This document is a free lesson in the concept of ‘open source’. It is also an invitation to become a participant in and contributor to ‘The Commons’; our common wealth as conscious beings.
Try giving a bit of your time to our shared growth as a global society. Help and be helped. It is a selfless act of self-love.
Many of you are already doing it. You’re making the contents of your mind known where it’s needed, you listen tenfold, and you help your fellow human being when you have the immense privilege to be of service.
If you’re on Team Human I will assume your goal is the same as mine, which is to reduce our collective suffering, and increase our collective understanding.
By gifting me your time to read this text, please allow me this attempt at explaining what Open Source is;
As a movement;
As a knowledge amplifier, and;
As personal empowerment.
Honesty is reached by the doorway of grief and loss. Where we cannot go in our mind, our memory, or our body is where we cannot be straight with another, our world, or our self. The fear of loss, in one form or another, is the motivator behind all conscious and unconscious dishonesties: all of us are born to be afraid of loss, in all its forms, all of us, at times, are haunted or overwhelmed even by the possibility of a disappearance, and all of us therefore, are but one short step away from dishonesty. Every human being dwells intimately close to a door of revelation they are afraid to pass through. Honesty lies in understanding our close and necessary relationship with not wanting to hear the truth.
The ability to speak the truth is as much the ability to describe what it is like to stand in trepidation at this door, as it is to actually go through it and become that beautifully honest spiritual warrior, equal to all circumstances, we want to become. Honesty is not the revealing of some foundational truth that gives us power over life or another or even the self, but a robust incarnation into the unknown unfolding vulnerability of existence, where we acknowledge how powerless we feel, how little we actually know, how afraid we are of not knowing and how astonished we are by the generous measure of loss that is conferred upon even the most average life.
Honesty is grounded in humility and indeed in humiliation, and in admitting exactly where we are powerless. Honesty is not found in revealing the truth, but in understanding how deeply afraid of it we are. To become honest is in effect to become fully and robustly incarnated into powerlessness. Honesty allows us to live with not knowing. We do not know the full story, we do not know where we are in the story; we do not know who ultimately, is at fault or who will carry the blame in the end. Honesty is not protection; honesty is not a weapon to keep loss and heartbreak at bay, honesty is the outer diagnostic of our ability to come to ground in reality, the hardest attainable ground of all, the place where we actually dwell, the living, breathing frontier where we are given no choice between gain or loss.
— David Whyte
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 fellow human beings with their 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.
Note: All outgoing links are meant as completely optional further learning. None of them should be required to comprehend this article (that’s my ambition anyway).
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.
Everything in our knowable world is made up of some type of code. It’s not just computer programs.
From closed to open and beyond
Imagine yourself buying a beautiful compass, so you may traverse the world with greater ease.
If you are sold just a compass, you have received a closed source product. It works, but you have no insight into how. It is a black box.
If the compass-maker gives you a compass and the instructions on how to make one yourself, you have received an open source product.
As it turns out, the compass-maker’s main innovation was making the compass look, feel and function more beautifully. How to make a compass is already common knowledge.
The extent to which you can re-make a compass that looks and functions exactly like the one you’ve bought comes down to how open that compass-product is.
The Commons (wip)
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.
Origins of open software
Before we can talk about the future of open source, we must attend to its past. The historical dramas of open source helps us understand what needs healing in order for us to move forward as a unified community again.
Open source is on the rise, but if we stop innovating on open source licenses now we’ll be doing ourselves a great disservice. Organisations like Open Source Initiative and Free Software Foundation are both winners. Both can point to multi-billion dollar industries built around the principles and foundations they have set forth. We also wouldn’t have the trillion-dollar companies of today if they weren’t supercharged by free and open source software, but that’s not really a point in their favor; quite on the contrary.
Open Source is a privilege
Privilege has a strong correlation with openness.
With greater privilege comes greater capacity for openness.
Sadly, not all people with great privilege make use of that extra capacity.
On the other hand, for some greatly unprivileged people, openness is their only choice. In the face of violence and death, openness becomes the only reasonable thing left to do.
• • •
Making the rich even richer was definitely not part of the original ethos of the open source movement. Most open source software has been built on the backs of people enjoying privileged lives with an abundance of free time to satiate their intellectual curiosities.
We can’t have a movement that grew out of privilege and suffering become an amplifier of more privilege for those who already have the most, and more suffering for the underprivileged!
Updating the rule books
If we treat the definitions of old as holy texts that shall never be revised, we will be stuck with old, dogmatic ideas that cannot stand the test of time.
