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Open Source: An Important Philosophy for the 21st Century


Image credit: flickr user Marc Wathieu

I’m having an ‘open source’ book launch for my novel Royal Flush, and during the process of organizing and promoting it, I’ve been thinking a lot about the value open source methodologies have to offer our society.

A lot of the tools used every day by millions of people were created and sustained using open source approaches. Wikipedia, Firefox, OpenOffice, Linux, TrueCrypt, WordPress–all of these were built around open source principles. Open source software is often superior to the propietary competition. Think Firefox vs. Internet Explorer.

Open source is a philosophy, and its benefits aren’t limited to browsing the web more reliably and securely. There are applications for many other fields, like health care. For example, the first to sequence the SARS virus was a small Canadian lab using open source technologies. That’s pretty remarkable, when you consider that SARS originated in China, making the Chinese most invested in sequencing the virus quickly. Open source won the race against China’s billions in funding and world-class scientists working around the clock.

The term ‘open source’ was first adopted by members of the free software movement upon the announcement that Netscape would release the source code for Navigator, a web browser. But the principles go back at least to Benjamin Franklin’s donation of all his inventions to the public domain, and they probably go back farther.

Image credit: flickr user criggchef

Open source advocates believe that choosing to use open source tools is tantamount to choosing freedom. In Life Inc. (a book I plan to review in a later post), Douglas Rushkoff criticizes the widespread acceptance of tools we aren’t permitted to adjust, suggesting “we would rather be consumers of unalterable technologies that dictate the parameters of our behaviors than the users of tools with less familiar limits.”

You may not think the tools we use have the capacity to shape our behaviour, but an old adage implies otherwise: “If all you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail.” The programming underlying the tools we use has a profound effect on us. For instance, consider the biases embedded in Google’s automatically generated search suggestions. Until recently, when a user searched for a woman doing something–for example, she invented–Google would say, “Did you mean: ‘he invented'”.

Rushkoff thinks the open source philosophy has been distorted by corporate thinking:

The ‘open-source’ ethos encouraging people to work on software projects for free has been reinterpreted through the lens of corporatism as ‘crowd sourcing’–meaning just another way to get people to do work for no compensation.

But the true spirit of open source has nothing to do with exploitation. Instead, it’s about collaborating with other people who are passionate about creating something for the use of anyone who needs it or would enjoy it.

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This stands in stark contrast to the corporatist methods that dominated the 21st century. Instead of drawing on the skills of a relatively small group of people to create a product and then preventing others from improving it, the open source approach leverages the talents of anyone who’s interested in creating a resource, to be used and improved by anyone.

Environmentalists would do well to promote an open source mentality wherever possible. If we succeeded in making corporations more open about their practices, they would be reluctant to create as much waste, given the bad PR that would result. And if governments made a bigger effort to involve citizens in the decision-making process they would be more democratic, and hence more likely to heed the worldwide public desire for CO2 emissions to be curbed.

Information technology has placed powerful tools in our hands, gradually turning us from passive consumers into empowered participants. I think the open source ethos is the truest expression of this essential paradigm shift.

If you have an experience with open source practices you’d like to share, please do!

8 Comments leave one →
  1. 01/24/2012 2:57 PM

    well said

  2. Ian Burgess Photography permalink
    01/24/2012 8:27 PM

    You’ve captured something that’s been on my mind lately – far more eloquently than I would have.

    I immediately thought climate change might be something we could tackle (and likely will HAVE to) using an open source or co-operative approach.

    I read a bit about the WordPress version recently…distributed workforce…uploading new code as it’s ready….it’s a beautiful thing.

    Good luck with the book launch!

    • 01/27/2012 1:31 PM

      Thank you, Ian!

      Open source practices have lots of applications, but there are some very large business interests who’d prefer they weren’t applied, ever.

      Take Bill Gates, for instance. He’s made a tremendous contribution to global health care via the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation, but he is a staunch opponent of open source techniques, and refuses to fund any project that uses them. I think that’s a big setback.

      Here’s a comprehensive timeline depicting Bill Gates’ relationship with open practices:

  3. Andrea permalink
    01/25/2012 12:07 PM

    Great post. Two examples that support your argument:

    1. Cooperative work seems, intuitively, to yield better results and keep the players motivated. One of my volunteer roles, the one I devote most of my time to, is with a grassroots organization made up entirely of unpaid staff. In other words, if you’re there and helping out, it’s because you really want to be there and help out. This isn’t just a job that pays the bills. The result? None of my “real” jobs ever gave me as much satisfaction as this role does. And where there is job satisfaction, there is high quality work.

    2. Transparency is key. My partner recently teamed up with a couple of our mutual friends; they are trying to lose weight together. Every day they each write a post on a group blog, documenting their food intake and exercise achievements. I’m sure they cheat a little with honesty, but for the most part they seem to fess up their food sins, and chew each other out, gently, for such setbacks. It’s a system that works!

    • 01/27/2012 1:35 PM

      I agree, Andrea. The most rewarding work is that which you do without pay, and even if it starts to pay, I think it’s important to keep in mind why one started doing the work in the first place.

      It sounds like your partner and his friends have a great system. I’ve heard of weighing scales that tweet your daily weight to all your followers or something, and I’ve been skeptical of that broadcast approach, but the method you describe, involving one’s friends rather than all one’s acquaintences, seems like it would be more effective.

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