The open source why |

The open source why

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Some of my collegues at Red Hat have been working for some time now on a book/wiki titled The Open Source Way.  It is aimed at answering the very important questions of "How?" for a given set of Whats, and its a very important resource for those who are ready to roll up their sleeves and to start putting open source principles to work.  But, why would anybody want to do that?

Why indeed...

Last year I saw a really great TED video by Simon Sinek.  He titled the video "How great leaders inspire action", but my take-away was that when it comes to really bringing about a change in thinking, good answer to the question "Why?" beats a good answer to the question "What?" or "How?"  He argues that great leaders inspire action by asking the right "Why?" questions, questions that ultimately make one wonder "Why not?"

Clay Shirky's book Cognitive Surplus (also available as a TED video) references the estimate that the sum total of all articles, edits, arguments, etc., ever made to Wikipedia totaled 100 million hours of human effort.  To put that number into perspective, the total time spent watching television each year is 200 billion hours, or about 2,000 times the cumulative total of Wikipedia from inception through the end of 2008.  The point of his book is not to declare this as some great shame (others have already done that), but to point out that fundamental new properties of 21-century media and technology provide, for the first time, a way to harness the cognitive surplus that is currently idling away 200 billion hours of human attention each year.  That's a lot of attention!

Clay argues, and I agree, that it is simply too easy--and wrong--to write off those 200 billion hours per year as a kind of cognitive entropic loss, even if for many years that has been precisely true.  Clay also argues, and I again agree, that as media has evolved from mostly one-way communication (from author to reader, or from broadcaster to viewer) to social and participatory (of peers, for peers, by peers), changes to both individual motivations and new community norms reveal powerful new forces that can effect astonishing results.  Clay teaches that "more is different" and that the new forms of association and aggregation that two-way technologies make possible create entirely different economic systems than the presumed (and increasingly debunked) models of pure consumers making rational economic choices.

One of the truly great examples of using the dramatically different dynamics of a participatory network rather than one-way broadcast (which, come to think about it, really should have been one of the examples that made it into Clay's book) is the story of Estonia known as "Let's Do It!".  As I wrote on my blog back in 2009:

The story begins as many do, with the current generation inheriting all the good that Earth can provide minus all the accumulated harm that generations of human stupidity, greed, and unchallenged status quo have wrought. In Estonia that equation had reached a point where one visionary said "Enough!" Rainer Nõlvak organized a project which effected the cleanup of 10,000 tons of garbage throughout the country's forests in a single day for a cost of €500,000. It was estimated that if this task could have been performed by the government, it would have taken 3 years and cost €22,500,000. The project that Rainer organized thus delivered not only a cost savings of 45:1 (on par with the 50:1 ratio achieved by Hill Air Force Base when they dumped proprietary hardware and software for open source and commodity technologies), but done so quickly that the population of Estonia as a whole could enjoy an additional 5 million person-years of clean forests that had been despoiled by previous generations.

The story of "Let's Do It" exemplifies how multi-way media, which gives individuals a zero-cost way to address the publics that claim them as members.  It also demonstrates how enabling and engaging people's human priorities and values can achieve transformative results, while also further repudiating the presumption that individuals are locked in to making "rational" (i.e., selfish) allocation decisions about of scarce resources such as time and money.  And, like Wikipedia, it represents less than 1% of the otherwise abundant time the Estonian people have to devote to competing interests, such as watching television or griping about how many people are watching television when they should be doing something more productive.

Which brings us back to the open source "why".  For as long as I have been explaining the excitement and potential of open source software, some skeptic (or some cynic) would challenge me by saying "who has the time to write software to solve their own problems?"  The fact is that globally, we have extraordinary amounts of time, we just don't use it very well.  Partly this is because in the past we didn't all have great tools that would make it easier and more rewarding to use our time more productively.  Partly this is because when new tools become available, we're stuck in old ways of thinking and old ways of behaving.  The answer as to why create Wikipedia, or Linux, or Apache, or any other great community project can now be understood as really quite simple: because we can.  Some intellectual endeavors still have high barriers to participation: not everybody can get unlimited time on the Hubble space telescope or can direct particle beams at the Large Hadron Collider.  But when it comes to writing open source software, anyone can learn it and anyone can do it, not only because we as humans have the capacity to learn, but because open source software provides the necessary permissions and implicit invitations to participate as fully vested partners.

Which brings us back to The Open Source Way.  The Cognitive Surplus Hypothesis promises virtually unlimited resources for solving collaborative creative problems, but nobody is going to lend their brain to an activity that wastes all their effort--television already has that position!  The Open Source Way makes the "Why" of open source practical by teaching the What and the How.  Put all these together, take some initiative, and you could see a million, ten million, or one hundred million hours of effort applied to problems make you wonder "why not?"


About the author

Michael Tiemann - Michael Tiemann is a true open source software pioneer. He made his first major open source contribution more than two decades ago by writing the GNU C++ compiler, the first native-code C++ compiler and debugger. His early work led to the creation of leading open source technologies and the first open source business model.