Optimistic Tournaments

The intellectual property discussion is a tarpit. I’m not about to dive into that! I just want to stand on the shore for a moment though before saying something about the power of optimistic concurrency to enable higher rates of creativity.

The arguments for intellectual property are assorted. For example one argument that’s made is that the creator of new ideas has a moral right to a portion of the value engendered by those ideas. Another popular argument is that the creators of ideas will horde them and the property rights are a bargain society makes to encourage the revealing of the ideas. Some folks have suggested that an alternative to intellectual property rights might would be to offer prizes; sometimes these are called tournaments.

While any discussion of either property rights and or tournaments ought to rapidly be converted into a discussion of who gets to decide the rules of the game, I want to take a turn off this well trod path and point out something I’d not noticed until the other day.

Optimistic concurrency provides one potent benefit for the participants – they are not forced to commit their reputation to the game up front. Consider a simple scenario.

I decide that I’d like to make my open source project faster. So I get to work on that and after a while I fail. Meanwhile, as a side effect of that effort, I manage to make the code cleaner. So I take my improvements and I submit them back to the central project authorities. They smile and say thank you and I have a little win. I smile.

Notice that my failure to make the code faster is never a matter of public record. If it had been a matter of public record I would have suffered a loss. Taken a few points of damage to my reputation. These damage points would almost certainly outweigh any positive points I might have garnered from making the code cleaner.

Economists looking at open source have a reflex. They immediately start looking for a market and the currency used to clear the transactions. Many of them have decided that the currency is reputation. (I won’t even begin to get into how reputation is not necessarily a scarce commodity!) When they gleefully announce this to me and some large proportion of my friends in open source we look at them with a kind of bewildered stare. “Ah… no?” we think. One reason for that reaction is that the work is not driven by a bet on one’s reputation, in fact if you thought your reputation was a risk as you proceeded to investigate some creative improvement to the code you would likely significantly reduce the scale of the things you attempt. We work very hard in some of open source communities to avoid reputation games – we strive to create an abundance of reputation. How’s that for optimistic!

I carry a lot of negative baggage in and around the idea of tournaments and games. One way to sum up my feelings about them is that they frame up a situation where N individuals enter a room and 1 winner emerges. Which is all well and good until you notice that N-1 losers emerge as well. It confuses me why people of free will would enter such a room.

The advantage of optimistic concurrency as an organizing principle is that is that it allows the individuals to enter the room without taking as high or certain a risk that they will exit as losers. Heaven only knows how many people are at this moment attempting to make a better Apache HTTP server. That’s a good thing!

A second thing that confuses me about the culture’s affection for tournaments is how naive people seem to be about the framing issues. You can’t have a tournament unless somebody establishes a set of rules for how the game will be played. That individual, the rule maker, is the one with the power. So if I establish a prize for making Apache faster then I am almost certainly displacing efforts to make it cleaner.

I have heard the arguments made in favor of creating a frame around the work. One of the presumed benefits is that it creates a motive force for the participants – a carrot (the prize) and the stick (the risk to their reputation of failure). One of the presumed benefits is that it gives the organization (the rule maker, the hierarchy, what ever) a way to measure the quality of the work being done. These are, as far as they go, probably all true.

That model is at least problematic in creative problem solving work. Consider a typical example.

To frame the pending work you and your organization decide that you’ll write a plan. In software these are called by many names. For example FRD or Functional Requirements Document. This plan becomes the rules for the next stage of the game, i.e. implementation. This plan becomes input to the judges of the game; i.e. the QA department. It’s very easy to fall into the trap of allowing this process to shift a cooperative creative enterprise into a in-house competitive one.

Two obvious problems here. The FRD is written at point in the project life cycle when the absolutely minimum amount of information is available about what’s is going to be possible to achieve. I.e. it is written at the point when the creative labor has the least knowledge available to make a good bet. Second, the FRD raises the barriers to capturing other opportunities that might arise during the implementation phase. For example if an implementor encounters an opportunity to make the code cleaner during the implementation phase, but the FRD doesn’t license such work, he is faced with ethical and organizational coordination costs that reduce the chance of capturing that value. It is impossible to enumerate the set of all possible dimensions such chance opportunities might arise along.

In discussing this with various people I was surprised by how many people noticed one additional thing I’d not noticed. Creative labor will seek the place in the problem space where the work is coordinated optimistically. For example there is an entire syndrome in the art world where some artists have become specialists in the art of writing the proposal. The proposal becomes the art. The actual implementation of the proposal is a minor epilog. I’ve observed that in any number of domains including FRD writing.

That’s a weird unintended side effect of attempting to tackle the problem of coordinating a scarce resource. That the art of coordination begins to become the principle attractor of creative energy. Talk about your unintended consequences!

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