(This has nothing to do with Edgar Allen Poe, I just liked the pun. Sorry to disappoint).

Having worked in technology and education since the late 1990s I’ve witnessed several swings in what is deemed to be common sense or received wisdom of “what’s best”. I’m starting to notice patterns, and I have a sneaking suspicion that this is nothing particularly specific to the field I work in, but a wider pattern of how fields of practice evolve.

I’m going to be lazy and let you look anything unfamiliar up on wikipedia.

To start off, I love the analogy in Wittgenstein’s semantic river.

Philosophers please forgive me my inexactness, I merely want to sketch out how this concept informs my thinking, not to try to describe it or critique it.

So …

At the top of the river is the fast flowing water of everyday lived experience. Below that the silt, the fluid mud that rolls along the river bed, slower than the water but faster than stones. You can see and touch the silt, it starts to get tangible. Below that the stones, each one a thing with boundaries, each one describable, but slowly moving with the direction of the river. Then the rocks, moving imperceptably slowly. His analogy is that this is what meaning is like, and for him, language is the meaning. Big concepts feel like rocks, unquestionable, but in truth, all is fluid, all is effected by fluid, its a question of time. This past year I’ve been using the word “churn” a lot, and for me this is often what I’m thinking about.

Sidenote – if you want to really blow your mind, there was an amazing programme a while back about waves and how in some ways all life is waves. Its just a question of time and distance in space. I must watch it again.

Next concept: Dialectic

As in … thesis and antithesis. One person says I think A, another says no, not A, its Z. In a process of discussion, the choice of A gets shifted a little for B, Z gets swapped for Y … and the position that comes to be discussed is somewhere between … G and P. It’s not to say that all ideas reach consensus, but that there are forces at play that mean ideas change in relation to each other, and, I think, people change their positions in relation to ideas.

That’s what I mean by the pendulum: there is a natural swing between preferred options, the options backed by the majority. A good example is the pendulum between centralised “vs” distributed technology, local “vs” outsourced technology expertise, etc.

Physicists – this is where my lack of hard sciences show. I know that a true pendulum settles in the centre, but please forgive me some creative leeway. (I’m actually a little scared of how far this whole post could be ripped to pieces!).

Sometimes the dialectic is up at one end of a discussion. So it’s between Z and T: a small but hotly contested arena of debate. An example of a debate up at the far end of a spectrum is the debate between gratis “vs” libre in open source,or  free “vs” open in open educational resources . It’s fascinating to watch that the question of gratis vs libre is starting to gain weight in the space of open access to research papers, taking the shape of “what sort of creative commons licence should be applied to a research paper?”.  By watching the trajectories of other “opens”, I predict that although it hasn’t been a big focus, it will start to become more important.

It’s interesting the way that a tussle within a short strech of the pendulum, say between P and S, can be really important to progress of a field, but to the folk aligned to the left of M, it looks like silly in-fighting. I fear that the political left sometimes confuses the internal discussions with the external discussions, and could do with a bit of the brash confidence of the right in the pretence that there is common-sense position. Folks who believe that rocks don’t move much can too easily interpret the movement of stones as a lack of a bedrock.

So … a case study in this is the open source movement. And the promised Git of the title. I mentioned above the gratis vs libre concept. I think the big pendulum has been swinging from the A as “economically foolish” to Z as “economically sound”. Meanwhile open source has branched off into a diversity of approaches, from purist to hybrid. At the purist end we find git hub.

I am not a programmer, but I think understand the concept of github. Don’t just share the source code like on sourceforge: host the source code in a shared place where it can actually be used/played/run. Taking the concept of open source one step further to where it can be worked on together. Github is clearly an amazing thing, but to assume that it is the only trajectory of open source would be to misunderstand the way fields develop.

[postscript prompted by the comment from Graham Klyne: I refer here to a tendency to see the live editible source model as an answer to everything. That tendency doesn’t necessarily come from users/advocates of github but of people like me who grasp what it offers. I call it “githubification” and I mean that not as a negative comment on github, but as a caution that a borrowed model cannot necessarily be applied to a long standing problem space like sharing learning materials, and magically work. I think that sharing learning materials is a socio-technical issue, like sharing code, and that though the technical solution might look the same, the sociological/human factors might not be.]

So there we have it. No doubt riddled with inaccuracies and misunderstandings, but this is my take on the Git and the Pendulum.

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