Where tech aligns

The Republic of Open Source

Open source is not anarchistic, but self-governance at its best.

In February 1976, Bill Gates wrote an “open letter” to all those using home computers and sent it off to be published in a dozen or so computer-enthusiast zines. In the letter – barely a page in length – Gates asks the question, “Will quality software be written for [home computer users]?” and tells users that the answer is up to them. The answer did not follow a philosophical musing nor an inspiring call to action. Rather, it was the equivalent of that peculiar “FBI Warning” at the beginning of movies: The people using his software were stealing his goods and needed to stop. End of discussion.

But what were they stealing exactly? Gates’s position was that his company’s software – in this case, Altair BASIC, or a piece of software enabling home users to write software – took time to write, required the labor of specialists, and that its theft would take bread out of the mouths of professional programmers’ children. The home computer users (or “hobbyists” as they were accurately called) were fundamentally stealing their time.

Gates’s argument is familiar to Millennials in the form of Metallica’s harsh position toward super-fans downloading their music from file-sharing networks, but it also raises an important question: when you pay for an abstract work – an album, novel, or computer program – are you paying for some end-product, widget, or thing? Or are you paying for something else, more akin to an experience, a journey, a recipe, or a community? 

Open source is an argument and movement of software-writers, hardware developers, and other tinkerers holding that whatever it is, it must certainly include the ability – or even positive right – to study how it works, to modify it, and to share it. Computing itself would not exist without this predicate, just as music itself would not meaningfully exist without musicians studying, making, and sharing it.

The most prevalent software in use today is open source and you may not know it. As you read this on your computer, you are running many thousands of interconnected programs and libraries, each produced by collaborative and independent efforts. Some were written on paper throughout development; others had been distributed among developers using cassettes and floppy disks. Nowadays their work, the code or recipes that influence how a computer behaves, is often published openly at repositories or places like GitHub and listed in innumerable directories. Open-source hardware and kits abound at sources like CrowdSupply with much accessible to power users. No electrical engineering degree needed.

RETURN itself is published to the World Wide Web (which now sounds quaint, but why?) using the open-source software, WordPress. This software – which is used to generate documents that can be served up to users through a web browser – powers perhaps a third of all websites today, ranging from personal blogs to major publications. The web browser that you’re using may be Firefox, Chrome, or Brave, each one substantially open source and composed of smaller units of open-source software. One such component of many thousands is SQLite, or an embedded database developed by people of a strong Christian ethic, which browsers may use to store your user settings on your hard drive.

None of this would get off the ground without a computer’s operating system, or the servers that host websites, or firmware that enables your power button to work. Much of the implicated software is open source, or has an open-source variant or competitor, and the closed source ones will themselves depend on open-source pieces.

Open source means that the developer or hobbyist can study how all this works, guide the process that the computer undertakes, and distribute what follows or some important aspect. Millions of developers can make tweaks or build upon such code, and billions of users themselves can choose to learn and do the same. Anyone can access the code or recipe of the open-source program if they like, digging behind the vision projected on the screen. Present illiteracy in code need not foreclose future possibility. Amateur and professional alike choose how far they wish to go, and what value they seek to use and provide.

All this rests in some tension with copyright which fundamentally must say that it is illegal to combine these words in such a way and to share this combination. However, open source challenges the most myopic individualist or collectivist account of human beings and their labor, suggesting decentralized or less-centralized work need not decay into collectivism nor other forms of indentured labor.

Contrary to the skeptic’s illusions and Gates’s implication, open software development forecloses any practical need for indenture here. It’s voluntary training for those interested and with some aptitude. To the extent that a “thing” is produced, it is like a complicated handbook to be followed by specialists, raw material for iteration or adaptation, and only then becomes something that end-users find valuable.

My vocation leads me to ask if you want to learn to code. And if you do, let me show you how I did it. (To begin, pick one and stick with it.) At the same time, I have no illusions that you, the reader, are subscribing to RETURN to learn how to code, or read these precise words in this order. When you pay for RETURN, are you paying developers to run software, or paying writers to use some particular verb or notebook? Or are you paying for a journey, a recipe, a community, the possibility of knowledge?

The latter may seem sentimental, but it is also ruthlessly pragmatic in its preservation of liberty and human-scale problems. You, the reader, have a challenge or problem and you want a solution to that problem. Perhaps you’re faced with idle boredom, and wish to satiate it. Or you’re looking to enrich yourself and take on some intellectual and experiential challenge. Perhaps you wish to find and interact with others who share your quirk or interest and to build; your problem and the solution (or the mere start of a solution) will vary in scope and depth. The value you assign to it, through the use of money and your time, will itself vary accordingly. We can have a philosophical discussion on copyright or intellectual property, or we can see what happens when we propose some challenge to its premises and sidestep any simple answer. Proper open source respects copyright while having its doubts.

In actual practice, open source gives rise not to tyrannical corporatism nor collectivistic authoritarianism, but an aristocratic or republican form that permits and encourages virtue. It results neither in a marketplace of identical mass-produced products targeted at a collectivistic consumer, nor an impoverished marketplace of stale or absent bread. It is the bazaar or an organized flea market of plentiful variety, rich options, and entrepreneurial small and medium-sized creators. It’s not anarchistic, but self-governing at its best.

Open source allows you to take action and exert your will, while expecting the ordinary and leaving open the possibility of virtue. And you may begin as a casual reader (not that there’s anything wrong with that!), or orient yourself to becoming a more engaged participant. The bazaar marketplace extends from freelance developers and designers through to illustrators, culture and technology writers, support technicians, documentation writers, small businesses that want to catch up, and big businesses that want to catch up. Conservative, liberal, and libertarian manifestations and flavors of the open-source ethos exists in a variety of license-manifestos: BSD, GPL, public domain, and many others. The proliferation of open source and its subsequent ecosystems casts some doubt on Gates’s early prediction of developer impoverishment.

Recall the modest SQLite database that I mentioned. Open source and free, the software is embedded in billions of devices to enable simple functionality that users expect. It’s also very obscure to users and quite mature, so you might think the developers are forgotten and penniless. But far from impoverished, its authors command quite a bounty for their support services. Many thousands and millions derive and create value from the software, whether as developers who use it as one tool in their kit, or crucially but rather incidentally, as an end-user who likes to bookmark websites or use a functioning remote control.

Also recall the content management system that generates this very site from other software, design templates, and words. Launched almost twenty years ago – an eternity in software – it remains orbited by hundreds of thousands of developers, designers, and active contributors who are paid for their various labors by Fortune 500 corporations, agencies, startups, and innumerable local coffee shops alike to build out websites. Some like myself were employed by stewards such as Automattic, comprised of and led by WordPress contributors and enthusiasts, to demystify the process of building websites, tailoring the software for more casual bloggers or small businesses, and keeping the machines running and serving sites to readers. Far from impoverishment, Automattic has 2,000 employees now, and has been valued at nearly $8 billion. And this is but one company in a sea that rose from the software in the first place.

Open source has powered much of our experience with computers, and its ideology is more relevant than ever before. As Big Tech attempts to reduce humanity to mere machines emptied of both dopamine and God, we depend on recognizing the simple tools that existed before it and that still reside deep in its core.

We needn’t return far to uncover a more fruitful path to human flourishing in technology. There is no need to rewrite networking or computers from scratch; many building blocks remain from the early blogosphere and history of computing, and are increasingly relevant. What we need is mostly the will, creativity, and courage to catechize the bots. There’s a map to building self-sustaining, virtuous, and indeed profitable institutions, and it can be found throughout open source. The question is whether we will look at it, or stare right through it.