Saturday, October 18, 2003

Open Source Religion

Three apparently unrelated news items are united by a single thread: the question of whether the quest for knowledge can be subordinated to a preconceived goal or whether it must lead the seeker whither it will. The answer of Mahatir Mohamad is that the goal may be set in advance and knowledge simply made the means to achieve it. His goal is Islamic victory over the Jews and knowledge, scientific knowledge in particular, the signal method to attain it.

It is surely time that we pause to think. But will this be wasting time? For well over half a century we have fought over Palestine. What have we achieved? Nothing. We are worse off than before. If we had paused to think then we could have devised a plan, a strategy that can win us final victory. Pausing and thinking calmly is not a waste of time. We have a need to make a strategic retreat and to calmly assess our situation.

We are actually very strong. 1.3 billion people cannot be simply wiped out. The Europeans killed six million Jews out of 12 million. But today the Jews rule this world by proxy. They get others to fight and die for them. ...

We are enjoined by our religion to prepare for the defence of the ummah. Unfortunately we stress not defence but the weapons of the time of the Prophet. Those weapons and horses cannot help to defend us any more. We need guns and rockets, bombs and warplanes, tanks and warships for our defence. But because we discouraged the learning of science and mathematics etc as giving no merit for the akhirat, today we have no capacity to produce our own weapons for our defence. ...

We must build up our strength in every field, not just in armed might. Our countries must be stable and well administered, must be economically and financially strong, industrially competent and technologically advanced. This will take time, but it can be done and it will be time well spent. We are enjoined by our religion to be patient. Innallahamaasabirin. Obviously there is virtue in being patient.

In Mahatir's view science and mathematics can be harnessed to bring the 7th century into the 21st. "Whether we like it or not we have to change, not by changing our religion but by applying its teachings in the context of a world that is radically different from that of the first century of the Hijrah." In this conception, the iron-lunged muezzin is replaced by the loudspeaker at the minaret, but the Adhan remains the same. And in much the same spirit, he advises the ummah to put aside swords and horses in favor of "guns and rockets, bombs and warplanes" to secure the submission of the world as the prophet did in days gone by.

The second article is a review of the open source methodology. It is a cooperative method which has made possible the development of vast repositories of information, the most famous of which is the Linux operating system. But it has also generated a treatment for cholera costing a dollar and a quarter, mapped Mars, put vast libraries of literary classics online, created a free encyclopedia to rival Brittanica, catalogued the Human Genome and threatens to overturn the traditional regime of intellectual property rights. The Open Source method is a framework to achieve three things:

  • A Shared Goal
  • Shared Work
  • Shared Results

When Linus Torvald started building an operating system in 1991, he posted an appeal on a newsgroup asking interested programmers to contribute ideas and code. The result was Linux and the rest was history. But the one thing he didn't ask, which is the one thing essential to Mahatir, was how the effort related to the victory of the ummah over the Jews. In one sense, Linus Torvald achieved his spectacular technological result by relinquishing total control over the project and decoupling it from an external agenda. In the Open Source universe, the technological wonders Mahatir so ardently desires are readily creatable, but only at the cost of not aiming them against anybody.

The third article is an obscure announcement that the US Department of Defense has selected the Falcon, a rocket developed by a small startup company called SpaceX, to launch the TacSat-1 communications satellite. What's special about the Falcon is it's cost: "Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) is developing a family of launch vehicles intended to reduce the cost and increase the reliability of access to space by a factor of ten." Here a spectacular advance in the economics of space transformation has been made possible by a combination of venture capital and the entrepreneurial quality of the US economic system. And the question none of SpaceX's investors is asking is how their returns will square with Koranic teachings on rates of interest. Unlike the Open Source methodology, which rejects the role of ownership in the realm of knowledge generation, the market system stresses the centrality of ownership rights in the transformation of basic knowledge into products.

In the world described by the first article, the essential knowledge is fixed and can only be found within the hive, although its accidental manifestations may be as modern as you like. In the world of the second article, truth can be found most efficiently by a hive, but neither the nature of the truth nor the membership of the hive is fixed. In the world of the third, knowledge must be possessed not by the hive, but by individuals, in order for their economic application to take place. A country like the United States enables it's citizens to transit seamlessly between the second and third universes, which exist in parallel, one fertilizing the other. The challenge before Mahatir Mohamad is to allow the inhabitants of his first universe to sojourn briefly in the alien spaces of the second and third, before returning gratefully, at each day's end, to their separate otherness. That, he said, was the way of the Jews.