Open Source Lego Metaphor

So it's been too long since I've posted anything. Thought I'd throw up a piece that I've used in a couple papers, which can be a nice way for me to explain open source, so that I can reference it in future posts.

The term Open Source (OS) refers to a set of licenses that require unfettered access to the human-readable source code from which all computer programs are made. There are many explanations of Open Source, this is an attempt to highlight the collaborative spirit of the Open Source process. A helpful metaphor is to think of source code as a numberof LEGO® pieces. This is not far from reality, as source code is not just a long stream of text, instead it is a number of small files that work together and build something morecomplex than the sum of their individual parts. One can imagine software as a very complex LEGO house, a functional unit built up from individual pieces that is used by consumers.Most commercial software is sold already built into its final form – similar to an already built house, (or a car, a firetruck, or a school). Unlike LEGO sets, which include a detailedinstruction booklet, proprietary software does not include instructions for its inner workings. This is satisfactory for most people, since they just want a house for their LEGO people tolive in. But it's a travesty for anyone who plays with LEGOs, or who might want to modifytheir house after they buy it, or use the parts to build an entirely new type of structure. Open Source software requires that the instructions to build the house are always included. This may seem like a very minor point, but for people who build with LEGOs it is quite important.

A key property of all software is that it can be infinitely copied. In economics terms this is called a non-rival good – one which can be used by two people with no loss toone another. This makes software a good type of thing to share, since no one loses anything when someone else is using it. This property is what has enabled open source software, since it costs me close to nothing for you to use the same code that I did.

For a long time Open Source software was something that no one except the LEGO builders cared about. They formed communities and built all sorts of LEGO structures, freely sharingthem with one another. They built a culture around sharing, and formed governing structures to organize themselves to build even larger houses, which anyone could then freely copy anduse. If someone built a nice extra room on their house, then they could contribute it to the large house that everyone was working on, and all would then gain the benefits of hisinnovation. As more people started copying and building better houses, the builders came upwith even more innovative ways to organize and coordinate everyone's efforts. But at the root was the right that I am allowed to walk in to someone's (digital) house, and if there's a light fixture that I like, I'm allowed to rip it off the wall and put it in my house. Which isn't a big deal, since ripping it off their wall doesn't actually take it from them, I just take a copy out of the wall.Soon the world started noticing that they were building some really nice houses. Not always the best looking houses, but generally some of the strongest. The Open Source community stipulated that these houses should be freely copyable, modifiable, and able to be used as pieces of even larger buildings. Commercial software, on the other hand, continues to notonly hide the instructions, but also is usually bound by a license to prevent people from copying the LEGO house they bought. Open Source communities, however, establish thecopying of software as a right, leading to a conception of property "configured fundamentallyaround the right to distribute, not to exclude" (castells)

Past the property conceptions, what the open source software movement has done is innovate on governance and development process to enable diverse groups of people to collaborate on a common good. It is about the community, not about the mere fact that one can copy software for free. It is people working together on a common good. Open Source Software is the foremost example of Architectures of Participation, and indeed each individual project is different from the next in how they are run – each has their own architecture. But there are now fairly established best practices in how to run a successful software, Fogel's Producing Open Source Software does an amazing job of gathering them together. I hope that we can build and discover such best practices for architectures of participation around geospatial information.


One thought on “Open Source Lego Metaphor

  1. Pingback: Into The Pudding » Blog Archive » Architectures of Participation for Geospatial Data (intro)

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