Robert Lefkowitz


The Semasiology of Open Source (Part III)
54 minutes, 25mb, recorded 2006-07-26
Robert Lefkowitz

In a fascinating synthesis, Robert "r0ml" Lefkowitz polishes up his exposition on the evolving meaning of the term 'open source'. This intellectual joy-ride draws on some of the key ideas in artificial intelligence to probe the role of language, meaning and context in computing and the software development process. Like Wittgenstein’s famous thought experiment, the open source 'beetle in a box' can represent different things to different people, bearing interesting fruit for philosophers and software creators alike.

Using the structure of classical rhetorical argument - thesis, antithesis, synthesis - Lefkowitz builds off his earlier two installments on the semasiology of open source which looked at ways it does and does not derive meaning from source code itself. To reach a synthesis, this final talk delves deeply into the definitional struggles at the heart of information theory and artificial intelligence, drawing on numerous texts and intellectuals such as Bruce Sterling, Alan Turing and Terry Winograd. As a hybrid of philosophy, linguistics, mathematics, electrical engineering and biology, AI raises questions on the role of meaning, truth and value in language and computing. If, as Winograd contended, a statement has no inherent meaning, we cannot ask if it is true or false; we can only ask if it is useful in the context of evoking a commitment, where meaning is negotiated.

Open source means different things to different people at different times in the context of education, politics and business. Open source can mean the commitment of programmers to engage in a particular approach, recasting software development (in a nod to Cluetrain) as an ongoing conversation between producers and consumers. Lefkowitz concludes with an interesting application of his semasiological ruminations to labor relations and professionalism in the software world. The industrial revolution brought the assembly line and modularization into manufacturing in order to increase efficiency, and the same trend can be seen in software development today. However, the goals of engineers and managers are somewhat at odds. Open source brings new possibilities for ways to professionalize laborers working on software.

Robert "r0ml" Lefkowitz is a software architect and systems designer with over thirty years of experience. For two decades r0ml worked on Wall Street, developing market data, trading, risk management and quantitative analysis systems. More recently, as chief technical architect at AT&T Wireless, he drove the improvement of their CRM, ERP, commission, and data warehousing systems. Over the last several years, r0ml has become increasingly interested in open source software strategy at large enterprises, and is a frequent speaker on the topic.


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