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The Open Source Movement

This article was written by Alex Steffen in December of 2003. We're republishing it here as part of our month-long editorial retrospective.

Open source: we pay a lot of attention to it here, so much so that several worldchangers have asked why. Outside of the realm of computing, they ask, what does collaborative software have to do with changing the world? With sustainability? With democracy? With justice?

Everything. If another world is in fact coming into being, it must be a world where many more people's basic needs are met and where their ambitions have realistic meaning. A world of increasingly vast chasms of wealth is a world of instability, war and terrorism. It's also, as Alan reminds us, one in deep ecological trouble: "A world full of desperate and impoverished people is a world emptied of swordfish, rainforests and panda bears." A world with billions of people living in absolute poverty is a world without a future.

But, as William Gibson reminds us, the future is here, it's just not well-distributed yet. The answer to our problems is not to redistribute wealth, it's to redistribute the future. In very practical terms, that's what the open source (OS) movement is doing.

We understand that countries which are in breakdown need peacekeepers, food aid, clean water and vaccinations: that there's a certain minimum standard below which we're no longer talking about development as the goal, we're talking about survival – and unfortunately more than a billion people fall below it. But for developing countries which aren't already in total breakdown, growing a home-spun technology sector is a priority right up there with holding elections and establishing the rule of law. As a recent UN summit put it, "to get the economy of a developing country going, its government must stamp out corruption, ramp up efficiency and use open-source technology to build a cheap, reliable information infrastructure..." Having that information infrastructure is now fundamental to education, jobs, democracy and good government.

And countries which want a local technology culture are insane to choose proprietary software to build it. First, there's the cost. In a recent article, Rishab Aiyer Ghosh shows just how expensive commercial code is for people living in the developing world, and what a barrier to access cost is:

"...Windows XP together with Office XP is US$560 in the U.S. This is over 2.5 months of GDP/capita in South Africa and over 16 months of GDP/capita in Vietnam. This is the equivalent of charging a single-user licence fee in the U.S. of US$7,541 and US$48,011 respectively, which is clearly unaffordable."

But Ghosh goes on to make a much more important and often-overlooked point: that when a country goes open source, it gets something much more important than free code - it gets a native software industry. The skills needed to install and maintain OS software flow out through the society. As he drily says: "the open source software community must be regarded as an informal and 'costless' skills development environment that provides good training and competitive advantages on the labour market."

That's the second point. When a country goes OS, it changes its relationship to the world economy. It is no longer just a market for developed world know-how. It moves to becoming (to the extent that local coders are contributing to OS projects, and thus developing skills) a maker of knowledge.

Add to these benefits of affordability and industry-creation a third: developing countries with an open source approach become participants, nationally, in a collaborative culture of problem-solving which has implications far outside the realm of software and which ideally suits countries with lots of smart young people and not much cash. As a Christian Science Monitor story puts it:

"Last month, China - the largest single potential market for almost anything - selected an upstart computer-operating system called Linux for installation on 1 million computers next year. Ultimately, the country plans to install similar systems on 100 million to 200 million machines.

"But the deal represents much more than a software deal - or China's declaration of independence from software giant Microsoft. Analysts say it marks a significant victory for an emerging way of building things. Open and highly dispersed networks of motivated people are organizing around galvanizing ideas, often offering results of their work for free.

"Such collaborative networks have long been part of human experience, from scientific research to terrorism. But as the approach moves into the commercial realm, especially the software business, it's challenging fundamental notions about who owns ideas and how best to foster innovation."

When intellectual problems become distributed, the search for solutions becomes collaborative and the research agenda is driven not by multinational shareholders but by the passions of the participants, you get not just better results, you get different results.

The South-South scientific coalition is a sign that a few countries at least – namely Brazil, South Africa and India – get this. They're working together, trying to educate more local scientists and allying themselves with open and non-commercial approaches, like the open access movement in scientific publishing (which demands that scientific papers be made freely available online, not published in expensive, limited-circulation hardcopy journals), precisely because they recognize that this makes possible a different kind of science. It makes possible a scientific research agenda based on what their people need, not on what will make Monsanto the most money.

This last point becomes even more important when we remember that our relationship with the physical world is digitizing. Far from ripping us free of the physical world into some sort of disembodied cyberspace, computers are making us ever more intimate with the material world. Digital design, biotechnology, nanotechnology, materials research – the ways we design and build and grow stuff is more and more mediated through silicon: and that which runs on silicon is highly susceptible to collaborative innovation. These days, when you spread technology and the tools for collaboration, you're spreading the ability of people to redesign the material bases of their lives in cheap, innovative and sustainable ways. (Covering those new designs is, by the way, one the things we pay special attention to here on worldchanging.)

Even with that ability, the problems are still massive. Open source isn't going to lead to any infosocialist utopia ("From each according to his imagination, to each according to his needs," as Charlie Stross puts it). Even if we succeed, people will still be vulnerable to terrorists, madmen and dictators. Even if we eliminate poverty – a tough nut to crack – the legacies of poverty will remain. Even if we radically redesign our systems to be more sustainable, we won't escape the fundamental limits involved with living on a finite and fragile planet.

But it's not unreasonable to think that spreading the tools for collaboration can also help make democracies safer, help give people who've had a hard time more reason to hope than hate, and redefine the field of possible actions within the Earth's limits to include greater prosperity hand-in-hand with ecological sanity and reverence.

We won't get there through business-as-usual. A huge part – and in some ways, the most unjust part – of the developed world's domination over the world economy is simply that we got rich first. People in our countries came up with the steam engine, the telegraph and modern hygiene, and the rest of the world has never caught up. The unjust part is a pattern of longer and longer patent extensions, a system of intellectual property and international lending policies so ossified that they essentially prevent the developing world from ever catching up.

A reasonable respect for intellectual property is crucial (adding, as Lincoln said, the fuel of self-interest to the fires of invention), but there's something very wrong with a world in which crops, energy systems, essential drugs, access to information, methods for providing clean water, and so on are priced outside the reach of billions simply because of the legacy of past development patterns. They are proprietary knowledge.

The greatest strength of the open source model is that it is explicitly non-proprietary. It is a direct antidote to legacy ownership of key ideas, because the core concept is that no one should own core concepts. No corporation, no nation, no person can claim ownership over the core concepts in an open source project in order to demand royalties or restrict its use. No one using OS-built medicines, for example, would ever die of AIDS because some Big Pharma executive in New York or Berlin decided that distributing cheap drugs was too great a risk to their patents.

Ultimately, that is the point: the 20th Century's model of development - the "Washington consensus," proprietary technological diffusion, the whole ball of wax - has completely failed a billion people and left another four billion falling farther and farther behind, while trashing the planet at an astounding rate.

But that's changing. Tools exist, right now, to make intellectual property regimes beside the point. Tools exist to give the developing world the capacity to build its own technology, to its own needs, and grow richer and more sustainable in the process. Those tools are the tools of collaboration. Open the source code of innovation, and we'll change the planet.

This piece is a part of our month long retrospective leading up to our anniversary on Oct. 1. For the next four weeks, we'll celebrate five years of solutions-based, forward-thinking and innovative journalism by publishing the best of the Worldchanging archives.

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