Open Source Knitting Technology

When I started this little "series" on open-source knitting, I said that it had a lot of connections to other projects and ideas that I've worked with with relation to Station Keeping and the hypertext/writing posts, and this post--which address technological (ie. file systems) organizational concerns and collaborative organization--I think dovetails nicely with the more "general interest" aspects of this series. Additionally, when I started the series, I set out a number of goals that I hoped to address as part of this series. This essay addresses the last of these goals, the "Technological methods of attending to such a(n open knitting) project." The total list of goals is:

  • Is there a layer of information that goes into knitting design and documentation that isn't typically exposed in "closed"/conventional publications? (that would be equivalent in role to source code)?
  • The role of editors and communities and the sometimes very "conventional" development models that "open" projects use.
  • The way GPL/GFDL knitting projects can be used commercially.
  • Technological methods of attending to such a project.

One of the biggest challenges that I think faces new collaborative projects, is that when you're planning it out you say "we need to end up with a project that accomplishes x, y and z," and you spend all your time/energy building toward your end goal, and forget the smaller things that have to be in place first. If you're writing a book, and you spend all of your initial planning time organizing how the historical forces that produce the climax line up, and then you sit down to write and your characters aren't really fleshed out, and you end up with a hundred pages of exposition that no one wants to read, or the feeling that you have to do even more planning, despite the fact that you have thousands of words of notes written out. Now this works out when it's just you writing the book, because you can toss out the hundred pages once you know your characters and write a real beginning, but in a collaborative project (of any sort I suspect), if your initial work is too focused on the work that will happen a year hence, and not focused on what will happen now, even if people are wild about contributing to the project, they won't have a clue about how to participate, and the project will almost certainly flop.

It seems that the initial planning of a project should avoid setting up a firm structure for the entire life of a project, but rather strive to set up a firm basis and framework that would allow the project to develop on its own particularly in the beginning. In the book example above, spend time developing where your your are at the beginning of the story, know something about where they are, and also know where they're going, but let the little details fall into place later. In a software situation, make sure that you have a database structure that you can live with before you start designing the interface in ernest. In a sweater, know your gage, yarn and intended size before you start stressing out over how to incorporate the shaping into the measurement. There are of course exceptions to these rules, and really great ways to break the rules, but when you're working in a group situation, unless all your developers are working from the same page, it's really difficult to maintain energy and keep things all together.

So lets try and import these ideas into a discussion of what an (but clearly, not the only,) open source knitting project would look like:

  • A single OSK project shouldn't try and collect everything about knitting, for starters this pushes us back to an encyclopedia model, and I don't think that's what we need. Particularly in knitting, there's too much variation and you'd spend as much time deciding on "canonical" versions and not enough time enjoying the diversity. Furthermore, I think there are probably too many different kinds that it could work as a single coherent project.
  • Avoid talking about techniques too much: While most knitters mostly knit the same way, there's a lot of difference of opinion in terms of how to accomplish various kinds of knitting operations. While there probably is a need for a collection of these kinds of techniques, and I think Elizabeth Zimmerman made a great argument for the idea that while knitters are always developing new techniques (and should receive credit for this development,) the techniques themselves are probably always already in the public domain because given knitting's history it is hard to imagine that we are the first to "invent" something (hence Elizabeth's use of "unvention.") What's more, with resources like Mary Thomas' Book of Knitting techniques, or Montse Stanley's Knitter's Handbook and the Schoolhouse Press Glossory that there isn't a lot of room for improvement, beyond a collection of contributions. In other words, since open source succeeds at combining energy and efforts of a lot of people, the projects need to be ones where multiple perspectives and abilities would create a better gestalt. A technique handbook, in contrast might benefit from many perspectives, but probably wouldn't benefit from any sort of group process.
  • An OSK project should track version development: In the software world version tracking systems are used to make sure that changes in code are tracked as the project progresses, so that changes can always be reversed if the "old way" works better than the new way. Also this kind of software allows you to create "branches" so that you can work on bleeding edge feature/content development (so called "nightly builds"), and "release polishing" so that your finished projects are clean, clear and functional. In writing terms, this means that you can edit/polish the text without impinging upon your drafting. Which is incredibly helpful when working in a group setting. Versioning systems are also very atomic and keep track of differences (diffs), and work to keep track of and organize the most recent version of every file, even if more than one person is editing it.
  • An OSK project should create and foster community development: This is perhaps a bit too obvious; however, I think it should also be said that community needs to have a space that's separate from the project (make it possible for people to talk, outside of the actual project files.) Taking wikipedia as an example, while wikipedians can talk on the "talk/discussion pages," it's my perception that most of wikipedia's community happens on IRC channels. While its not "a part" of wikipedia in the conventional way, I'm sure that wikipedia depends on those IRC channels to keep the community functioning.
  • Separate workspace with display space: I think this point is part of my larger objection to using an idealized wiki model for development, where the entire website that the "public" (casual user) sees is the same as what the "core" (developers) are working on. This means that the "product," is always rough and incomplete, and I think in an odd way it pushes developers to work on larger rather than small parts of the project [1]. Ideally, I think these sorts of projects would work better when you have ten developers contributing one part each to ten projects, rather than ten developers contributing one whole project, or something along those lines.

I also had an organizational tree that I was going to seek some feedback on, but I think that's safe to live in the notebook for a while longer. I think it's clear by now, if any of you are still with me, that I'm planning on doing something with this project, but I think there's more to develop, clearly, so while I think I'm mostly done milling over and presenting the theory, there's plenty of work left to be done on developing and establishing such a project, so if any of you are interested in this idea, of an Open Source-Knitting project, I'd really like to hear from you.

Cheers, tycho

[1]What I mean here, is that if I was writing a contribution to a page in a wiki that the entire public could see, I think that I would tend to write pages as wholes, rather than contribute the smaller parts that might actually be more useful. For instance if I was writing about sleeves, say, and I was writing in a wiki environment, I'd be more inclined to write a lot about every aspect of a sleeve, rather than, just contribute something pithy about adjusting a pattern from knitting from the shoulder to the cuff, rather than from the cuff to the shoulder.
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