Most people who know about "open source" (including Free/Libre software) understand it as a technological model. A smaller group says no, really it's an economic model (Yochai Benkler's 2002 Coase's Penguin, or Linux and the Nature of the Firm is perhaps the most visible manifestation of this perspective). But while both of these perspectives are narrowly correct, they are also both incomplete. Ultimately, open source is a political model.
The idea that open source is political underlies many of the posts here on WorldChanging that talk about Linux and its brethren. Alex's 2003 "Redistributing the Future" sums up this concept well, but we frequently build on the argument that the real value of Linux, and the free/libre/open source model in general, is that it enables previously technologically-dependent communities to build the tools that they need with their own skills, and become a global participant as a producer of ideas, not simply a consumer. We're not alone in this belief; the United Nations University's International Institute for Software Technology has fully embraced the idea of open source as a developmental driver. They think of it as "technological self-determination," and they've come up with forward-looking programs to help this come about.
"Being a 'passive consumer' rather than an 'active participant' is not in the best interests of a developing nation's government or business sectors. Technological self-determination in developing countries is key to their future prosperity and is contingent on harnessing the power of this high-tech phenomenon," says [UNU-IIST Director] Dr. [Mike] Reed.
...open source software is of great interest to governments in implementing their Electronic Governance initiatives. Apart from reducing costs, the benefits include: localization of solutions and content, government-wide standardization and sharing of development results, and transparency in the government's use of technology.
Open source adoption is also driving innovation. Interestingly, the most innovative applications of government's use of technology are coming from developing countries. Some examples are: Online Delivery of Land Titles in India, Citizen Service Centers in Brazil, Philippine Customs Reform or ICT-based Electoral Reform in South Africa. Innovative solutions based on open-source technologies enable faster diffusion of ICT.
The UNU-IIST open source efforts are fairly diverse. The bulk of the organization's work is straightforward training, with an emphasis on teaching universities across the developing world advanced software development techniques. In 2006, the UNU-IIST is running training schools in Xi'an China and Tunis, Tunisia, and in recent years has run advanced training in Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Nigeria and Argentina, among many other locations.
More technical -- but possibly more interesting for industrialized world Linux users -- is the Global Desktop Project, which seeks to grow the ranks of open source software developers by focusing on further refinement and expansion of the Linux desktop interface.
While the goal is to increase the numbers of open source software programmers, the technical focus of the Global Desktop Project is on improving the open source desktop. By focusing on the computer desktop, an interface that every computer user interacts with and understands, the Global Desktop Project is generating a huge amount of interest from parties involved in everything from application development to localization. This in turn will help further a developing nation's human infrastructure and accessibility to information technology.
Those of us who have taken a shot at full-time use of Linux know that the desktop -- while significantly improved from that of the late 1990s -- remains something of a mess of conflicting interface models and not-fully-developed utilities. Even long-time Linux developers can find themselves in head-scratching moments, trying to figure out why something that should work, simply doesn't. The situation is even worse for local translations of the desktop software, which may be incomplete or several versions behind.
Less flashy, but ultimately more ground-breaking, is the e-governance work being shepherded by UNeGov.net. For the most part, UNeGov.net is a portal for global e-governance developers to share ideas and collaborate on research. But it's already had one spin-off: e-Macao, an electronic governance site for the Chinese Special Autonomous Region.
The UNeGov.net and e-Macao sites are hallmarks of bureaucratic web design: filled with bullet points and jargon-laden page links (some of which that don't actually work), but the utility here is not in nifty graphics but organization. These are hands-on efforts to make the theories of e-governance work, work in parts of the world not already blessed with abundant technological resources, and work using free/libre/open source tools. Around the world, Linux and the open source concept are rapidly becoming how regularly users come to understand how computers and other technologies work.
I think it is important to note that some people approach open source on a per-project basis. IBM sells a lot of software, but IBM is willing to back the Apache project. Etc.