This is already painfully evident in the OSI’s Open Source Definition. In pursuit of simplicity, their definition chooses not to deal with some common philosophical paradoxes, such as discrimination.
Can I stop "evil people" from using my program?
No. The Open Source Definition specifies that Open Source licenses may not discriminate against persons or groups. Giving everyone freedom means giving evil people freedom, too.
Do you want to live in a society where no one is discriminated against? I sure do! Here’s the problem: In order to deter harmful discrimination, it is necessary to discriminate against those who mean harm. It’s a paradox, so holding it in our brains can be a little bit painful. But it’s worth it, and it’s nothing new.
Free speech is not absolute
Nations across the world have decided it’s not that simple when it comes to Free Speech.
Even this beautifully succinct principle — which arguably leans heavily towards good — still comes with some very necessary exceptions. We disallow hate speech, or at least we try to. And if you want to disseminate information about something that can be damaging if done in excess, such as tobacco or alcohol, we have strict rules for how you’re allowed to advertise such information (though of course the rules vary depending on your place of residence).
Free speech isn’t an absolute, it’s an aspiration. We aspire to uphold the principle of free speech to its logical extreme, while acknowledging that abusive applications of this principle must necessarily be limited. We can’t have free speech in the absolute before we’re living in an absolutely hate-free society.
The same applies to open source. We need to get our hands dirty and re-imagine our open licenses for a world where technology does not exist in a vacuum.
Technology is not neutral. Nor is open source. The very act of releasing a collection of source code into The Commons under a particular license is undoubtedly political.
Simplicity is always worth striving for, but it’s not the right place to start.
There is only one quote short and memorable enough for me to remember it verbatim:
“I didn’t have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one.”
First we have to address the complexity of our diverse realities. Then we can gradually work our way down to simpler, more universal truths. Start with a long letter, then gradually shorten it from there.
The Future of Open Source
Yet the movement is divided across tribal lines. The clearest line in the sand is drawn by license factions — people of different belief systems rooted in software licenses. Open software developers sort themselves into tribes defined by whichever software license and parent organisation they identify most with.
The perceived separation between us happens because we fall into the trap of thinking “the freedoms (license conditions) that worked well for me must work for every other person ”.
The traditionalists say “we don’t need more open software licenses!”.
The radicals say “we need as many well-written open licenses as we can possibly get our hands on!”.
I consider myself among the radicals, though I do not consider my stance to actually be radical in the slightest. And I’m definitely not looking to pick a fight. I’m not looking to take a piece of anyone else’s pie either. I wanna help make the pie bigger for everyone. We must shed our scarcity-mindset and champion openness as a single tribe.
Freedom (of ownership) Fighters
In the last few years we’ve been seeing a new strain of open source licenses emerge. Traditionalists do not agree with me calling these licenses ‘open source’, but that seems like the most apt description to me. I’ve offered up two of my own tiny definitions of open source in the introduction of this article. Here they are again, remixed into a single definition:
Open source is the sharing of the source – the inner workings – of our things; out in the open, for anyone to look at.
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.
There is a great deal of experimentation going on among those who interpret the meaning of open source along these lines. Here are some examples:
Anti-overwork, Pro-wellbeing license
The 996 license was drafted by Chinese developers, aimed at disrupting "996 culture”, a 12-hour, six-day work schedule common among startups around the world.
Anti-capitalism, Pro-equity license
The Anti-Capitalist Software License lets you do whatever you want with the software, as long as it is not for capitalistic purposes.
Anti-competition, Pro-business license
The suite of PolyForm licenses are different variations of “non-commercial users can do whatever; commercial users must make a deal with us”.
Anti-evil, Pro-good license
The Hippocratic License lets you do whatever you want with the software, as long as you are in “Compliance with Human Rights Principles and Human Rights Laws” as set forth by the United Nations.
Most excitingly, these licenses are human-centric, as opposed to the extremely code-centric licenses of the previous decades. Many of these new licenses have not been tested legally and may not hold up under closer scrunity and real world use, but the ideals they aim to uphold are very necessary additions to the open source licenses of the future.
There is a singular condition that necessarily precedes all other definitions and principles for free and open software: Source code availability.
Did you notice how the four freedoms keep saying “Access to the source code is a precondition for this [freedom].”? We just don’t get very far without source code access.
This particular freedom is special:
The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
Unlike the other ‘freedoms’, insight is not just a legal story, it’s the difference between knowing and not knowing. When we have insight, we have unlocked the possibility to do whatever we want with this code, legal or not.
