Great talk by Clay Shirky on Open Government





More on the Shirky Principle

Tom Munnecke's picture

Here's an interesting take on Shirky's work from Kevin Kelly:

"Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution." -- Clay Shirky

"I think this observation is brilliant. It reminds me of the clarity of the Peter Principle, which says that a person in an organization will be promoted to the level of their incompetence. At which point their past achievements will prevent them from being fired, but their incompetence at this new level will prevent them from being promoted again, so they stagnate in their incompetence.

"The Shirky Principle declares that complex solutions (like a company, or an industry) can become so dedicated to the problem they are the solution to, that often they inadvertently perpetuate the problem.

Or, as I like to frame it, "Making a perversely incentivized organization more efficient only makes it get worse faster."


If we succeed, we will disappear

Luis Ibanez's picture

A corollary of the Shirky Principle, is made by Christopher Kelty in his book:

"Two Bits - The Cultural Significance of Free Software",

as a principle to live-by in Open organizations.

It is put as:

"If we succeed, we will disappear"

a phrase that Kelty credits to Richard Baraniuk (a collaborator of Kevin Kelly) and Brent Hendricks, as one of the guiding principles of their Connexions project.


Kelty elaborates on it as:

"...Being radically open means that any other competitor can use your system - ....- Being open means not only the 'source code' (content and modules), but devising ways to ensure the perpetual openness of that content, that is, to create a recursive public devoted to the maintenance and modifiability of the medium or infrastructure by which it communicates. Openness trumps "sustainability" (i.e., the self-perpetuation of the financial feasibility of a particular organization), and where it fails to, the commitment to openness has been compromised".


The way we teach that in our Open Source class is as:

"A good Open Source software developer writes code as if he is going to die tomorrow. Making sure that everything is clear, maintainable, repeatable, tested, documented, freely available. Making sure that many others can take it from where he is leaving it. It is also a daily exercise on 'Letting Go' of both ownership and control. He is continuously striving to make himself unecessary."


The same applies to true Open Source organizations: If we do our job right, we should give birth to an ecosystem that can stand on its own, that is self-suficient, self-sustaining, and where we are no longer needed.  In short: "If we succeed, we will dissappear".