It may capture part of the truth to call open source "political" but I think that description works better for those who want it all to be a broad (and beyond project based) movement.
I'm fine with someone working on 5 projects in a day, a minority (or majority) of which may be open source. That doesn't feel political.
Maybe it only becomes political when someone suggests that the projects are more uniform (and unanimous in intent) than they really are?
People think of "open source software" as a technological model because that term was specifically invented as a non-political technological counterpoint to the original term, "free software", with its explicitly political GNU connotations. If you want to talk about technology, talk about "open source software"; if you want to talk about politics, talk about "free software".
Hmm...technological self-determination....open source code...hey how about focusing on a Global Open Vote Code? Self-determination should include legitimizing our democratic process - and that specifically address the urgent need to fix our privately-coded elections - by creating a universal open source code for legitimate electronic voting machines (similar to Brazil, who already dealt with the private code scams). M.I.T. online had a great article before our last U.S. election which included some key points (below) on all sides of the debate. So ok you Linux demons, waddayathink? Would it be possible to get the global desk focused on open code for elections? You have the power to make democracy legitimate right there...
and that strikes me as a fundamental starting point for better governance worldwide.
M.I.T. article link
"The current DRE machines, says Selker, are monstrosities. They cost ten times more than they should. Their designs are secret and their code is proprietary. And even worse, what precious few facts that have been revealed in public are deeply troubling.
A few months ago, the source code for a voting machine manufactured by Diebold was inadvertently left on a Web site. A group of researchers at Johns Hopkins downloaded the code and analyzed it. They found many software errors and poor design methodology. One of the most glaring problems had to do with encryption: although the computer used the DES algorithm to encrypt the votes, the encryption key was hard-coded into the program and unchangeable. A key that can't be changed offers little more security than using no encryption at all.
Instead of having US taxpayers spend more money on proprietary voting machines of questionable quality, Selker says that we should follow in the footsteps of Brazil, which deployed DREs in the 1990s and is currently working on the second generation of these machines.
Brazil's machines were designed in a transparent, public process by two of the country's leading research institutions. The national government then accepted bids from different companies who competed to build machines according to the open design. Everything was above-board-extremely important for a nation that has a history of election fraud.
These voting machines are simple, compact, functional, and have done a great job to bringing fair elections to the entire country. For example, each system operates on either wall current or on a set of self-contained batteries, allowing it to accept votes more than 12 hours deep in the Amazon jungle without having to be plugged in. The touch screens display not only the candidates' names but also their photographs-an important detail in a country where so many voters are illiterate. What's more, instead of costing thousands of dollars, each machine costs just hundreds.
The Brazilian machines are not perfect: they've been criticized because, like other DREs, they fundamentally cannot be audited after the fact. But security is a series of tradeoffs: the first electronic election in Brazil gave voters a printed receipt that the voters had to drop into a box after verifying it; this receipt was reportedly used for chain voting scams and the practice was discontinued in the next election....
Selker's argument is simple: paper is bad, and whatever problems are inherent in today's DREs can be overcome by an open design and review process. Nobody else seems to be making this case. The U.S. DRE vendors want to sell high-priced proprietary voting machines. Meanwhile the academics want to stick with paper and all its problems."
It is mostly economic. Creating a work such as an operating system is a massive undertaking. Until Open Source, it could only be accomplished by the industrial software factories that churn out software using mass production techniques: A few people put in a lot of work to create something, then the thing is sold in mass production to pay for all those salaries.
Open Source works by changing the economic model. Rather than have a (relative) few people work massive numbers of hours producing code, open source allow massive numbers of people to make a few hours, and for those contributions to accumulate into a work.
Copyleft protects each individual contribution, preventing it from being taken "outside" the project and used in a proprietary work. Rather than have a thousand people put a thousand hours into a project, open source allows a million people to contribute one hour's worth of work, and result in the same million man=hour product.
You can also read more about why Open Source works in "Bounty Hunters: metaphors for Fair intellectual property laws"