Open Source: Beyond Software

In the last year or two I’ve done a lot of reading and thinking about open source, and a good bit has been written about the idea that open source represents something potentially far bigger than just a way of making software. Two of the best people who have written on this are Stephen Weber, a professor of political science at Berkeley, and Yochai Benkler, a Yale law professor. Benkler gives a number of compelling examples in Coase’s Penguin, of what’s happening now, and Weber does a great job in the last chapter of The Success of Open Source of opening up the possibilities. I highly recommend reading both.

But on a personal level, I think I’ve always felt the appeal of open source as something more than just a better way of making software. At the core of open source, to me, is looking to cooperation more than competition, seeing the light in people. I feel the society I grew up with primarily views people as passive consumers. Your identity is based on what you buy, what you consume, not what you create. The labels you wear, the music you listen to, the car you drive, the television shows you watch, the address of your apartment/house. You pick your friends based on whether their tastes – their consumption patterns – line up with yours. We are hesitant to sing out loud, to dance, to cook our own food, to play music, to make poetry, to design our own clothes, ect. (I’m not saying that we are all, but I will say that in order to do any of the above, it generally takes getting over a hump to do any of them in public. Even if society does not specifically condemn them, it makes it damn scary the first time you do it before those who aren’t your closest friends. Once you do it you often realize it’s all bullshit – when I got over my fear of dancing, and just started having a damn good time with it, I realized that anyone who was looking at me and judging me negatively was first likely jealous at some level, that they are not able to just put themselves out there, and second, not worth thinking about, since you are for sure having a better time than them, if they’re taking the time to send out negative energy out when they should be dancing and enjoying the music of life).

We are hesitant to sing out loud, to dance, ect. because we are taught that only certain people are allowed to be producers. There is a divide, between those who create our culture, and everyone else. It’s not just that they do their thing better than you as an amateur could do it, it’s that they are an entirely different class of humans. You can decide to devote yourself to becoming a musician, but at some point you then enter popular culture royalty, you are one who is allowed to create, whom others can then select as a choice in their identity.

Open Source presents the opposite. It is the triumph of amateurs over the ‘experts’. The current reality of open source is extremely far from the popular notion that it is just a bunch of passionate people hacking in their spare time. It’s primarily people who are paid to work on it, many of them by large corporations. But this does not in fact dilute the essence, as some would like to believe. Instead it points to the triumph of a technique of production that blurs the line between producer and consumer. That does not even view anyone as a mere passive consumer, but instead as a potential contributor. In large projects the majority of the users don’t contribute, but the open source essence remains. The digital nature of the work makes it a non-rival good, one which I am not hurt if you use it, so free riders on the process don’t negatively affect the core in the slightest. But if you are to participate in the process, you quickly realize that it is something different. That you can help create something, that you can affect the world. Even if it’s in an incredibly small way, fixing a spelling error in Turkish, it still brings a moment of realization that you are more than a passive consumer. And as a whole it points to the fact that if we are transparent in our work, and view the light in others as having the ability to contribute to that work, then together we can build something greater than any of us. Linux has created a better operating system, by being open and seeing users as the most valuable contributors, which they then become.

Open Source then has further lessons for the organization of work and production. In a work environment people are often viewed as mere cogs in the machine, the duty of the manager is to plug them in to get the most productivity out of them. The boss is all powerful, as she has the power to fire you, to eliminate your income, which of course would transform you into less than a person, since it takes away your ability to consume. And in public corporations, the ultimate boss is not even the CEO and board of directors, they are merely in service of the ‘shareholders’, which just means the profit motive, since the majority of shares are held by institutions that shift the companies they hold shares in simply based on what will give them the best return. I could pursue this line of reasoning further, but my point is about the organization of workers, in the current system a single person decides who should do what, has the power to determine most everything, and generally exercises it, not listening to those below, since he is ‘the boss’, and doing so would look like he doesn’t know what he’s doing.

Benkler has many great points about the superiority of production model of open source for many information tasks. And I highly recommend reading what he has to say, but my point is much more about the social relations in a work environment. Many open source projects have a ‘boss’, often called the ‘benevolent dictator’. But this dictatorship is far different than what one thinks of as a traditional tyrant. Fogel in his great book Producing Open Source Software explains:

‘But this kind of tyranny is special, quite different from the conventional understanding of the word. Imagine a king whose subjects could copy his entire kingdom at any time and move to the copy to rule as they see fit. Would not such a king govern very differently from one whose subjects were bound to stay under his rule no matter what he did?’

The dictator is essentially the same as anyone else on the project, since at any time anyone has the ability to copy the project (to fork, in open source parlance), and take it where they want. The participants choose to give him power because it is useful to have a leader, an arbitrator, a judge. And everyone has the power to choose what tasks they want to work on, the ‘boss’ can only ask nicely. Or, more likely, he can call favors, as he reaches his position by helping out others a lot, and they in turn will often help him out when he says that something is really needed.

This model seems much more just, in terms of organization of work, and indeed, much more democratic than our current work environment. Schweikart concurs:

‘It is a striking anomaly of modern capitalist societies that ordinary people are deemed competent to select their political leaders–but not their bosses. Contemporary capitalism celebrates democracy, yet denies us our democratic rights at precisely the point where they might be used most immediately and concretely: at the place where we spend most of the active and alert hours of our adult lives.’

His book, ‘After Capitalism‘, lays out a compelling model of an alternative to modern capitalism called ‘economic democracy’, where firms still compete on the market, as it’s one of the good innovations of ‘capitalism’ (though he would argue that it’s not a defining feature of capitalism), but where individual firms are actually run quite similar to open source projects. Power is in the hands of the workers, who choose their leadership. This can be a benevolent dictator model, or a consensus based democracy, as Fogel shows as the model in many more mature open source projects.

My point is not to scare you with talk of ‘socialism’, but just to point that one of the essences of open source to me is treating one’s fellow producers in a more just way than the current paradigm of producers and consumers allows. To not view work as the thing you have to do to make money to consume, but to view it as the thing you do, your dharma in the world. Your relations with your co-workers and your boss will be more positive if your work is seen as a shared, cooperative project, where tasks aren’t assigned, but are agreed upon. In open source everyone ‘owns’ the project, and that sense of ownership also brings a sense of responsibility to ones co-workers and bosses that is often lacking in many modern work environments.

To me this root essence of open source, the blurring of the line between producer and consumer, the seeing the light in people, is what has lead to its success, and speaks to its superiority as a mode of production and creation in the world. We are seeing open source being applied to many different arenas, from creating an encyclopedia to mapping mars to academic works. I believe that the lessons at the heart of open source software have nothing to do with software, and indeed can even go beyond the production of digital goods and information. In this blog I will primarily be exploring the applications of the open source process to geographic information, but other topics will likely arise as well.

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2 thoughts on “Open Source: Beyond Software

  1. The participants choose to give him power because it is useful to have a leader, an arbitrator, a judge.

    Many times, people end up as part of a project not only because they find the project useful but because they like the leader of the project. Project leaders who welcome new contributors and value everyone’s input are much more likely to have active, successful projects; even if the software starts out mediocre, it has the ability to improve into something remarkable if anyone can contribute ideas.

    Some of my favorite projects to work on, such as SQLFairy, on have started out as a personal favor to a clueful friend, and blossomed into something vibrant, exciting, and useful.

  2. Pingback: Into The Pudding » Architectures of Participation (yktm)

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