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Open Source is Worldchanging
Jon Lebkowsky, 1 Feb 05

Open Source Initiative LogoAmong Open Source developers and devotees, there's been a growing awareness of its impact as a philosophy and practice that extends beyond the world of software development and distribution. As noted by Thomas Goetz in the November 2003 issue of Wired Magazine:

Open source has spread to other disciplines, from the hard sciences to the liberal arts. Biologists have embraced open source methods in genomics and informatics, building massive databases to genetically sequence E. coli, yeast, and other workhorses of lab research. NASA has adopted open source principles as part of its Mars mission, calling on volunteer "clickworkers" to identify millions of craters and help draw a map of the Red Planet. There is open source publishing: With Bruce Perens, who helped define open source software in the '90s, Prentice Hall is publishing a series of computer books open to any use, modification, or redistribution, with readers' improvements considered for succeeding editions. There are library efforts like Project Gutenberg, which has already digitized more than 6,000 books, with hundreds of volunteers typing in, page by page, classics from Shakespeare to Stendhal; at the same time, a related project, Distributed Proofreading, deploys legions of copy editors to make sure the Gutenberg texts are correct. There are open source projects in law and religion. There's even an open source cookbook.

In 2003, the method is proving to be as broadly effective - and, yes, as revolutionary - a means of production as the assembly line was a century ago.

Eminent sociologist Manuel Castells has produced an analysis of Open Source as a new way of configuring property "around the right to distribute, not to exclude."
This new form of property, that is entirely contradictory with the usual regime of intellectual property rights, is supported by a governance system that holds together a community of producers. It is based on human motivation to work within this logic and is supported by an evolving set of organizational structures to coordinate behavior.
Castells has written a comprehensive overview of Open Source thinking, explaining its history as an approach to software development.

Proprietary software is generally written as code in a programming language that can be translated (compiled) into binary machine language that will run on a computer. You can't manipulate the binary version of the software; to understand how it works, and to make modifications, you have to work with the code that was compiled, the source code.

In the early days of computing, code was readily shared and modified by developers who made computers do useful and innovative things. However with the emergence of the personal computer, as software was produced for mass consumption, Microsoft and others saw the potential to leverage ownership of code to create a profitable industry. Software could be packaged, shrinkwrapped, and sold off the shelf, creating signficant profits for software companies.

A proprietary software culture evolved around personal computing and extended to the enterprise. Software development became competitive, secretive, driven by marketing organizations. Sharing and tinkering were not part of the deal.

The Open Source movement rejects proprietary culture in favor of a collaborative culture in which software development is shared innovation with a high degree of transparency. Open Source projects tend to form communities of users and developers who share code openly, and suggest additions and modifications that can be absorbed by the project, which continually improves via the collective intelligence of project participants. Projects are collaborative rather than competitive, and are not solely driven by competitive impulses (though they may be present), or by consideration of market viability and profitability. Open Source communities find other rewards: a sense of achievement, a desire to contribute to the public good, the opportunity to work with others to create something that satisfies some personal need.

For those who are dissatisfied with traditional business cultures, Open Source provides a compelling alternative. It's not anti-capitalist: Open Source thinking has been adopted by a growing number of for-profit companies. Castells discusses Open Source business models:

Indeed, the open source model undercuts the conventional business logic. Power in this market shifts away from software suppliers and toward software customers. But there is still possible to combine business (money making) and open source. In different ways:

Generic business models by commercializing useful packages of open source programs and their applications, with or without proprietary programs. This may include technical support systems, services, and training. This is particularly the case of VA Linux and Red Hat, or Bitkeeper, or Hewlett Packard Giving away the code source as a way to popularize a program. This was the case of Netscape (see above) To build a proprietary system on top of open source programs. This is the case of one of the latest Apple ComputerŽs desktop operating system, OS X, built on two open source systems. The strategy behind is that application developers switch from writing for Windows to writing for MAC OS, because they have access to the source, and confident that the market will move into this direction. To use the potential of the worldwide community of developers as a way to enhance the technical edge of the companyŽs products. This is the strategy of IBM (see above) that offers all its major enterprise applications on the basis of Linux platform. In addition, the company also offers web services, based on open source, to compete with MicrosoftŽs .net Releasing the source code with some restrictions to benefit from the community support but also imposing some conditions in favor of the company. This has been the case of Sun Microsystems with Java and then Solaris. The Open Source community has been ambivalent vis a vis SunŽs and similar strategies.

Castells goes on to explain how Open Source is worldchanging:
Open source is a way of organizing production, challenging traditional forms of division of labor, organizational hierarchy, and conventional property rights. A number of analyses propose the possibility of extending this form of organization to many other areas beyond software, on the basis of the principles that characterize the open source process: User-driven innovation that takes place in a parallel distributed setting Cooperative behavior regulated by cultural norms and governance rules The economic logic of non excludable, anti-rival goods, and network externalities and synergies. A redefinition of the notion of property rights. Property rights in open source are built on the right to distribute, not to exclude. Remember that property is a socially constructed notion. The experience of intellectual property rights in the music distributed over the Internet is an important illustration of this new principle, and also of its contradictions. The Internet allows and enhances this new system of cooperation, while creating serious difficulties for the enforcement of traditional property rights.

Relevant links: Manuel Castells, Free Culture


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The bit about science going open source: I was under the impression that the original model for open source was the scientific community, which publishes research and weeds out problems by having other people repeating the experiments and confirming or rejecting the results.

Posted by: Alex Merry on 1 Feb 05


I believe you're right. However, the hard sciences are becoming 'more' open source through initiatives like Google's online journal search.

Saying that open source has started spreading into the hard sciences seems a bit strange, but claiming that the hard sciences are becoming more open makes sense to me. Not sure what the author of the statement intended.

Posted by: Bolo on 1 Feb 05

Well most "science" these days is anything but open source as much of it is corprate work. People just dont think of most of it as science.

Posted by: wintermane on 2 Feb 05

Alex you're right, this is how science works anyway. Byt at the moment, science is definitely becoming more 'open' thanks to the Open Access movement, and publishers like PLoS or BioMed Central, which make access to research atricles completely free...

Posted by: Juliette on 2 Feb 05

Yet another application of open source ideas is warfare, as in John Robb's analysis of what he calls Global Guerrillas in his blog:

It's not a large step from John R. Boyd's ideas of rapid communication and decision among professionals for winning wars to Robb's ideas of loose informal communications among nonprofessionals as having high leverage and rapid evolution when applied against more traditional forces.

I have oversimplified in the above sentence, and there is some disagreement about Robb's analysis, but I think he's right that at least some elements of open source make sense out of what's going on in many armed conflicts today.


Posted by: John S. Quarterman on 2 Feb 05

Aren't our lives characterized by our needs being 'open source' (in a natural sense) according to their true necessity? We die most quickly if we're deprived of air, and air is the most freely available. We die next most quickly if we're deprived of water, and water falls from the sky and moves freely over and under the land; next to air it's the next most ubiquitous. Lastly, we must have food and food is almost as widely available as water.

What, therefore, is the open source movement saying about the 'necessity' of important information? Or could it be that if we don't let valuable information become like air, we won't continue to evolve as 'intelligent' beings?

Posted by: O A Somera on 2 Feb 05



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