It’s Like This…Or Maybe Like That…

by MichaelF on September 08, 2006 08:19pm

I am compiling a list and analysis of all the analogies and metaphors that have been used to characterize open source software development and its social, technical, and business implications.  I think it is unlikely this will be the next DaVinci Code­­-style best seller, so I don’t expect to give up my day job, but my interview of Professor Alfonso Fuggetta where he talked about the distinction between specification and implementation reminded me of why I started this project.

Analogy and metaphor are fundamental to not only how we understand something, but also to how we form our opinions about it; in an influential paper on artificial intelligence and cognition, the authors emphasize the centrality of analogy to not only how we make sense of the world but its powerful and often unrecognized implications:

When people make analogies, they are perceiving some aspects of the structures of two situations—the essences of those situations, in some sense—as identical…Furthermore, not only is analogy-making dependent on high-level perception, but the reverse holds true as well: perception is often dependent on analogy-making itself. The high-level perception of one situation in terms of another is ubiquitous in human thought. In the large or the small, such analogical perception—the grasping of one situation in terms of another—is so common that we tend to forget that what is going on is, in fact, analogy.*


The authors use a few contemporaneous controversial situations from US politics in the late ‘80s – early ‘90s to illustrate this point—what  struck me about their emphasis on the power of analogical reasoning to shape opinion was the fact that analogies to “Vietnam” and “Hitler” were used in those examples in their paper and, 20 years plus later, those same historical events are in the news as analogies today.   The two examples highlight how acceptance of the analogy carries with it a strong bias to shape your attitudes and your behavior (even manipulate your emotions): analogies don’t necessarily just frame the argument—sometimes they are the argument.

The analogy that’s top of mind for me today is from Open Sources 2.0 (Sam blogged about it here), and was laid out by Matt Asay (who  frequently has interesting  things to say on his blog or, for that matter, here on Port25).   It’s one of those that I think warrants some discussion because, as it stands, I think it actually raises much more interesting questions than what Matt initially describes.


In his chapter “Open Source and the Commodity Urge: Disruptive Models for a Disruptive Development Process,” he is arguing open source reduces prices by facilitating the option to “do it yourself.”  After hiring out their landscaping, including cement work, he goes on to relate  the unfortunate story of having to pay (high)  legal fees to resolve a dispute with his (bad) cement contractor.  The price of legal assistance was high because of the “skill set involved and the artificial licenses set up by the legal profession to keep would-be attorneys in would-be land.” And necessary because (emphasis added) ”I am effectively barred from accessing the “source code” of the legal…profession, which drives up the price I must pay.”


Here’s the interesting thing: as much or perhaps more than any other domain, we are not barred from accessing the “source code” of the legal profession.


True, there are hurdles you have to go over to practice as an attorney and represent others—but that is not relevant to the “do it yourself option.”  In fact, you are entirely able to represent yourself if you want to, and some venues (small claims court and many administrative processes) are designed to accommodate self-representation.   So, first—relatively speaking—law is an areas where you have a lot of latitude to “do it yourself” (by comparison, “do it yourself law enforcement” or “do it yourself public highway repair” by contrast, is actively discouraged.)


Second, the “how-to”  of underlying knowledge is perhaps more widely available in the legal domain than in any other: there are many public law libraries and a large (although its practitioners would say not big enough) network of volunteer assistance organizations.


Finally, legal documents are almost universally  public as well, so you can seek an example of someone else’s filing, brief etc from among literally millions of such documents—from the lowliest pleading to the most momentous Supreme Court argument.  If a situation where the full text of millions of legal artifacts available freely (or for the price of distribution) aren’t like open source code…I’m not sure what is!


This analogy was powerful enough to lead me to think a long time about the contra case: not is lack of openness inflating prices, but what if a high degree of  openness does not reduce prices (--or at least “reduce enough” relative to expectations).   Thus the question: are there analogies  that help make sense of this possibility?  I have some ideas that I’ll offer in my next blog.




*High-Level Perception, Representation, and Analogy: A Critique of Artificial Intelligence Methodology; Chalmers, French, Hofstadter 2001




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