What is open source?
The term ‘open source’ started in software development, but it is applicable to anything. If a thing is open source, first and foremost it means you have access to its source code — what makes that thing tick.
If a thing is open source, it means that the source code of that thing is available for insight and editing, and may even be copied, repurposed and shared with others under certain conditions.
Here is an open source recipe for making popcorn:
- Put some cooking oil in a thin and shallow pot
- Bring it to medium heat
- Put a handful of dried cord into the pot
- Gradually increase heat until the corn starts popping
- Add any flavoring of your choice
That is a food recipe code. Everything in our knowable world is made up of some type of code, it’s not just computer programs:
Our music is composed of note codes.
Our judicial system is made up of legal codes.
Our government is a big ol’ pile of bureaucratic codes.
Our educational system abides by pedagogical codes.
Our DNA is one long genetic code.
Most dictionaries will give the impression that open source as a concept exists primarily for software, but that would be a massive waste of its potential. I did find one that I liked:
‘open-source ’ on Dictionary.com:
- pertaining to or denoting a product or system whose origins, formula, design, etc., are freely accessible to the public.
Closed source is the conceptual opposite of open source:
‘closed source ’ on Dictionary.com:
- intellectual property, esp computer source code, that is not made available to the general public by its creators.
In other words, closed-source products belong strictly to the people who made them, whereas open-source products exemplify various forms of collective ownership.
The commons is a new way to express a very old idea—that some forms of wealth belong to all of us, and that these community resources must be actively protected and managed for the good of all.
The commons are the things that we inherit and create jointly, and that will (hopefully) last for generations to come. The commons consists of gifts of nature such as air, oceans and wildlife as well as shared social creations such as libraries, public spaces, scientific research and creative works.
Essentially, The Commons is the big, bottomless bag of things in the world that we all have equal ownership of.
I like to write it capitalized because it deserves the same legitimacy we give to our physical cities and countries.
Back in the Stone Age, the vast majority of things belonged to The Commons. Today it is no longer the default. Everything has been divided up as people’s property, some with obscenely much more than others.
Because of this grossly uneven distribution, it’s far too easy to perceive the world in terms of scarcity rather than abundance. The haves and the have-nots.
If you live in a world of scarcity, it makes sense to carefully guard any thing you have that can be considered valuable.
This is where software and the internet revolution performs one of the greatest magic tricks in history, by making certain forms of value creation incredibly cost-effective and scalable.
Openness according to software developers
In the world of computer code and software development, we contribute most commonly to The Commons by making our computer code open source. That means we are sharing the source – the inner workings – of our computer program, out in the open, for anyone to look at and remix.
This enables us to understand and change how our many digital and physical gadgets work. And when our gadgets are increasingly in control of our lives, this is a big deal.
The communities that have formed around computer code and its resulting software applications have become quite advanced in their discourse on ‘openness’, in large part because clear definitions of openness in code has major business applications $$$.
Thus, we’ve got specifications and protocols that describe varying degrees of openness in software, so that we may all collaborate with ease and move fast. It has made our industry eat up the whole world, nations and all.
The vast majority of software companies are built on the foundations provided by open source code. But most of these companies are profit-first rather than value-first. For the opportunists and profiteers, their involvement in open source practices is merely coincidental, not out of a sense of obligation to The Commons.
They’re not about progress for all, they’re just about progress for themselves.
If you want to go fast go alone. If you want to go far, go together.
People in tech still have a lot to learn about openness as an innately human, emotional trait. Most of us got unusually comfortable with machines exactly because we had an easier time making sense of 1s and 0s than our selves and fellow human beings with our soft, squishy innards.
There’s a lot you shouldn’t learn from software developers. Most things in fact. But the practice of open source as it applies to your life and the world around you is a conceptual understanding you don’t want to be without.
Source code access
Having access to the source code of a thing means seeing exactly how that thing operates. Oftentimes those things are the products that we purchase when we play the role of consumer. We purchase these products – like a car, a house or a smartphone – believing we’ve made a payment in exchange for total ownership of a given product. But if you do not have access to the source code of the product you bought, you only have partial ownership of it.
For a house, that source code is its blueprint, construction specifications and list of materials used to build it.
Examples: wikihouse.cc, openbuildinginstitute.org
For a car it’s the many mechanical parts it’s made up of, what they all do and how they fit together. It’s also increasingly about the computer code that powers the car’s many microcomputers.
Examples: Open-source_car (Wikipedia), openmotors.co, Open Source Farm Machines (TED talk).
For a smartphone it’s the tightly intertwined combination of hardware and software. The source code of the hardware (everything from its exterior metal casing, all the way down to microchips the size of a fingernail) would be schematics of how these components are built. The source code of the software (the operating system, like Android or iOS, and the apps that run on top) is plain computer code, i.e. open source software.
Examples: Librem 5, Arduino, FairPhone.
Of course, all the things mentioned above are composites of other, smaller things, which in turn also need to be open source if you want true, 100% ownership. But it’s fine to make some concessions here, as long as our production chain doesn’t rely on closed black-boxes with a disproportionate amount of power.
(“How I built a toaster — from scratch” (TED talk) perfectly demonstrates the complexity of our modern production chains.)
The source code of everything
As members of society we have a legal right to insight into many of the things in our daily lives, albeit only a partial one in most cases:
- Food contents
- Garment fabrics
- Building blueprints
Some things, commonly artifacts of knowledge, are nearly as open as they can possibly be already:
- Most scientific discoveries
- Most religious scriptures
- Books, music and films that have been released into the Public domain.
Your insight into these knowledge resources is unrestricted, but how you may re-make or re-purpose these resources is subject to formal or informal rules.
A book in the public domain is as open as it gets, because the text of the book is the source code.
By contrast, a musical composition is not yet as open as it can be if all you’ve got is a sound recording. You may be allowed to remix and share this particular recording in whichever way you’d like, but in order to play this musical composition with your own instruments and orchestra, you need the musical notes. In other words, the code of the music.
A gifted musician might be able to recreate all the notes of a sound recording simply by listening carefully to it, but they’ve effectively obtained access to those notes in spite of that composition’s lack of openness.
We do this in software as well. A program that is closed source can be ‘reverse engineered’ by closely studying its function and wholly remaking it anew, without any insight into the closed bits. A functional replica.
Understanding ownership is power
It’s important to understand the open source codes in your life, because your life is made up of them. Once you understand which codes you already have access to and even the right to inspect, you can see more clearly which other codes you ought to have insight into.
Most importantly, from my limited point of view as a digital native, we must be able to inspect our digital tools. Our apps and devices of daily convenience have become so advanced that they are extensions of our brains. Incredibly powerful, deeply embedded mind-extensions.
If we do not have clear insight into these devices, we are not in total control of our own minds.