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Technologies as complex ecosystems

Posted on Thu, Oct 13, 2005 at 5:41 PM by Andrew Chadwick

I was listening to the excellent TWiT (This Week In Tech) podcast the other day and was impressed by an argument made by Cory Doctorow, science fiction author and now EFF staff member, about technologies as 'complex ecosystems' with parasitical elements that contribute to their vibrance. In basic terms, the argument is that relatively 'open' technologies attract innovation, continuous improvement and development because they encourage parasitism. People pick up a technology, twist it, borrow elements from it, and hack together something different, better and newer. If technologies are relatively closed, they are less subject to this form of parasitism. Thus, it's better for all of us to have open technologies.

On the TWiT podcast Doctorow gave the example of the DVD format, which is very tightly restricted compared with, say, the CD. Thus, one of the reasons we have lots of innovation around the digitization of music is that the CD is an open format; it's easy to extract the data, compress it, move it, mix it, and republish it. Compare this with DVD, which, due to its restrictive nature (digital rights management), has not encouraged parasitism. He writes:

CD has a rich ecosystem, filled with parasites -- entrepreneurial organisms that move to fill every available niche. If you spent a thousand bucks on CDs ten years ago, the ecosystem for CDs would reward you handsomely. In the intervening decade, parasites who have found an opportunity to suck value out of the products on offer from the labels and the dupe houses by offering you the tools to convert your CDs to ring-tones, karaoke, MP3s, MP3s on iPods and other players, MP3s on CDs that hold a thousand percent more music -- and on and on.
DVDs live in a simpler, slower ecosystem, like a terrarium in a bottle where a million species have been pared away to a manageable handful. DVDs pay no such dividend. A thousand dollars' worth of ten-year old DVDs are good for just what they were good for ten years ago: watching. You can't put your kid into her favorite cartoon, you can't downsample the video to something that plays on your phone, and you certainly can't lawfully make a hard-drive-based jukebox from your discs.

The online text version of the argument is at Cory's website.

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