The Open Source Society

Open Source is often vilified for being orthogonal to western business and ideals. But really it's closed source technology, being a relatively new industry, that hasn't caught up with modern society. Personally I immediately found working with open source software to be more productive and rewarding, but was unsure as to exactly why. Now that I've more experience I'll try to quantify the reasons by relating the attributes of open source to modern society.

Economics

Linux for example is often attributed with communist ideas; but on the contrary I see it as more of a capitalist model than proprietary logic. This is because with open source, there tends to be many competing software projects, with little restriction to the best of them becoming the most popular. Competing technologies do dilute the developer pool somewhat, but as with capitalism, that's the trade-off you make for competition.

With this free market of tools available, they become ancillary to, rather than central aspects of, the end product. I.E. the best ones can be used in the most flexible way to create the end product. There is a market in tool development, but the market using those tools is much larger. More generally, with this more fluid flow of open source projects facilitated by the internet, there is increased inventiveness, and consequently as mentioned by Eben Moglen, recently there has been a large increase in the value of tech companies due to this undamming of the monopolies. Here is what Google has to say about this in their Openness Manifesto.

"In an open system, a competitive advantage doesn't derive from locking in customers, but rather from understanding the fast-moving system better than anyone else and using that knowledge to generate better, more innovative products."

Another economic aspect of open source to consider is — the Division of labour — as purported by Adam Smith back in the time of the industrial revolution. With closed systems, people often reinvent, whereas with open ones they get to reuse more easily and can concentrate on the specific task at hand. The division of labour is amplified in our increasingly connected world with small incremental improvements to components being freely available resulting in large improvements over time and space.

Politics

I tend to steer clear of political debates within open source, but the relationship with politics in general is interesting. Eben Moglen gave a very good talk comparing software and political freedom, of which the linked analysis said:
"He succeeded in firmly establishing the fact that political freedom and inventive freedom are very closely related, as political freedom spurs the inventiveness in man and allows him to grow."
Also I've observed that open source project maintainers are analogous to politicians in many ways. So again, open source is more aligned with the "western" political landscape than closed source.

Science

An essay by Con Zymaris which describes more eloquently than I ever could the similarities between modern science and open source is here introduced by the author.
"My conversation partner knew something of these topics, but didn't know much about the computer industry. She was quite surprised when I introduced her to that concept of open source software, and how it was merely an extension of, if not the Scientific Method per-se, then at least the underpinning drive and methodology of Science. This in turn got me to digging up an essay from many years back, which I thought may be of interest."

The essay above goes on to describe how the scientific method evolved, and what can it teach us about software construction. Please read it, it's great.

Looking at the above relationship from another angle, are some articles warning about the detrimental effects closed source is having on science. The Guardian make the argument in relation to the recent climate gate furore. I.E. that scientific results encompass the logic as well as the data, while Arstechnica say in an article about the non reproducibility of closed source:

In recent years, scientists may have inadvertently given up on a key component of the scientific method: reproducibility. That's an argument that's being advanced by a number of people who have been tracking our increasing reliance on computational methods in all areas of science. An apparently simple computerized analysis may now involve a complex pipeline of software tools; reproducing it will require version control for both software and data, along with careful documentation of the precise parameters used at every step. Some researchers are now getting concerned that their peers simply aren't up to the challenge, and we need to start providing the legal and software tools to make it easier for them.

Education

There should be nothing hidden to people trying to learn. One just has to consider the dark ages for reasons why this is important. Artificial barriers to information are a huge impediment to the interested student who wants to really understand a subject so as to create better products in industry or advance the body of knowledge in academia. While Black boxes of logic are very useful — they need lids! Both in industry to fix the contents and tweak the interfaces, but especially in education so that one can really learn the concepts rather than a proprietary vendor's interfaces.

Culture

The following is very generalised, but I do notice some regional software preferences, even though the flow of software is much more fluid than for tangible goods. Traditionally in the Linux world for example, there were two competing groups of projects rather than competing individual projects which restricted the functioning of the "Linux economy" somewhat.

In the US one had the C, Python, Gnome and RPM projects centered around Red Hat, whereas in Europe one had the corresponding C++, Perl, KDE and DEB projects centered around Debian.

US and European Linux cultures
Importantly though the individual projects have more autonomy than was the case in monolithic Unixes like *BSD for example, and Ubuntu (which was probably not coincidentally,started in England) is bridging this cultural divide by trying make available the best open source projects from the complete "Linux economy". It will be interesting to see how this cycle repeats as many more Linux consumers enter the market.
Ubuntu/England bridges the gap

[Update Sep 2013: It's interesting to see that as time has progressed, Ubuntu, rather than trying to leverage the most popular projects has tended to isolate itself by reimplementing key projects like with upstart, Mir and Unity. Whether it has the critical mass to make these projects popular and autonomous in their own right remains to be seen.]

This effective coordination of open source communities is echoed in The Social Context of Open-Source Software from the The cathedral and the Bazaar.
I think the future of open-source software will increasingly belong to people who know how to play Linus's game, people who leave behind the cathedral and embrace the bazaar. This is not to say that individual vision and brilliance will no longer matter; rather, I think that the cutting edge of open-source software will belong to people who start from individual vision and brilliance, then amplify it through the effective construction of voluntary communities of interest.
© Feb 22 2010