open source projects.    (MR9)

If you have a distributed model, it goes away. Everybody has commit access. You can do whatever you want to your project. You just get your own branch. You do great work or you do stupid work. Nobody cares. It’s your copy. It’s your branch. And later on, if it turns out you did a good job, you can tell people, “Hey, here’s my branch, and by the way, it performs ten times faster than anybody else’s branch. So nyah nyah nyah. How about pulling from me?” And people do.    (MRA)

And that’s actually how it works, and we never have any politics. That’s not quite true, but we have other politics. We don’t have to worry about the commit access thing. I think this is a huge issue, and that alone should mean that every single Open Source system should never use anything but a distributed model. You get rid of a lot of issues. (18:12-20:13)    (MRB)

Someone in the audience asked Torvalds whether the distributed model simply shifted the political questions of access rather than eliminated them, to which Torvalds replied:    (MRC)

What happens is, the way merging is done is the way real security is done: by a network of trust. If you have done any security work, and it did not involve the concept of network of trust, it wasn’t security work, it was masturbation. I don’t know what you were doing, but trust me, it’s the only way you can do security, it’s the only way you can do development.    (MRD)

The way I work, I don’t trust everybody. In fact, I’m a very cynical and untrusting person. I think most of you are completely incompetent. The whole point of being distributed is, I don’t have to trust you, I don’t have to give you commit access, but I know that among the multitude of average people, there are some people that just stand out, that I trust, because I’ve been working with them. I only need to trust five, ten, 15 people. If I have a network of trust that covers those five, ten, 15 people that are outstanding, and I know they’re outstanding, I can pull from them. I don’t have to spend a lot of brainpower on that question. (27:37-29:00)    (MRE)

Power relationships exist everywhere there are groups of people. And if you don’t believe they should, you’re kidding yourself. Collective Intelligence, Collective Leadership, and more specifically, emergent self-organization are not about eliminating power relationships. They’re about empowering the right people at the right time.    (MRF)

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