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Tim O’Reilly, founder and CEO of O’Reilly Media, on the sidelines of OSCON 2018. (GeekWire Photo / Tom Krazit)

PORTLAND – It’s rare to hear Chinese philosophy quoted on stage at a software-development conference. But O’Reilly Media founder and CEO Tim O’Reilly invoked the words of Lao Tzu Wednesday morning during the opening keynotes at OSCON 2018 in hopes of convincing those in attendance — many of whom work for the big internet platform companies of our time — that the tech industry needs to return to the spirit of openness and collaboration that drove the early days of the open-source community before it is too late.

“We have an opportunity with these next generation of systems, to rebuild, to rethink the future, to discover what does it mean to get these systems right,” O’Reilly said. If the first era of the internet was dominated by open protocols, and the second era was dominated by the rise of huge platform companies like Amazon, Google, and Facebook, the third era we’re about to enter presents a chance to get it right again.

Lao Tzu was a ancient Chinese philosopher who is considered the architect of Taoism, and O’Reilly quoted a translation of some of his famous words as a warning to those big platform companies (several of which are major sponsors of OSCON 2018).

Losing the way of life,
men rely on goodness.
Losing goodness,
they rely on laws.

He was trying to make the point that the most powerful forces on the internet — once considered a powerful decentralized network of ideas and collaboration — have lost that initial collaborative spirit as they focused on profits. At some point, intervention will be required, either by disruptive new technologies or lawmakers.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before Congress about the Cambridge Analytica scandal. (Screenshot via C-SPAN)

Platform consolidation has had obvious effects on our modern internet. Facebook’s platform was used to orchestrate one of the biggest disinformation campaigns in the history of the U.S., in large part because Facebook was, and is, unwilling to police its network against this type of activity. Google’s Android was supposed to be a free and open platform for phone makers to compete against Apple’s iPhone, but turned into something very different, as the huge fine levied against it by the European Commission this week shows.

In their early days, these platform companies understood the collaborative benefits of open-source technology. Modern tech companies like Google were built on the back of open-source technology within their infrastructure, and while many of those companies have given much back to the open-source community, they have also shifted the playing field in a way that benefits their financial interests.

As they gained power, they shifted into “extraction” mode, taking more from their communities than they returned as the drive for profits became central to their way of life, O’Reilly said. We’ve seen this time and time again: Google was at one point obsessed with getting users off its site to their intended destinations as fast as possible, but over the last several years its algorithms increasingly surface Google-branded web properties or paid advertisements in response to search queries.

Coming out of the first dot-com bust in the early 2000s, “we ended up with a generation of entrepreneurs who aspire to have giant platform monopolies,” O’Reilly said.

So what do we do now? Lots of people believe blockchain technologies can be “an area where in the third era of the internet we can rediscover the decentralization that was so powerful in the first stage,” O’Reilly said. Those technologies aren’t quite ready for that challenge in O’Reilly’s opinion, but the important thing is that people are trying, he said.

This is also the case for artificial intelligence research, which makes a lot of people nervous but could also unlock “tremendous opportunity” so long as the people developing these technologies and algorithms understand what they are building and how their applications are making decisions about what to surface or reward.

“This reinvention of the network, the reinvention of platforms, the rediscovery through AI of how to actually balance the needs of complex platforms, is central to the future,” O’Reilly said. “Because the way of life in network platforms and opportunities is to help humans model and manage complex interactive systems.”

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