Ted Leung on the air
Ted Leung on the air: Open Source, Java, Python, and ...
Wed, 31 May 2006
Democracy or meritocracy

[via Scripting News: 5/31/2006 ]:

Jaron Lanier has written an essay on problems with the Wikipedia, presumably in response to some of the recent blog posts about the death of the Wikipedia. The paragraph below is the one that struck me the most.

And that is part of the larger pattern of the appeal of a new online collectivism that is nothing less than a resurgence of the idea that the collective is all-wise, that it is desirable to have influence concentrated in a bottleneck that can channel the collective with the most verity and force. This is different from representative democracy, or meritocracy.

Many people associate the Wikipedia with open source software, and while there are similarities, there are also important differences. I've run into plenty of people who believe that open source software is run by some kind of democracy. None of the good open source projects that I am aware of are democracies. All of them are meritocracies. I see this fundamental misunderstanding frequently when I talk to people, and I see it when people try to use "open source" as an adjective to apply to their favorite project which leads to open-source journalism, open source radio, and so on. Most of these things tend to be like Wikipedia, sharing some qualities with open source, but differing in other important respects.

Lanier makes a stop along the way to comment on some of those differences:

Here I must take a moment to comment on Linux and similar efforts. The various formulations of "open" or "free" software are different from the Wikipedia and the race to be most Meta in important ways. Linux programmers are not anonymous and in fact personal glory is part of the motivational engine that keeps such enterprises in motion. But there are similarities, and the lack of a coherent voice or design sensibility in an esthetic sense is one negative quality of both open source software and the Wikipedia.

These movements are at their most efficient while building hidden information plumbing layers, such as Web servers. They are hopeless when it comes to producing fine user interfaces or user experiences. If the code that ran the Wikipedia user interface were as open as the contents of the entries, it would churn itself into impenetrable muck almost immediately. The collective is good at solving problems which demand results that can be evaluated by uncontroversial performance parameters, but bad when taste and judgment matter.

I am not as pessimistic as Lanier about the ability of the open source process - note that I said process and not community - to produce a high quality user interface/experience, but I will readily agree that we have almost no examples of such an interface to point to as proof. But recall the some open source projects are run on a "benevolent dictator model" and that some of these projects have been able to produce products (in their domain) imbued with a strong aesthetic sense -- the Python and Ruby languages come to mind here - at least according my sense of aesthetics.

[23:01] | [computers/open_source] | # | TB | F | G | 8 Comments | Other blogs commenting on this post

I agree about wikipedia wholeheartedly.  Clay Shirky has already written about the kind of disaster that is happening on Wikipedia in slow motion -- http://shirky.com/writings/group_enemy.html -- and I think we'll eventually see the full arc of events he describes happen there.  In wikipedia's defense, the fact that everyone feels it's necessary to write essays on their problems with wikipedia (and open source) is emblematic of their success.  Eventually the wikipedia maintainers will need to come up with a more robust strategy to evaluate authors, eventually they will need to realize that defacement by people with political objectives is a serious problem that needs to be dealt with more than casually, but they have made an amazing amount of progress so far.

As far as open source software and UI: as the russians say, "there are no comrades in taste".  Personally, I think that the open source process has produced a huge number of successes in this regard.

GNOME itself, I think, is a pretty good example.  The UI is superior to Windows in various ways;  new package installation and removal makes a lot more sense, it's much easier to find stuff in the default menu structure -- and that is very explicitly community related, because that structure is decided by the community of application authors rather than willy-nilly by each thing that installs on your system -- and applets are infinitely more comprehensible than "taskbars".  There are problems, of course, but I have a panel full of programs which I think are impressively usable: I use GIMP and Lifera and Gaim and Firefox every day, on multiple platforms,  I've never once looked at a user manual or even any documentation, and I manage to get everything done with a minimum of fuss.

I realize that this is a bit of a sacred cow even here, but MacOS X doesn't hold a monopoly on sensible UI either.  For example, its reliance on the deep filesystem metaphor for finding applications just does not make sense to some people; my grandmother routinely drags applications out of the Applications folder on the mac, and has trashed her iPhoto database twice by moving around folders inside her Pictures folder.  In the GNOME UI this is not a problem; if you drag-and-drop stuff out of the menu or off of the panel some weird stuff will sometimes happen, but it won't permanently damage your desktop or your applications.

Also from my grandmother's experiences, iPhoto is certainly nicer at importing photos from a camera than gPhoto, but scanning photos on the mac is a disaster.  In GNOME you click the picture of the scanner that says "XSane Image Scanner" and the same UI pops up regardless of the brand of scanner.  On MacOS X you start some god-awful program that your scanner vendor provided, which doesn't even work half the time.  How usable is "an error of type -13 occurred"?

