Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Open Source wrecked the economy

Well, not really, but it did get your attention.

This is a really interesting New York Times article about VaR ("Value at Risk"), a mathematical tool. Over-reliance on this tool was arguably the reason the world's financial experts and geniuses spent the last several years acting like morons. This paragraph jumped out at me.
What caused VaR to catapult above the risk systems being developed by JPMorgan competitors was what the firm did next: it gave VaR away. In 1993, Guldimann made risk the theme of the firm’s annual client conference. Many of the clients were so impressed with the JPMorgan approach that they asked if they could purchase the underlying system. JPMorgan decided it didn’t want to get into that business, but proceeded instead to form a small group, RiskMetrics, that would teach the concept to anyone who wanted to learn it, while also posting it on the Internet so that other risk experts could make suggestions to improve it. As Guldimann wrote years later, “Many wondered what the bank was trying to accomplish by giving away ‘proprietary’ methodologies and lots of data, but not selling any products or services.” He continued, “It popularized a methodology and made it a market standard, and it enhanced the image of JPMorgan.”
I thought this was a fascinating summary of open-source advantages: prestige, benefiting from community-contributed enhancements, creating a standard, all without the effort and expense of attempting to market a proprietary technology.

OK, so it's not really a feather in Open Source's cap, seeing as the economy did end up wrecking over it 'n all, but it does demonstrate the power of openness to popularize a tool. Open-sourcing a tool can make it very popular, but it's up to us not to make a tool into a god.

(Of course, when it's applied outside the software world, we really ought to point out that the principle never came from software at all. It's simply openness, the same ancient innovation that happened in the move from alchemists guarding their secrets to scientists publishing their work.)

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