If running some code would assuredly save a life, I have a moral obligation to run that code, even if I am not legally allowed to run it.
When the source code of an application is available for view, the most important job is done. The black box has been cracked open and added to the permanent archives of The Commons. The conditions may say “for viewing purposes only; no editing, copying, remixing or redistributing allowed”, and we will play along, provided the rules of the game seem fair at the time.
Open source codes exist on a spectrum of openness. We can’t quite seem to agree what openness taken to its logical extreme should ideally look like, but the modest beginning on the other end is simple and clear-cut:
Open access to the source code of your thing.
Right to insight
The ability to inspect the thing you’ve paid for (whether with money or your data) should be your right as a member of society, just like you already have a right to know the contents of the food you eat and the garments you wear.
It’s especially important that you have insight into the most mind-altering applications in your life: Social Networks, AI, games…
Imagine if Facebook, by law, had to publicly share all their social engineering codes (algorithms and data collection methods) 3 years after they’re first put into active use. If they did something unethical in their codes we wouldn’t know right away, but three years later we would. Setting this up in such a way that they can’t wiggle out of their commitment 3 years later is technically very easy to do.
Do you think Facebook would treat you to the same, inhumane algorithm codes and data collection codes they do now, if they knew we’d have complete insight into those codes 3 years from now?
Facebook and most apps like it can’t be fixed without moving away from their ads-based business model by eradicating ads entirely and charging by subscription, but many of the dangers it poses to our society in its current form can be made harmless by cracking its black boxes open.
True openness is vulnerability
If open source is just an obviously better way to build products, companies and governments, why aren’t we doing more of it already?
Simple: It’s really scary to be open. It can even be legitimately dangerous. Sharing a part of yourself in the open makes you vulnerable. A part of your soft underbelly is exposed.
Openness is the willingness to tell people your story.
Vulnerability is your willingness to let others be part of it.
Taking back ownership
I expect we’ll eventually have the equivalent of a “Fair Trade” certification for “Open Source” things, starting with software and smart-devices, but ultimately every single thing. When that comes, I strongly recommend that you only use the Open Source stuff whenever it’s available and of reasonable quality. And if your favorite app or gadget isn’t Open Source, campaign for that to be the case.
Is this application Open Source?
How open is it?
Take ownership of the technology that is becoming increasingly embedded into your life and the very fabric of your being.
My biggest hope is that you’ll take the extra step, and get directly involved.
Joining the contribution chain
I can’t think of anything more fun and gratifying than building something beautiful together with other like(but-not-same)-minded people. The open source projects I’ve worked with have always felt a whole lot more meaningful to work on than anything veering too far from the open source ideals. Open source practices mesh very well with intrinsic motivation.
It’s not hard to see how our
Facebooks and Amazons,
Googles and Microsofts,
Apples and Samsungs,
YouTubes and Tiktoks,
…would be a lot better for us and for the world if most of a company’s codes needed to be auditable by the public.
And it’s not just about computer codes. Companies also have culture codes, legal codes, ethical codes, financial codes and many more.
We need to demand >50% insight into all of it. Whatever your nerdy interest might be, there will be codes for you to scrutinize.
Any mega-platforms that are beyond repair we’ll just have to re-make ourselves.
As our society’s collective understanding of user-owned data and tools for self-assembly improves, we appear to be reaching an ever-higher consensus on openness and transparency as a great way to fight greed and corruption.
We understand intuitively that we want openness in our technology just as much as we want openness in our personal relationships, as well as our politics, economics, education and other grand-system inventions that deeply influence our lives.
I’d very much like the 2020s to be the decade when we decided to hold products, companies and governments to a higher standard, and restored majority power to The Commons.
At its most basic, open source is a great delivery mechanism. Making something free – in the widest sense possible – is the best way to get your product in front of people, whether it’s a thing or a thought or something else entirely.
At its very best, open source is unconditional love. There can be a great number of other motivations involved, like skill improvement, resume building, professional networking, making friends.., but one of the motivations mixed in there is the act of giving, and doing so unconditonally.
You get to say:
“Here you go world, have some unconditional love.
To whoever’s heart is warmed by this humble gift:
I’m glad my free bits of love found someone.”
This act of unconditional gifting induces a feeling everyone should experience. It can warm and sustain a heart through cold winters.
Unconditional love really exists in each of us. It is part of our deep inner being. It is not so much an active emotion as a state of being. It's not 'I love you' for this or that reason, not 'I love you if you love me.' It's love for no reason, love without an object.
~ Ram Dass
Please enjoy the free bits.