Eben Moglen: Steel to Software to Collaboration

In 2006 Eben Moglen gave the keynote address at the Plone Conference 2006 that traced the evolution of economies from steel to software to collaboration. Here are some key excerpts with commentary.

Transcript from Eben Moglen on Free Software and Social Justice

Twentieth Century’s Primary Commodity was Steel

“If you think about the twentieth century economy out of which we are passing, its primary underlying commodity was steel. The making of steel was the twentieth century’s root activity, and societies measured themselves substantially by their success in producing steel. It was the first sign of the reawakening of Europe as an economic entity after the devastation of the Second World War. What we now think of as the European Union and we thought of for a while as the European Economic Commission and before that as the Common Market began, as you may recall under Jean Monnet, as the coal and iron union to bring back the European Industrial Economy. The Asian Tigers began to claim for themselves rising importance for themselves in the world economy when they began producing noticeable amounts of steel. And when Mao Zedong tried to imagine an alternative form of economic development for the People’s Republic of China in the Great Leap Forward, his best thought was backyard steel furnaces. […]

So that was how the twentieth century thought about collaboration in the economy: it made steel. And from steel it made the rest of what the twentieth century possessed for the exploration of the environment and the control of nature for human benefit.”

Eben Moglen in Software and Community in the Early 20th Century [hyperlinks added]

At first blush you might think of steel as something permanent and collaboration as something transient, but certain collaborations echo for decades or even centuries. The Magna Carta is one example of interested parties coming together to reach an agreement that established a significant principal of English Law. Certainly both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were the results of intense collaboration, providing frameworks for freedom in the United States for two centuries.

Twenty-First Century Economy Undergirded by Software

“The twenty-first century economy is not undergirded by steel. The twenty-first century economy is undergirded by software. Which is as crucial as the underlying element in economic development in the twenty-first century as the production of steel ingots was in the twentieth. We have moved to a societal structure in this country, are moving elsewhere in the developed world, will continue to move throughout the developing economies, towards economies whose primary underlying commodity of production is software. […]

We are moving to a world in which in the twenty-first century the most important activities that produce occur not in factories, and not by individual initiative, but in communities held together by software. It is the infra-structural importance of software which is first important in the move to the post-industrial economy.”
Eben Moglen in Software and Community in the Early 20th Century

Recipes, process definitions, documented methods, and contract law all existed for millennia before software. The concept of getting tacit information out of your head and embodied in a map or a diagram or writing or a simple tool or device machine–think sundial, abacus, water wheel–predates software by millennia as well. Software is just a more powerful medium for capturing insight and creating devices to make us more productive.

Networked Software Is A Revolution
In Both Transportation And Communication

It isn’t that software is itself a thing of value – that’s true. It isn’t that applications produce useful end-point activities, or benefit real people in their real lives. Though that’s true. It is that software provides alternate modes of infrastructure and transportation. That’s crucial in economic history terms, because the driving force in economic development is always improvement in transportation.

When things move more easily and more flexibly and with less friction from place to place, economic growth results; welfare improvements occur. They occur most rapidly among those who have previously been unable to transport value into the market. In other words, infrastructure improvement has a tendency to improve matters for the poor more rapidly than most other forms of investment in economic development.

Software is creating roadways that bring people who have been far from the center of human social life to the center of human social life. Software is making people adjacent to one another who have not been adjacent to one another.”
Eben Moglen in Software and Community in the Early 20th Century

I think there is an analogy between container shipping and the packet switching that has come to dominate modern networks, both have dramatically reduced the cost and and latency of transportation and communication. Packet switching is arguably as old as the telegraph which transmitted bits and before the telephone was transmitting voice.  The telegraph and later the telephone made people feel adjacent when they collapsed message transit time from weeks or months to minutes or hours.

Deep Transformation: Group Forming / Community Building

As steel is replaced by software, more and more of the value in society becomes non-rivalrous: it can be held by many without costing anybody more than if it is held by a few.


The problem that I have with content management systems is that they’re systems for managing content, which is not very important. Community-building software, however, is very important.


So I’ve been talking to a lot of different people in a lot of different forms, some of them like IRC, some of them produce formal documents, some of them are telephone types. That’s all held together by Plone. That’s many different overlapping communities held together by software for making communities. It’s related to voice over IP through Asterisk, which changes my life as a lawyer completely. Those of you who haven’t discovered what free software can do to IP telephony, you have a great discovery headed your way. And we made a little bit of software of our own for dealing with a thing it turned out there was no existing tool for that we really liked: an austere simple interface for marking up one document in a variety of ways with tens of thousands of possible commentators, so that everybody participating can see what everybody else has done in some manageable way, and can intervene in the process in a thoughtful fashion tied to some particular word or phrase or piece of a document that concerns them.

Twenty years from now the scale of our consultation over GPL is going to seem tiny. The tools we use are going to seem primitive. The community we built to discuss the license is going to seem like a thing a six year-old could put together without taking more than a couple of breathers around it. And yet, that’s only going to be because our sophistication in global coordination of massive social movements is going to be so good. You do not see Microsoft out conducting a global negotiation over what the EULA for Vista should say. And even if they were minded to do it, they couldn’t. Because they’re not organized for community, they’re organized for hierarchical production and selling. […]

So we are learning in very primitive ways within our community how to build large globe-girdling organizations for a special purpose for a short period of time to engage people constructively in deliberation, and we are learning how to do that despite vast cultural and economic discrepancies in the assets of the participants. That’s twenty-first century politics.”
Eben Moglen in Software and Community in the Early 20th Century

I found this talk very useful as a time capsule. Much that Moglen was right about has become common knowledge or accepted wisdom. His points about collaboration as the key value computers would provide to corporations were made more effectively 15 years earlier in a  September 1991 Scientific American article “Computers, Networks, and the Corporation” by Tom Malone and John F. Rockart. Two years later George Gilder formulated Metcalfe’s Law that the value of a network scaled as the square of the number of members, which I believe is a useful approximation even if you accept that trust networks scale more slowly (both in time and therefore in value) because the require more than the exchange of information.

Where I think he goes wrong was to consider one One Laptop Per Child as an open source project when it was clearly command and control. It did not try to leverage market forces and to date has had little impact compared to what smart phone manufacturers have done to provide low cost computing hardware to the developing world. In the Q&A he anticipates the possibility of the failure of GPL3: that in trying to create an ice-nine version of an open source license that turned everything it touched into open source, it would instead be shunned.

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