This letter is to alert
distracted New Yorkers that the most important tower since the Eiffel
tower has been proposed for lower Manhattan. No, not the multiple
towers suggested by the singular vision of Leibeskin, but an entirely
different and quite pragmatic transmission tower--the Rival tower.
The Rival tower, designed to capture some of the antenna real-estate
revenue of lower Manhattan and enable a variety of experimental
transmitter projects for it host organization--a museum space named,
auspiciously, Art in General--is actually already under construction.
It has not yet pierced the skyline to any great height, because
it's base is perched on a webcam, and it's being built at 1/100th
scale. Nonetheless, on screen it
The Rival tower is named for the organizational strategy that now
rivals the engineering of some of the largest corporations in the
world, and it will determine its own form. This is the phenomenon
of open source software, to which the likes of Microsoft, Oracle
and IBM have ceded market share to their opensource competitors.
Moreover there is a rising consensus among experts that the product
quality of opensource is superior, in both line-by-line bug count
and architecture. It is remarkable that some of the most complex,
engineered products we have collectively built have been achieved
by unpaid and often-unqualified teams of programmers seemingly in
defiance of market-based rational behavior--a fact so remarkable
that it has made the wider engineering community very interested
in topics like governance and trust systems. However, as Yale law
Professor and leading OS theorist Yochai Benkler argues, OS is not
just a software-specific phenomenon; rather, it is one instance
of a wider phenomenon of commons-based peer production that describes
much productive behavior of civil society.
Truss structures--including bridge platforms, power line towers,
the supporting structures for freeway signage, and pedestrian overpasses--are
almost invisible in their ubiquity and are the fundamental vocabulary
of pragmatic and inexpensive civic infrastructure. They also have
several characteristics in common with successful opensource software.
First, like code, they are easily decomposed and reintegrated. Thus,
many people can contribute. As Benkler shows, this is the power
of being able draw on an unbounded set of people and their experience,
rather on those that happen to be employed in a firm or assigned
to a project. Secondly, many people have some interest in making
civic infrastructures work, like the Apache webserver, or Linux
operating systems; precisely because they are a shared resource
and many people will gain from this.
The Eiffel tower, an early truss structure, embodies the iconic
tower form. An engineering feat when it was built for the 1889 World's
Fair, it was for some time the tallest building in the world, and,
as such, provided a powerful symbol of technical prowess signaling
a century of highrises that grew into the skylines of urban centers
around the world. Eiffel had intended to celebrate the standardized,
interchangeable parts and inexpensive labor that defined industrialization,
building a tower that lent modernism its then shocking new form.
He calculated his design by maximizing height and minimizing the
material costs. Other towers look similar because they use used
similar logic to produce similar forms. But opensource software
demonstrates that this is not the correct equation to use.
The dominant cost in contemporary engineering is no longer the
material of physical capital, but the human capital. This is particularly
true in software engineering, where the material is the bits and
bytes of code, and the cost of hardware per cycle is still dropping
rapidly. And duplicating and distributing the 'stuff' of software
engineering costs almost nothing when compared to the costs of the
paying engineers. This is why we see big payoffs to a more effective
use of human capital in this realm. However, the relative costs
also hold true in other realms of engineering. For instance, one
triangular truss element with a two-foot side costs you about the
same as one readwriteable CD-ROM. You can probably get a small tower's
worth of truss for the same cost as a laptop--a condition of the
information age, and the prompt for the Rival tower project.