Average open source UI still might be below the average of commercial UI design, but here's a lot of commercial software out there with really, really bad UI and there's a lot of open source software out there with really excellent UI.  There is a ton of room for improvement but I don't see the endemic problem with OSS UI any more; I've used a fully open-source desktop as my primary platform since around 1997, with brief interludes on Windows and OS X, and there was a very definite, tangible problem with the usability of software on Linux as compared to the alternatives in the late 90s.  Nowadays, I find its usability at the very least competitive with the alternatives, if not superior.  This idea that the community is "hopeless" at producing fine user experiences is stuck in the days when we were running netscape navigator 3, AfterStep, and XFMail.  It just isn't true any more.
Posted by Glyph Lefkowitz at Thu Jun 1 07:47:55 2006

What I hear Ted (and Jaron) saying is that even in a community-based project, someone has to be "in charge" with the ability to say yes or no to any requests. Without that architect/visionary/leader
you have a higher risk of an incoherent mess.

As for the usability issues: I would submit that anyone who was raised on Linux/Gnome and finds the GIMP usable w/o any docs is probably not your typical PC/Mac user. (What's Grandma doing mucking around in the iPhoto pictures database anyway?)

I don't think I've seen an error -13 in many years either.

The "deep filesystem" metaphor has largely been erased by Spotlight search - although some users may not have realized it yet.
(I challenge you to move applications and their dependent libraries around on a Windows or other Unix system and see what happens there - the Mac version is quite self-contained with their bundling - but obviously when an application relies upon the filesystem for its datastore, its vulnerable to user errors.)

And as for scanner interfaces, the vendors target Windows first - that's where the majority of customers are, and there were early problems in interfacing that kind of stuff on OSX. I thought Apple did eventually put a simple one in with their Imaging-Devices API, but I haven't used it. Also, most serious Mac scanner users probably use a PhotoShop plug-in anyway. There are also less-expensive 3rd-party products out there too, some of which vendors bundle with their products now.
Posted by
rick at Thu Jun 1 14:21:42 2006


Look at this link which describes the development hierarchy for MediaWiki:
http://meta.wikimedia.org/wiki/Developers.  That's not the same as anybody can edit a page at any time.
Posted by Ted Leung at Thu Jun 1 22:28:08 2006

You can subscribe to an RSS feed of the comments for this blog: RSS Feed for comments

Add a comment here:

You can use some HTML tags in the comment text:
To insert a URI, just type it -- no need to write an anchor tag.
Allowable html tags are: <a href>, <em>, <i>, <b>, <blockquote>, <br/>, <p>, <code>, <pre>, <cite>, <sub> and <sup>.

You can also use some Wiki style:
URI => [uri title]
<em> => _emphasized text_
<b> => *bold text*
Ordered list => consecutive lines starting spaces and an asterisk





Remember my info?

twl JPG


Ted Leung FOAF Explorer

I work at the Open Source Applications Foundation (OSAF).
The opinions expressed here are entirely my own, not those of my employer.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Now available!
Professional XML Development with Apache Tools : Xerces, Xalan, FOP, Cocoon, Axis, Xindice
Technorati Profile
PGP Key Fingerprint
My del.icio.us Bookmarks
My Flickr Photos

RSS 2.0 xml GIF
Comments (RSS 2.0) xml GIF
Atom 0.3 feed
Feedburner'ed RSS feed

< May 2006 >
  1 2 3 4 5 6
7 8 910111213


Macintosh Tips and Tricks

Blogs nearby
geourl PNG

/ (1567)
  books/ (33)
  computers/ (62)
    hardware/ (15)
    internet/ (58)
      mail/ (11)
      microcontent/ (58)
      weblogs/ (174)
        pyblosxom/ (36)
      www/ (25)
    open_source/ (145)
      asf/ (53)
      osaf/ (32)
        chandler/ (35)
        cosmo/ (1)
    operating_systems/ (16)
      linux/ (9)
        debian/ (15)
        ubuntu/ (2)
      macosx/ (101)
        tips/ (25)
      windows_xp/ (4)
    programming/ (156)
      clr/ (1)
      dotnet/ (13)
      java/ (71)
        eclipse/ (22)
      lisp/ (34)
      python/ (86)
      smalltalk/ (4)
      xml/ (18)
    research/ (1)
    security/ (4)
    wireless/ (1)
  culture/ (10)
    film/ (8)
    music/ (6)
  education/ (13)
  family/ (17)
  gadgets/ (24)
  misc/ (47)
  people/ (18)
  photography/ (25)
    pictures/ (12)
  places/ (3)
    us/ (0)
      wa/ (2)
        bainbridge_island/ (17)
        seattle/ (13)
  skating/ (6)
  society/ (20)

[Valid RSS]

del.icio.us linkblog



Listed on BlogShares

Locations of visitors to this page
Where are visitors to this page?

pyblosxom GIF