Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Science is Messy

In "The History of the Royal Society of London, for the Improving of Natural Knowledge", Thomas Sprat wrote:
The society has reduced its principal observations into one common-stock and laid them up in public registers to be nakedly transmitted to the next generation of men, and so from them to their successors. And as their purpose was to heap up a mixed mass of experiments, without digesting them into any perfect model, so to this end, they confined themselves to no order of subjects; and whatever they have recorded, they have done it, not as complete schemes of opinions, but as bare, unfinished histories.
What a fantastic metaphor for the open pursuit of science -- a mixed mass of experiments, unfinished work, heaped up into a common place to be nakedly transmitted from one generation to the next!

Compare Sprat's description to the list of open bugs in Firefox's bookmarks component, as reported by the Bugzilla database:

Firefox bugs
All the bugs that users report are heaped together, showing the unfinished work in progress, transmitted nakedly over the Internet for each generation of the browser.  This is almost embarrassing -- some are critical bugs that cause the browser to crash.  Others are requests for new features.  The progress of each bug is shown in minute detail, so there is no opportunity to brush a bug under the rug for a while.  On the other hand, there is something quite comforting about this.  If something goes wrong, you have a place to complain about it, and to see what will be done about your complaint.  Clicking on a bug takes you to a screen showing what the developers are doing about it, and they actually converse with users to figure out exactly what the problem is and how they can help to fix it.  If you ever wished Firefox could do something a little differently, no harm in asking and someone might actually do it for you!

Why doesn't everyone write software this way?  People are starting to ask that question of companies that are much more opaque:
Many customers have asked us about having a better way to enter IE bugs. It is asked "Why don't you have Bugzilla like Firefox or other groups do?" We haven't always had a good answer except it is something that the IE team has never done before. After much discussion on the team, we've decided that people are right and that we should have a public way for people to give us feedback or make product suggestions.
Well, Microsoft has come part way, at least.  They do have a bug reporting site, and if you jump through a number of hoops, you can register for an account and see their bug list.  But it took me a while to figure out, and their bugs aren't visible to non-registered users, so it's not nearly as open and transparent as Mozilla is with their site.

It's taken more than 300 years since Sprat to get to this point.  How much farther do we have to go?  How does our culture become so accustomed to openness that even the Leviathans have to answer to us?


Andrew said...

There is an interesting thing that is going on in the astronomy community. Astronomers try to post their unfinished research on pre-publishing servers so that they can 1) receive credit for their work before somebody else does and 2) so they can get comments about their work before actually publishing. These astronomers are acting like open-source programmers. They are and opening up their research to for the the crowd to fix it. It also helps them build a reputation. In contrast however, programmers give users what they call a "completed product" rather than calling it a "unfinished product."

Kristi said...

How does this idea of transparency and open software go with capitalism? Don't we want competition between companies and individuals over inventions and ideas in order for our economy as it is to continue? Or does this system suggest a different economy?

Kristina said...

I want to comment on the conversation but my post will be too long...check out my post.

bricolorful said...

Andrew I think that's really fascinating.

I think people are really afraid of not getting paid for their work (in credit/reputation as well as monetarily). I was talking to a friend about open sourcing and she immediately reacted negatively to the idea because her husband is a musician. They have struggled financially for a few years and she said she just couldn't imagine him giving out his music for free. I wonder, would it actually generate more business for him because people hear some and want more?

Rhett Ferrin said...

bricolorful - interesting question about musicians. I'll blog about it. Radiohead sound familiar?

Brandon said...

Kristi I like your question as well. How would this effect capitalism? The effect that it would have on markets is interesting because most markets depend on small advantages that they can obtain. For example buying low and selling high. There are a lot of advantages though of having that open information.

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