web counter Media Lies: The Cathedral, the Bazaar and Blogs

Friday, September 10, 2004

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The Cathedral, the Bazaar and Blogs

I mentioned in a previous post that I was going to have to talk about "the power of the Internet in full display". This is a topic I've been thinking about for some time now. Grab a cup of coffee. We're going for a ride.

"Geeks" will already be familiar with Eric Raymond's, The Cathedral and the Bazaar, the seminal work on open source versus closed source programming. (It's a long read but well worth the time if you haven't read it.) Raymond sums up his entire argument in one, now famous, phrase - "Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow". What Raymond means is that because open source is open, thousands of programmers will be looking at the code. The inevitable result of this "swarm" of eyeballs is that bugs in the code will be found more quickly and fixed more rapidly. Closed source systems cannot compete with this, because they can't muster the resources necessary to keep pace.

What's even more interesting to me is that open source programming is not only self-correcting but also self-instructing. By that I mean that, as bugs are found and fixed, they get fixed in many systems, not just the one the bug was initially found in, and the same bugs tend to get repeated less and less as the "system" learns from its mistakes. "Old" bugs will also be recognized more quickly, as the "system" utilizes its "memory" to recall the previous issues.

"Customers" of open source programs can trust that the software is well written because many people have examined it and continue to do so. If the customer wants to, they can learn programming and examine the software themselves rather than taking someone else's word for its fitness. In practical application, most customers learn to trust certain programmers because their work has been thoroughly and publicly examined by competent programmers who have pronounced it well written and relatively bug free.

Closed source programming, on the other hand, is proprietary. Only its owners know what's inside, what "dirty little secrets" are hidden in the software, where the bugs lurk. Closed source programming is also hampered by a lack of resources. There aren't enough programmers to keep up both with new development and with finding and correcting bugs in existing systems. (There's also a negative incentive to find bugs. The effort takes away from development of new, revenue-generating projects.) Furthermore, the customer has to trust that the software owner is doing a good job, because the customer has no visibility into the process.

For this reason, closed source software is dying, and open source software is prospering. Microsoft might argue otherwise, and they might be able to hang on for a long time because of their wealth, but the demise of their present model is just as inevitable as the sunrise.

How does this relate to news?

Old media is "closed source" news. Their systems are proprietary. The public is not able to "see inside" their processes to determine whether or not there are bugs in their stories and where the bugs are located. Therefore, the public has to trust old media to be telling truth, because they have no way of vetting the process. Yes, there are ombudsmen and there are letters to the editor, but both those processes are filtered through the already biased process of the organization. Therefore, the news you get from them is the news they want you to get. This explains why you can depend on the New York Times, for example, to always report in great detail issues that hurt conservatism yet give scant attention to issues that hurt liberalism.

Recent examples abound - the Joe Wilson story, the 9/11 Commission story, the "crowd booed" AP story, the Swiftvets story, etc., etc., etc.

Furthermore, old media suffers from the same flaw as closed source software - limited resources. There simply isn't enough manpower and financing to do the job that has to be done and do it without "bugs".

New media, however, is bound by no such restrictions because it is "open source" news. It's true that blogs and online news media can write anything they want, whether it's true or false, just like old media. The difference is that anything they write will be instantly vetted by an online audience that now numbers in the millions.

This explains the CBS news documents scandal. CBS placed their documents on the web the afternoon of the scheduled 60 Minutes show. Within hours, questions were being raised about the authenticity of those documents. In less than 24 hours, experts had been consulted, the documents had been examined and scrutinized by thousands of people with intimate experience with those types of documents and the documents had been conclusively proven to be forgeries.

CBS, on the other hand, has just now started an internal investigation, and Dan Rather is still standing by the documents' authenticity, even though they have been proven to be forgeries. This is a crystal clear example of the difference between "closed source" and "open source" media - old and new media. Nothing could more convincingly prove that old media will die and new media will thrive. When the public has access to the source documents, the truth will be determined, in most cases, in less than a day. Old media can't even finish the planning stages of an investigation in that short a time.

New media feasts on an unlimited supply of unpaid experts who, for the price of brief fame or the altruistic pleasure of correcting error, will announce their opinion in their field of expertise. They also subject themselves to almost instantaneous peer review, so the system includes a powerful incentive to be careful and cautious in their analysis. Mistakes will be instantly exposed. Biases will be quickly criticized. There is nothing old media can do to compete with this. They pay a handful of "experts" very well, and they don't question their opinions. New media pays thousands of "experts" nothing and they are thoroughly questioned immediately.

What we are witnessing in this election is the death throes of old media. Exacerbated by their extreme leftward bias, their overweaning desire to see Kerry elected has made them prone to error and unlikely to correct it. Yet their decision to "toss a bone" to the online audience by placing their content online has exposed them to the same "open source" error correction that new media embraces. The result has been embarassing. None moreso that the recent CBS collapse.

Perhaps twenty years from now the "alphabets" will no longer exist. For news, you will switch on your tv, which is connected to the internet, and browse the sites that carry news that interests you. Gone will be the days when millions see the same thirty minutes of pablum. News will be as personal and focused as you choose to make it. When something "big" happens, it will seep in to your world because "real" stories spread like prairie fires on the Internet. Stories like the Laci Petersen story that has so dominated old media will be relegated to that corner of the internet voyeurs reside, and those of us who thrive on substance will no longer have to deal with them.

At least that's the way I see it. I was pleased to see today that Hugh Hewitt not only agrees with me but sees the same analogy. Powerline also has been exclaiming about "the incredible power of the internet".