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[Comments] (1) The Anthropic Principle of Open Systems: There's a common theme in the Licklider book and the Tim Berners-Lee book, the theme of contigency. At every stage in the development of the Internet, there was an overwhelming chance that the project would fail. There were interests vested against openness, and then strong competitors that didn't share the philosophy of openness. But the open solution won. The same thing happened, in miniature, for the Web on top of the Internet. I mentioned this in passing last year.

This creates a problem analagous to the problem of the anthropic principle in physics. It's not a perfect analogy because the development of the Internet took place within space-time, but I think you can see it. Why did all these unlikely contigencies happen?

I can think of three possible responses. The first is that the contigencies weren't unlikely at all. There is some hidden force of society that makes sure open solutions tend to win. This is the knee-jerk free software response. I like it okay, but I've grown more dissatisfied with it as I've read these books, because there are lots of other situations in the world where the open solutions lost big time. When does the hidden force work?

The second response is that we gravitate to whatever open solutions we can find to solve our problems. The general public can't use something unless it's open. If things had turned out differently we might be speculating on how unlikely it was that we would develop a tradition of collaborative biology or open letter-writing.

The third is to deny that there's anything special about the contigencies. We don't talk about things that don't happen, so if these contigencies hadn't happened, we wouldn't be talking about them. Saying that the Internet and the Web worked out the way they did is just a tautology. This response has its points when applied to the physics anthropic principle, but I find it unsatisfying in this case, because it looks like the same sorts of contigencies turned out the same way twice.

Anyway, just some high-concept rambling to see out the year.


Posted by Ian Bicking at Sun Dec 31 2006 02:07

Notably video has remained closed despite lots of reasons why it should be open. Given the number of things that *could* be open, vs the number that *are* open... well, maybe we just *talk* about open things, because unlike closed systems there's something actionable about talking. Kind of an anthropic theory of attention -- we notice those things that we like, when the things we don't like are boring (not really enraging), and so we think that the world is dominated by The Things We Like.

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