Crowd-Powered Innovation – Revolution OS (2001) – Another must-watch film for tech entrepreneurs

As a documentary-maker, being able to strike the right balance between differing points of view of each side of your story places even the most skilled film-maker in a  no-win situation. No matter where each audience member sits on an issue each will emerge from a screening perceiving a deep bias against their individual point of view.
In order to compensate, a documentary can be purely factual and dry, detached and aloof, nihlistic even, or it can be a bare-knuckled brawl between subject and artist, featuring deep confessions and confrontational revelations about the subjects. Or, on the other the hand, they can treat their subjects with kid gloves in the aim of telling a story intended to inspire their viewer or providing their subject their “rightful place in history”.

When we think about truly great documentarians, the phenomenal Ken Burns immediately comes to mind.  Particularly in The Civil War he chronicles the greatest tragedy of the 19th century.  Despite being an event that is so historically and morally remote from us, Burns  manages to connect his auidence with the horror and despair of that tragic war using photography, drawings and paintings with a minimum of talking heads.

The way in which photos and paintings were filmed and the manner in which Burns allows the words of the participants to describe the conflict in their own words is powerful.  When the camera lingers painfully across a photo of the aftermath of the Battle of Gettysburg,  after three days of unimaginable butchery on which 50,000 Americans were killed, the effect on the viewer is anything but emotional distance.

In Revolution OS, J.T.S Moore, therefore, has a pretty hard task, being as it is about the Free Software / GNU / Open Source movement. For most it’s hardly a sexy topic but the Director manages to turn the story of a dispersed hobbyist movement of “crowd developers” into a story of a brave, intelllectual rebellion. He pits “people power”, led by the GNU Philosopher (Richard Stallman) against the “evil” proprietary software empire (led by Bill Gates) and celebrates the striking ability of the crowd to innovate, to inspire and not just produce a useful opertating system that could spawn its own industry (i.e. Linux) but also to learn and work together to make the world a better place. The power of the crowd, the preference for the Bazaar over the closed-off Cathedral are the key and most inspirational aspects of Revolution OS.  It demonstrates the immense potential behind people learning as crowds, sharing and discovering information and building new and innovative ideas from them.

J.T.S Moore has little else to use but a succession of talking heads who explain the philosophy behind open source. But they’re interesting talking heads. In addition to Stallman, Eric Raymond, the author of the influential The Cathedral and the Bazaar, Bruce Perens, author of the Open Source Definition and Linus Torvald (creator of Linux) are inspirational individuals who can see the potential for crowd-led innovation.

In some ways they’re the entrepreneurs we’d like to be – they’re “entepreneurs as philosophers” creating something that will be remembered and will be continued to be understood as a methodology to develop products, technology and develop ideas using the collaborative power of the crowd.  With the re-newed emphasis on open architecture through open APIs becoming the way in which developers build on the innovations of the past, you can’t help but feel that the Open Source movement will have the last laugh.

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