The well-field system: Open source 30 centuries ago

No readers like this yet.
open source button on keyboard

Where does open source come from?

Since ancient times, know-how has been shared under non-monetary terms. Our ancestors learned to survive with basic rules that were derived from empirical experience and shared with one another: what to eat, what makes us sick, how to hunt a rabbit, and how to escape the lion. Sharing recipes, medicinal cures, were in sense one of the first open source practices. Know-how was out there, transmitted and iterated from one individual to another. We lived in a society of techne, driven by practical knowledge and apprenticeship for young generations to learn.

The history of open source is often documented in the twentieth century and in the field of technology. What defines open source? First, the presence of shared resources within a private economy. Second, these resources are organized by businesses and for business – not as a tax system. It turns out that in the history of China, a model existed that bears striking resemblance to what we call today an open source architecture: the well-field system.

Between Years 900 and 300 BCE, government advisors worked with merchants to better organize China’s economy. Chinese commerce was then based on farming with most businesses being private. Merchants and farmers did not own the land but could trade goods and services freely. The architects divided farming fields into 9 squares, and placed a well in the center square. The center square was shared with all 8 commercial farmers who could use it to procure water and feed themselves. The water supply was sufficient to serve everyone, in a similar way that free software does not hit a scarcity limit. It can be reproduced and distributed at will. Water was the source coming from a commonly maintained well. The harvest in the center could also be distributed pro bono to everyone, but this time in limited quantities that did not cannibalize the commercial activities of private farms.










The well-field system. Private squares referred, in the original model, as farmers selling crops but not owning the land. Notice the link between the shape of the field and the character for “well” in Chinese.

Open source is to software what the well-field system was to farming: a way for private businesses to collaborate and compete. The spirit of open source was in existence many centuries before the commerce of intellectual property gave it a mainstream and scalable medium to prosper: first from unstructured gift economics to the first structured attempts like the well-field system. In an age where the world’s economy requires constant government intervention to operate, the past and present demonstrate private businesses can create profits and shared value at the same time, reducing that burden. Sharing essential resources benefits customers, businesses, and alleviates the need for public safety nets, excess taxes, and debt. And that is thanks to the entrepreneurs and open source enthusiasts like you.

Acknowledgement: Dr. Vadim Rossman, co-author of scholarly paper on SSRN.

User profile image.
Nicolas Pujol helped grow a $10m software startup (MySQL) into a $1 billion acquisition, making it at the time the second largest open source company. He is an investor, advisor to start-ups and author of The Mind Share Market: The Power of an Alternative Currency where he demonstrates the impact of hybrid economies.


False premise:
"In an age where the world’s economy <em>requires</em> constant government intervention to operate..." (emphasis mine)

It is not required. Governments CHOOSE to force themselves onto the private sector out of a misguided idea that they can somehow pick and choose the best outcome. The reality is that this government intervention actually slows societal progress/evolution. BTW - this intervention is diametrically opposed to the "may the best product/service survive and thrive" tenet of open-source philosophy.

This is an excellent model that shows how sharing can benefit enterprises that utilize common or open resources. This, I believe, is Confucianism in practice. Confucianism is both a practical and ethical philosophy that encourages the cultivation of virtue and the maintenance of ethics. Without that balance human avarice will seek to secure or own the common resource to the detriment of other members of society, thereby inviting government intervention.

The following is quoted from Wikipedia:

"The core of Confucianism is humanism, the belief that human beings are teachable, improvable and perfectible through personal and communal endeavour especially including self-cultivation and self-creation. Confucianism focuses on the cultivation of virtue and maintenance of ethics, the most basic of which are ren, yi, and li. Ren is an obligation of altruism and humaneness for other individuals within a community, yi is the upholding of righteousness and the moral disposition to do good, and li is a system of norms and propriety that determines how a person should properly act within a community."

Sounds like the Open Source methodology to me. Great post and metaphor.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.