The New "Cotton Club"

—Andy Hunt

Published in Andy's Blog

CNN is carrying an interesting story about how file sharers (aka “song swappers”) have moved underground, to a high-tech equivalent of a 1920’s speakeasy.

It’s encrypted, it’s difficult to track, and it’s available by invitation only. You have to know someone on the inside who can vouch for your character—and who knows you aren’t a narc with ties to the RIAA or any other controversial group.

Once again, it’s not about the technology. If the entire net itself were disconnected, you’d have people mailing CD’s to each other. If they started searching the mail and made that illegal as well, people would establish other underground distribution channels just as easily.

In the book The Mystery of Capital by Hernando de Soto, the author shows how extra-legal systems evolve to supply the needs of consumers when the official, authorized, legal channels fail them. It happens all the time, especially in third-world countries with developing economic and legal systems. In many countries, buying land legally can take anywhere from 5-20 YEARS. Because of this, residents of these countries don’t bother to buy land legally. They resort to more informal means.

But this phenomena is not restricted to banana-republics or small, developing countries. It happens in the first world when technological capabilities outstrip our societal and legal precedents, as witnessed with the ongoing debacles regarding file-sharing, consumer access, fair use, and so on.

And you know what? The same thing happens in companies and on teams as well.

Are those CMM-mandated procedures too difficult and onerous to complete? People will find a work-around, bypassing the intent of the CMM and filling in whatever documents are required to get by. Is that comprehensive (and manual) test plan overly lengthy and tedious? People will take short-cuts. The “extra-legal,” or alternative system will evolve in any social setting where the official mechanism doesn’t cut it.

The solution, of course, is to align the “official” system more closely with the needs of the people. That’s easier said than done, of course, and can take years. In the mean time, the extra-legal system—be it a skunk works project, a clandestine use of Extreme Programming or other Agile methodology, the private use of Pragmatic Programming in an otherwise dogmatic environment, or even a new-fashioned speakeasy-will continue to thrive and serve the needs of the people.

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