I've been doing a lot of coast to coast travel of late, which lends itself to getting caught up on my reading. A book I just finished and recommend, but at least partially disagree with, is "The Cult of the Amateur" by Andrew Keen. This book basically, with substantial proof and well-supported arguments, says that blogs and efforts like open source will effectively destroy our culture and unacceptably lower the quality of everything they touch, while destroying the economic engine that supports much of what we used to trust.
Once again, I recommend you actually read the book and not take this as a review, because that is not my intent. I actually agree with much of what the author says. I just disagree with the conclusions he draws and want to suggest some defenses. It is one thing to point out a problem, it's another to suggest a solution, and that's why analysts exist.
The Problem Statement
In a nutshell, using examples of corruption in products like Wikipedia, MySpace, YouTube, and a variety of affinity blog sites, the book argues that we are losing our independence and our choices. It uses examples of companies intentionally corrupting data; PR firms acting on behalf of clients corrupting data; individuals corrupting data for a variety of reasons including revenge, upping page counts and incompetence; and suggests the professional activities to intentionally mislead us are increasing at an alarming rate.
The focus on the cost of this free stuff, be it news, video, music, or literature, as the elimination of the professional in each of the related industries, clearly applies to open source and software. The author mentions open source in passing, but his message is that the eventual result will be the elimination, by economic means, of the professional software developer.
The implications of Mr. Keen's message that along with the collapse of the music, TV, and movie businesses, and the traditional press, there would be no software business either are hard to dismiss.
It is easy to get wrapped up in the well-argued warnings the book documents but I'm old enough to have been down this path before. Movies were to have killed plays, color movies were to have destroyed the creative value of black and white, radio was to have destroyed music, and cable TV was going to destroy our culture long before anyone came up with the idea of Wikipedia. But each did result in change, job loss and, at times, massive disruption.
With any major change comes pain and the need to adapt and evolve. We also know, and the author points out, that as a people we are fickle and have a relatively short attention span. Change may not stick. Because, even though we may get really excited about things like YouTube, open source, and tulips (the example in the book), we can lose our enchantment and revert, at least somewhat, to the previous status quo. Apparently, this isn't an infrequent event.
While, in terms of our civilization, this kind of change happens incredibly fast, in the framework of those living through it, the adjustment can take some time and be incredibly painful economically. I think, given the consolidation we are seeing in both media and the technology industry, we are still largely in the middle of this change and that the pendulum may have started to swing back a bit, at least with regard to open source.
The real problem, and I not only agree but have seen the pattern before, is an increasing reliance on untrustworthy sources. Resulting bad decisions will do the majority of the damage as experts in all the affected categories are driven out of the business. I know that most of the experts I knew and trusted 10 years ago have left the industry and much of that has happened over the last five years. In virtually all cases, they were replaced by substantially cheaper junior resources, or not replaced at all as their expertise bled out of the industry.
The solution isn't to suddenly start avoiding open source products and shift back to proprietary offerings. Such a generic recommendation would not only not change much of the outcome (it is too far along), but made in a vacuum, without regard to your actual needs, it would be stupid. I try very hard not to do stupid.
No, the solution is to protect your experts. If you will increasingly have problems trusting external resources and there will be an increasing shortage of experts, then moving rapidly to identify and protect the trusted resources you have becomes a critical survival strategy, regardless of expertise.
Another way of looking at this, from a competitive standpoint, is that if there is a shortage of qualified experts and you have more than your competitors, then, over time, you should be vastly more successful (translated into actual financial performance) than those competitors.
I've increasingly felt that, with the move to open source, we must put a higher value on people than we currently do. This idea of looking at trained resources as disposable assets, particularly in an open source world, is now (at least to me) not only obsolete but could result in some nasty consequences.
Let me close by stating a personal bias. I've generally felt the value of employees simply isn't adequately accounted for, particularly in an open source world, and that makes layoffs easier than they should be. Most of the layoffs I see these days are not only badly done, they don't seem to take into account the cost to their respective companies of the resulting loss of expertise and competence. This suggests that we may have already lost much of the expertise that used to exist in HR. We'll pick this up in a future post, but frankly, I've seen companies commit suicide by not being aware of their critical human resources; this book reinforced that belief.
The resources I'm suggesting you protect aren't just your own, either. They are the VARs, company reps, analysts and temporary employees who may be critical to servicing and advancing a platform, solution or technology upon which you've become dependent. Not being aware of, and protecting, that human dependency is risky in the best of times, and "The Cult of the Amateur" suggests it is horribly negligent now.
I've always believed that if you take care of your people, they will take care of you. This is something you should likely live by in the months to come regardless of whether you are a Linux or a Microsoft shop.