A while back I worked at a free software firm (ArsDigita, where early versions of the ArsDigita Community System were licensed under GPL) and was deeply involved in developing an "open source" license that balanced our needs, interests, and objectives with our clients' (the ArsDigita Public License, or ADPL, which was closely based on the Mozilla Public License, or MPL). I've been to O'Reilly's conferences (<shameless> I remember a ~20-person 2001 Birds-of-a-Feather session in San Diego with Mitch Kapor and pre-Google Eric Schmidt on commercializing open source </shameless>). Also, I'm a user of O'Reilly's books (currently have Charles Severance's Using Google App Engine in my bag). So I figured I should read this carefully and have a point of view about the essay. And despite having recently read Nicholas Carr's excellent and disturbing 2011 book The Shallows about how dumb the Internet has made me, I thought nonetheless that I should brave at least a superficial review of Morozov's sixteen-thousand-word piece.
To summarize: Morozov describes O'Reilly as a self-promoting manipulator who wraps and justifies his evangelizing of Internet-centered open innovation in software, and more recently government, in a Randian cloak sequined with Silicon Valley rhinestones. My main reaction: "So, your point would be...?" More closely:
First, there's what Theodore Roosevelt had to say about critics. (Accordingly, I fully cop to the recursive hypocrisy of this post.) If, as Morozov says of O'Reilly, "For all his economistic outlook, he was not one to talk externalities..." then Morozov (as most of my fellow liberals do) ignores the utility of motivation. I accept and embrace that with self-interest and the energy to pursue it, more (ahem, taxable) wealth is created. So when O'Reilly says something, I don't reflexively reject it because it might be self-promoting; rather, I first try to make sure I understand how that benefits him, so I can better filter for what might benefit me. For example, Morozov writes:
In his 2007 bestseller Words That Work, the Republican operative Frank Luntz lists ten rules of effective communication: simplicity, brevity, credibility, consistency, novelty, sound, aspiration, visualization, questioning, and context. O’Reilly, while employing most of them, has a few unique rules of his own. Clever use of visualization, for example, helps him craft his message in a way that is both sharp and open-ended. Thus, O’Reilly’s meme-engineering efforts usually result in “meme maps,” where the meme to be defined—whether it’s “open source” or “Web 2.0”—is put at the center, while other blob-like terms are drawn as connected to it.Where Morozov offers a warning, I see a manual! I just have to remember my obligation to apply it honestly and ethically.
Second, Morozov chooses not to observe that if O'Reilly and others hadn't broadened the free software movement into an "open source" one that ultimately offered more options for balancing the needs and rights of software developers with those of users (who themselves might also be developers), we might all still be in deeper thrall to proprietary vendors. I know from first-hand experience that the world simply was not and is still not ready to accept GPL as the only option.
Nonetheless, good on Morozov for offering this critique of O'Reilly. Essays like this help keep guys like O'Reilly honest, as far as that's necessary. They also force us to think hard about what O'Reilly's peddling -- a responsibility that should be ours. I used to get frustrated by folks who slapped the 2.0 label on everything, to the point of meaninglessness, until I appreciated that the meme and its overuse drove me to think and presented me with an opportunity to riff on it. I think O'Reilly and others like him do us a great service when they try to boil down complexities into memes. The trick for us is to make sure the memes are the start of our understanding, not the end of it.