Linux for Suits - Breaking the Matrix

by Doc Searls

I started working full-time for Linux Journal in 1999, when we were headquartered in the Ballard District of Seattle—a place I still miss visiting. One day, we took a break and headed over to a local theater where The Matrix was showing. It was early April, and the movie had just come out.

The Matrix immediately became my favorite movie of all time. Which is saying a lot, as I'm now 59 years old, and I've seen a lot of movies.

The Matrix doesn't have the best acting or direction. It did break new ground in special effects, but so did many lesser movies. In its many fight and chase scenes, The Matrix and its sequels are derivative of countless other products of Hollywood and Asia. (Yes, they were fun and over the top, if you're into that stuff, but they were still derivative, and some of the scenes go on forever.) What made The Matrix powerful and important was its exceptionally strong metaphor for closed systems that become so familiar and comfortable we fail to realize they treat us like cattle—or worse, as disposable batteries.

The Matrix and its two sequels tell a familiar sci-fi story: a small rebel force overthrows an oppressive and overpowering empire. In this case, the setting is a future Earth in which machines and their programs have defeated and enslaved almost the entire human race. In this future world, nearly every human is trapped in a vast power plant where each individual serves as a source of electrical power for the machines. The movie's setting—the apparently real world of 1999—is in fact a collective illusion programmed and maintained by machines of vast intelligence.

Meanwhile, a population of free humans lives deep underground in a city called Zion and sends hovercrafts to sneak through abandoned sewers, where they can hack into The Matrix and free human prisoners who correctly suspect that something is not right with the only world they've known. It's not worth going further into the details of the movie. I'd be surprised if more than a handful of Linux Journal readers haven't seen it. What matters is what we gain from it.

I gained a realization that The Matrix was a metaphor for marketing. For me this was personal.

When I began writing for Linux Journal in 1996 (as a contributing editor), I was fairly new to Linux and to the free software and open-source concepts that Linux embodies. But I had been working in marketing—mostly advertising and PR—for two decades. For a stretch of the late 1980s and early 1990s, Hodskins Simone & Searls was one of the top high-tech advertising agencies in Silicon Valley. When I left the agency, I went on to become a successful marketing consultant. So I knew how the sausage was made.

Oddly, marketing (including advertising and PR) is not as powerful as you might think. Given the extraordinary inefficiencies involved, the actual influence exerted by marketing (and by advertising and PR in particular), is remarkably small. Even the accountabilities introduced with pay-per-click advertising still involve ratios of “impressions” to clicks that run in the lottery range.

Far more powerful is a belief, held by nearly everybody in the developed world, that the best markets are captive ones. In the Free Software and Open Source movements we call captive markets “walled gardens” or “silos”. But to most producers in the developed world, these are ideal. And to most consumers, they are business as usual.

Even after the Net obsoleted closed on-line systems, Yahoo, AOL and Microsoft continued to silo instant messaging inside their own walled gardens. In 2006, there should be no excuse for this.

Yet there is. We continue to believe, as both producers and consumers, that silos are okay. And worse, that a “free” marketplace is one where you get to choose the best silo.

We see this in the US today with our “choice” of services from phone and cable carriers. We even think the Net itself is a grace of telecom and cablecom carriage. After all, those are the guys we pay to get it. Those are the guys who have gradually increased our connection speeds.

Even the most broad-minded techies can get trapped inside the conceptual silo constructed by the telecom and cablecom carriers. As I write this, the debate over “Net Neutrality” is conducted almost entirely inside that silo.

The carriers claim to be fighting government regulation, when in fact they have known life only inside a regulatory habitat they built themselves and continue to control through an exceptionally powerful lobbying apparatus. Together with the lawmakers and regulators they control, the carriers have created what Bob Frankston (a father of both the spreadsheet and home networking) calls the Regulatorium.

The Regulatorium provides the building codes for telecom and cablecom silos. Telecom (including cablecom) “reform” is entirely about changing the building codes to make the silos more competitive with each other—not to free the captives of those silos or to blow the silos up altogether.

To the Regulatorium, a “free market” for Internet service means you get to choose between a cable and a telephone provider. That's it. These carriers can no more appreciate a truly free market than an agent in The Matrix can imagine a world not run by machines.

