Why Open Source Matters

A reader (hi grandma!) asked me to write a post about why I'm so interested in open source, and who am I to refuse. In fact, I tend to do requests pretty well, so if there's a subject you'd like to see me cover here, just ask and I'll see what I can do. In any case, I've been involved, for varying definitions of involved, in Free Software and open source for a few years now. On a personal level, I use this software (almost exclusively) because I can make it do exactly what I need it to do, because it's very stable, and because from an architecture perspective I understand how these systems work and that's useful for me. Having said that, I think open source is important and worth considering for reasons beyond the fact that I (and people like me) find it to be the most important tool for the work we do.

When folks get together and say "I'm going to work on an open source project," I think some interesting things happen. First, they're making a number of interesting economic decisions about their work. There are business models around open source, but they are more complex than "I make software, you give me money for software," and thus require people to think a little bit more widely about the economic impact of their work. I think the way that people view the implications of their labor is incredibly important, and free software presents an interesting context to think about these questions.

The second, and perhaps larger reason I'm interested in open source is the community. Open source developers often know that the things they want to create are beyond the scope of their free time and personal ability, so they collaborate with other people to make something of value and worth. How this collaboration happens: what motivates developers, how they create tools and technologies to support this kind of work flow, how the "intellectual property" is negotiated (particularly in projects that don't use the GNU GPL,) how leaders are selected and appointed, how decisions are made as a community, and how teams are organized and organize themselves. These are intensely fascinating.

And these phenomena matter, both in and for themselves, but also as they impact and connect with other questions and phenomena in the world. For instance:

  • I think that the decision making process in free software projects is instructive for thinking about how all sorts of communities can reach a "decision making fork" resolve it somehow and then continue with their work. Some open source projects have formal structures, and that is easier to understand from the outside, but most make decisions in an informal way, and that decision making process is potentially novel, I'd argue. In what other context do people have to construct projects outside of work.
  • While leaders in the open source community are rarely elected (aside from a number of notable examples; the Debian Project Leader springs instantly to mind) most projects are very democratic. But this requires that we keep in mind a fairly broad definition of democracy. Because there isn't a lot of voting, and sometimes decisions aren't discussed thoroughly before people start doing things, it doesn't look democratic. But everything is volunteer based, and leaders I think have a sense of responsibilities to their constituencies, which is meaningful.
  • The tools that open source developers use are, unsurprisingly open source, and are often picked up and used by teams that aren't making free software. I'm interested in thinking about how "ways of working," proliferate out of open source and into other spheres. Is non-open source developed differently if the developers are familiar with and use open source tools?
  • Similarly, I think I'm interested in thinking about how the architecture of Linux and Unix give rise to a thought about APIs and open standards in a way that doesn't necessarily happen on closed platforms. After a certain point, I think I'm forced to ask: is GNU/Linux the leading free software/open source platform because it just happens to be, or because it's UNIX. Is there something special about the design of UNIX that leads to openness, and the practices of openness? To what extent does the limitations of the environment (operating system here) the social conventions that are built on it?

And then beyond the specific questions--which are terribly important in and of themselves--open source present a terribly exciting subject for the study of these issues. There is so much data on the ground concerning open source: version control history, email logs, IRC logs, and so forth. Not only are the issues important but the data is rich, and I think has a lot to tell us if we (I?) can bother to spend some time with it.

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