Getting Flat, Part 1

Our Senior Editor digs into Tom Friedman's new bestseller, from a Linux/open source angle.

Doc Searls ( is Senior Editor of Linux Journal and writes the monthly Linux for Suits column. He also presides over Doc Searls' IT Garage, which is published by SSC, the publisher of Linux Journal.


Doc Searls is the Editor in Chief of Linux Journal


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Friedman/Open source

Daniel's picture

Friedman's comments on open source are fairly typical of his overall philosophy in The World is Flat.

Globalization: it's all good, get used to it. There are no other options. Sweeping generalization upon more sweeping generalization.

Open Source: nice idea, but those damned purists need a little "Microsofting" to take them to the college of how to make a buck, and stop giving away the store.

The never ending groveling to the big dogs, the whole "everybody better wake up" pontificating left me clear on that fact that Tom Friedman is simply what you get from a lifetime of privilege: another cocktail party dandy with a million stories all designed to demonstrate how clever and hip he is. Another sycophant pretending to be a novel thinker.

pointed use of false rhetoric

Toby's picture

Friedman refers to an "army of unpaid programmers". Aside from those who may be "unemployed" (another misleading word), we must be being paid somehow, or how would we clothe and feed ourselves, let alone maintain mortgages? I don't like this cheap and underhanded use of words. Or maybe it's just carelessness. It's not the first time I've seen attempts to weave FUD around a "how can you trust people who don't get paid" feint.

It is "market economics", just not money.

Bob Robertson's picture

The only reason that the socialists try to call "OpenSource" "post-capitalistic" is because they don't understand capitalism. They want "it" to fail, so they use any example they can to bad mouth "it".

FOSS is merely information. FOSS is not an economic good, because it is not scarce. Scarcity is what allows for people to assign comparative value and thus price. So this "flat" world is simply an information infrastructure based on non-scarcity. Non-scarcity benefits everyone, everywhere, which is the true point of Tom Friedman's book. This is why copyright and patent laws cause so much damage, they impose artificial scarcity.

But capitalism is merely the private ownership of the means of production, be they material or intellectual. My choice to contribute to a FOSS project remains my choice, therefore I am acting as a capitalist. It is my judgement whether what I receive in return, be it renown or skill improvement, or merely that the tool now fulfills my particular needs better than it did, is worth the trade for my labors.

Read Beowulf to understand how personally valuable renown can be, because true good will is so scarce.

See especially _Human Action_.

The book is appallingly badly written

Nix's picture

Alas, Friedman's actual writing ability is... negligible, which renders his book quite unreadable, to me at least. It should never have left the slush pile without a rewrite (and without Friedman's name on it, it wouldn't have).

A good roundup of the (purely literary) reasons why mentioning his name will make many people blanch is given in a recent Making Light article.

excellent article

Bill Kaiser's picture

As an admirer of Tom Friedman's writing and as a director of RedHat, I greatly enjoyed your analysis of his new book, which I ordered as soon as I read your comments! Well-done....

Great Article

tadelste's picture

In a discussion recently with one of the major IT companies, Doc's name kept coming up as the most widely read open source journalist/writer. Friedman should be honored to get a web article written about his book by Doc.

Anyone who doesn't read this article is missing out huge! I've heard Friedman being interviewed on NPR recently and they guy has so much insight. Doc captures the spirit and essence of the flatter world experience.

As the first Linux magazine, Linux Journal carries serious prestige and it's best writer should be a given for anyone hitting this web site or getting the print version.

Thank you Doc for the many years of great stuff and for your commitment to continuing to bring us the best and most intelligent insights into this Linux open-source paradigm.


Understanding open source economics

Jack Carroll's picture

Business people might understand the open source phenomenon better if its economics were ever analyzed properly. A lot of what goes on in our community happens for perfectly rational, selfish reasons that even Ayn Rand could applaud. The thing that makes this so hard to recognize at first glance is that the economic parameters of software collaboration are so different from those of the commerce and manufacturing that classical capitalism was formulated to explain, that it all needs a fresh look.
For instance, the falling cost of media and the I/O devices that write on them has brought the per-unit cost of copying to nearly zero. The Internet has bypassed the logistics of traditional distribution, nearly wiping out that cost -- especially when cooperative protocols like bittorrent enter the picture. Direct collaboration that includes user participation not only wipes out the cost of market research, it prevents marketing organizations from blocking the fulfilment of users' requirements. And finally, practically all the cost of authoring and selling software within a business organization is attributable to the cost of running the business and collecting the revenue. Eliminate the business infrastructure, and suddenly software creation and collaboration become affordable to unorganized individuals. And why should the individual do this without keeping score in terms of money? Because the individual needs the software itself, and the only way to get it is to write it, or to enhance what someone else has written. The situation isn't all that different for a business that needs a piece of software, and isn't in the business of selling software -- once it's written, the most rewarding thing to do with the source code is publish it and invite improvements.
Pure economic optimization, all the way.

Friedman writes: While comme

Felix Deutsch's picture

Friedman writes:
While commercial software is copyrighted and sold, and companies guard the source code as they would their crown jewels so they can charge money to anyone who wants to use it and thereby generate income to develop new versions, open-source software is shared, constantly improved by its users, and made available for free to anyone.

Except that open-source software is of course copyrighted (or rather copylefted) as well, otherwise the whole GPL "contagious values system" wouldn't work. Trust, but be able to litigate, if I may paraphrase Lenin.

That's just one example.

Friedman is a terribly shallow and lazy thinker, always looking for new ways of fellating the corpocracy or jumping on a (clue)train that has left the station years ago; look no further than here for more evidence.

Your point?

Anonymous's picture

Okay so here is another shallow thinking statememnt backed up by a less than substantive quote.
I was looking back to see if you were looking back to see if I was looking back to see if you were looking back at me............
Hummmm pot calling the ketle black?

Spot on Assessment

Chris Bergeron's picture

Great workup on differentiating copyleft code from packaged corporate software Doc. I totally agree on the slightly off-base nature of the corporate message embedded in those quotes.

With GNU/BSD licensed software at least, the receiver of the codebase is left in complete control. Even Microsoft could grab a copy of the code and configure/support it the same as with the Windows codebase. There's no corporate competition from OSS/Free software, just service companies that sell packages including it.

More than just wanting

Dave Moskovitz's picture

In my experience, the main reason for buying into open source projects goes far beyond "wanting something the market doesn't offer". It's more about servicing business needs quickly. Who can wait for a vendor to respond to a request, when it's so much easier to take pre-existing OSS systems or code and improve them slightly to solve your particular problem? With ever-decreasing timeframes, OSS makes the impossible possible.

Transaction costs are inside corporate environments, too

Anonymous's picture

For an IT professional, it often takes less time to install and configure an open source package than to get approval to "buy" (actually, enter into a license for) a proprietary one.

Transaction costs aren't just between vendor organization and customer organization -- they're within organizations.