Carriers naturally oppose “Net Neutrality” because they've never provided it and don't want to start. No household customer of cable or ADSL service has ever experienced symmetrical, uncrippled service. For most of those same customers, the Internet is a secondary service offered alongside telephone or cable-TV services. As with human batteries inside The Matrix, a choice between two captors is all these customers have ever known. (Mobile telephony in the US is a little better, because there are more competing silos. But they're still silos. And not very open.)

On the other side of the debate are techies led by Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and other “content providers”, all fighting for Net Neutrality inside the Regulatorium: the carriers' home turf. The techies want the silo maintainers to play fair with Net traffic passing to captive customers inside the silos.

Regardless of how one defines “neutrality”, locating the argument inside the Regulatorium requires admitting that the Net is a grace of silo'd carriage. Even pleas to restore “common carriage” (an enforced indifference by carriers to the contents or passengers they carry) serve to reify the silo'd nature of the carriers. In effect, these pleas say, “Because we are captive, and because you have no motivation to treat us all fairly, we must insist upon regulations that force you to do that.” (Not surprisingly, this appeals to Democrats while offending Republicans, guaranteeing defeat in a Republican-majority Congress.)

One recent evening, I was explaining Net Neutrality to my wife, giving her a rundown of the various combatants in the debate and how they were doing. She listened patiently and replied on a level so high it reduced all the silos below to the dimensions of molecules. She said, “We're in the middle of a 100-year transition from analog to digital technology. That means we'll have another fifty years of prosperity and growth.”

I realized instantly that the Net is not just about TCP or Neutrality or peer-to-peer or end-to-end or anything other than connecting digital devices across distances. It's about reducing those distances to zero—or as close to zero as possible. “The Internet is just a path”, Bob Frankston says. And carriers, so far, have existed to create “billing events” in the middle of that path.

In “0 to 1 in 100 Years” (, an essay I wrote for the Linux Journal Web site in July 2006, I said this:

“Broadband” is like “long distance”: just another name for transient scarcity. We want our Net to be as fast, accessible and unrestricted as a hard drive. (And in time even that analogy will seem too slow.)

The only way that will happen is if the Net becomes ubiquitous infrastructure—something which, in a practical sense, nobody owns, everybody can use and anybody can improve (

There is infinitely more business in making that happen, and using the results, than Congress can ever protect for the carriers alone.

And guess who is in the best position to make money doing that? Right: the carriers.

Will somebody please tell them?

Of course that's a red herring. Telling something like that to a carrier is like telling an android to get a real body. Carriers can't do it. They're inside, not outside. They're a bus with a billing system.

You have to be free to see how absurd silos can be. You have to see markets as wide-open spaces opened by ubiquitous relationships, and potential relationships, between digital devices and the human beings who use them. You have to see unrestricted possibilities for the people and organizations putting those devices, their applications and their data to work. Those possibilities lose their limits once you set your mind free of the notion that a free market is just a choice of silos.

So. What does it mean to be free?

Richard M. Stallman and the Free Software Foundation have something to say, at least in respect to software:

Free software is a matter of the users' freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software. More precisely, it refers to four kinds of freedom, for the users of the software:

  • The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).

  • The freedom to study how the program works, and adapt it to your needs (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

  • The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).

  • The freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements to the public, so that the whole community benefits (freedom 3). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

The cognitive linguist George Lakoff has come out with a new book, Whose Freedom? The Battle Over America's Most Important Idea. In a chapter titled “Why Freedom is Visceral”, he says:

Freedom requires access—to a location, to an object, or to the space to perform an action. Access is a crucial idea in human thought....Freedom requires not just the absence of impediments to motion, but also the presence of access. Inhibiting freedom is, metaphorically, not just throwing up roadblocks, holding one back, taking away power, imposing burdens or threats or harm, but also failing to provide access. Freedom thus may require creating access, which may involve building.

I've said countless times that Linux (and the whole LAMP stack, which now potentially includes more than a hundred thousand components) is just building material. Its primary value is not in itself, but in what it makes possible—in what I call the “because effect”. Far more money is made because of Linux than with it. Same goes for all kinds of other ordinary things, including buildings, cars and cell phones. The difference is that Linux was created in the first place with freedom as a primary purpose. So are countless other examples of free and open-source software. So is the Net.

“Free software is about free speech, not free beer”, the Free Software Foundation says. In the same way, free markets are about free enterprise. In a free market, participants have the freedom to make and sell and service whatever they want. Free and open-source building components are commodities by intent. The abundance of a commodity may drive down prices for itself, but it also drives up the number and variety of purposes to which it can be put, and therefore drives up the number and variety of businesses it makes possible. When a commodity is free as in beer as well as free as in speech, the sum of business it makes possible is infinite. Yes, some of those businesses may be silos. But after a while, it becomes clear that the cost of maintaining silos is exceeded by the benefits of freedom—for everybody involved.

In The Matrix Reloaded, the hero of the story, Neo, meets the architect of The Matrix. With the hauteur and condescension of a stuffy college professor, the architect leads Neo to a conclusion. “Choice”, Neo says. “The problem is choice.” The architect agrees, and presents Neo with two choices, each leading to a determined outcome. Neo doesn't agree. He sees more possibilities than the architect, because Neo is human. He is not a program. He is capable of creation at a level machines cannot achieve, no matter how intelligent they may be. Human beings can be profoundly creative, and vastly original.

With original technologies, we can be exceptionally good at opening possibilities, at multiplying choices. This is what we do with free and open-source software.

What we do with Linux is also what we want from it. Both are about choice. You can't get full openness to possibilities—and choices among them—without full access to source code, and the freedom to improve that code as well as put it to use. In the techie world, we know about the virtues involved, and the effects as well.

But there is another path of access to sources that needs to be opened. This is the one between users and engineers—between the people who use code and the people who write it. The same goes for makers of hardware and nonsoftware products. In fact, just about everything. Yes, there are trade secrets and recipes and drug formulas and other kinds of stuff for which one can justify isolating creators from users. But in most cases, creators and users can benefit far more from interaction than from isolation.

In the free world we're building, isolation of creators is also becoming increasingly impractical. What David Weinberger called “Fort Business”—the building with the working space isolated inside physical as well as digital firewalls; the badges for employees, the escorts for visitors, the nondisclosure agreements for contractors—is becoming more anachronistic and absurd by the minute. Workers operate in the outside world as well as the inside one. Information customarily kept secret may prove to be more valuable in the open.

It is still common in Silicon Valley to see, in the vast empty cubicle farms of failed companies, posted warnings not to let secrets out of the building. This is the kind of insanity we have come to expect from marketing: a category of activity that works to control customers on the outside and creativity on the inside.

Marketing, advertising and PR have lots of warm BS about the good that they do. But the verbs give away their true intentions. Marketers want to “grab”, “capture” and “hold” people's attention. Customer “Relationship” Management (CRM) systems are mostly devoted to Silo Inhabitant Retention.

Yes, I know that's wrong and unfair and not even close to marketing's ideals. But there is one good reason why customers hate advertising, journalists hate PR and engineers hate marketing. Put simply, it gets in the way.

In most companies, marketing stands between users and engineers. Obstruction may not be formal, but it's there. We have this notion—programmed, Matrix-like, into Business As Usual—that says we need marketing to guide creation on the inside and to produce demand on the outside. We envision a process of product (or service) creation and sales that works in a linear, value-chain way. Feedback from the market comprises the return side of a cycle that needs to be formalized and run through a System. Marketing is in charge of that. Engineers aren't. They're back at the beginning of a process that doesn't involve them directly with customers or users. That's up to sales, marketing, customer support or some other non-engineering part of the corporate bureaucracy.

That whole mentality is a silo too. Maybe even a Matrix. Because we're trapped inside it, and we need to free our minds from it.

Survival and prosperity for technical companies in the long run will require more and more contact between makers and users. As with the trapped inhabitants of The Matrix, we need to start over in a new world that lacks the familiar comforts of the old one. There was comfort in the distance put by the silo between engineer and user. The engineer could work in peace.

But that distance is gone. That peace is gone. We have to make a new world where we know first-hand how our stuff works for real customers and real users. We need to engage and relate. Reports from marketing on studies and focus groups aren't going to cut it anymore. We'll need to know more and more on a first-hand basis.

Of course, engineers will still enjoy their privileged positions. “Show me the code” will always be the base price of admission to the software meritocracy. But meritocracies will be built on meritocracies. More products, more services, more possibilities, more choices, more opportunities, more value and more money. For everyone involved.

Code comes down to ones and zeros. We're building a whole new world with those. My wife is right. It will take a long time. We'll make a lot more business happen—faster—by opening markets up than by closing them down. And we'll get a lot more done by connecting freedoms to create with freedoms to choose and buy and use and re-use.

Liberating ourselves won't be easy. But it's necessary.

Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal.

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