Open Source for Everyone

Applying what we've learned from software to the world at large.

Introduction

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 one of the most powerful concepts in existence for personal empowerment.

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).


Prelude

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 your 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.

~ African proverb

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.


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.

Read the full Chapter 1: What is open source?


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.

Read the full chapter: From closed to open, to more open

The Commons

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.

Source: https://www.onthecommons.org/about-commons

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. It’ll get nerdy at times here, but please bear with me. The historical dramas of open source helps us understand what needs healing in order for us to move forward as a unified community again.

Software freedoms

The beginnings of what is now most commonly referred to as “open source software” was an earlier movement that coined the term Free Software. While it’s mainly about free-ness akin to ‘free speech’ and not necessarily about being ‘free of charge’, the latter is almost always the case as well.

By the 1980s, almost all software was proprietary, which means that it had owners who forbid and prevent cooperation by users.

Source: https://www.gnu.org/gnu/gnu-history.html

In response to the prevailing trend of closed software, a group of liberal-minded technologists devised The Free Software Definition. Think of it as a “Declaration of Code Freedoms”. It goes like this:

A program is free software if the program's users have the four essential freedoms:

  • The freedom to run the program as you wish, for any purpose.

  • 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.

  • The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help others.

  • The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others. By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

Openness licenses

Along with these principles came the first standardized and open software licenses. That’s a piece of text that explains the conditions under which you may use and remix that software program.

A license can be created for anything, not just software. For a simple example we can look at the Creative Commons license, which is widely used for artworks like music and illustrations.

Here is the ‘Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International Public License’ – or CC-BY for short – in its entire human-readable (not legalese) form:

You are free to:

  • Share — copy and redistribute the material in any medium or format

  • Adapt — remix, transform, and build upon the material for any purpose, even commercially.

The licensor cannot revoke these freedoms as long as you follow the license terms.

Under the following terms:

  • No additional restrictions — You may not apply legal terms or technological measures that legally restrict others from doing anything the license permits.

Traditional companies selling closed-source software would have their own company-specific licenses. The terms would basically say: “You’re allowed to run this program, and that’s it. Don’t try to look inside or attempt to make any changes”.

The new breed of open licenses on the other hand could be used by anyone, private or corporate. Just copy the text, include it with your code collection whenever you’re sharing it with someone and presto, you’ve applied a formal license-of-use to your software.

“Free software” means software that respects users' freedom and community. Roughly, it means that the users have the freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software.

Source: https://www.gnu.org/philosophy/free-sw.html

These principles and accompanying software licenses have been adopted by some of the most widespread software applications in the world. Chief among these are the Linux operating system (powers 95% of the internet’s servers, as well as all Android phones) and the WordPress website builder (powers 40% of all websites on the internet — second place is at about 5%).

The Free Software Foundation believes that all software should be free in accordance with the four essential freedoms. It’s an honorable aspiration, but it’s been proven unfeasible in our current model of society.

Selling a free thing

While products like Linux and WordPress are free for users to study, run, change, copy and distribute, they are still run as major commercial projects. In the case of these projects it’s relatively easy to balance complete openness with commercialization, because these are server applications. As such, it’s easy to turn them into services that run on privately controlled servers that charge users for access.

WordPress.com will happily let you set up your website without a single mention of it actually being powered by free software that you could operate on your own computer should you choose to do so — but honestly you should just use their service instead, it’s much easier. The openness of their product means you can take your whole website and leave whenever you’d like, should their serviced alternative ever turn bad. You can see how this is an incredibly powerful consumer protection.

It’s quite telling that while Linux has over 95% market share on servers (the place where all the cat pictures are stored and streamed out from), while its market share on desktops (PCs & laptops) is a dismal 2%.

Free and open source software is increasingly dominant on the world wide web, but closed software still rules supreme on all the devices in our homes. That’s because it’s incredibly hard to commercialize free software that just lives on your device, rather than in some server you need to connect to.

That’s not to say these projects aren’t amazing; they are. Probably the greatest indicator of how these projects are different from your average corporate behemoth is how there is no “Linux Company.” or “WordPress Company”. Instead there’s the Linux Foundation and the WordPress Foundation, both of which are comprised of large consortiums of companies with common interests.

An unprecedented feat of global collaboration in service of a shared commons.

Freedom vs Openness

In 1998 the Open Source Initiative was founded, effectively as a spinoff of FSF.

The conferees believed the pragmatic, business-case grounds that had motivated Netscape [the precursor to Mozilla Firefox] to release their code illustrated a valuable way to engage with potential software users and developers, and convince them to create and improve source code by participating in an engaged community. The conferees also believed that it would be useful to have a single label [open source] that identified this approach and distinguished it from the philosophically- and politically-focused label "free software."

Source: https://opensource.org/history

The OSI branded itself as more pragmatic and business-friendly. They did not share the FSF’s fundamentalist view that absolutely all software should be freely available under the same stringent terms. The founding members of the OSI wanted to enable the release of software with a mix of open and closed source code.

Along with a list of OSI-approved licenses, they drafted The Open Source Definition.

It is important to note that this is not the definition for ‘open source’. There is no central authority for the term, so there is no official definition. No one can claim to own the term ‘open source’, just like no one can lay a claim to words like ‘swimming pool’ and ‘computer’.

Fast forward to 2020: The grand total of OSI-style licensed software now far outweighs FSF-style licensed software, proving that there was indeed a greater appetite for more permissive software licensing that doesn’t prevent you from coupling your open source application with some sort of commercial layer.

Open source is on the rise, but if we stop innovating on open source licenses now we’ll be doing ourselves a great disservice. OSI and FSF 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.

Distributing privilege

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. Volunteer value contribution also helps lessen the guilt induced by being in the group of people who just lucked out with the life-ride we were put on.

That’s not to say sacrifices haven’t been made. Open source is also built on contributor churn; burnout.

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! That’s a very bad look for us aspiring movers. And it would make obvious that what we thought of as “intellectual curiosities” might’ve just been “pretending to be intellectuals by making up puzzles for ourselves to solve”; making little distraction machines to keep our brains from going too quiet and introspective.

We will know our movement is succeeding if we are contributing to privileged wealth being more widely and equitably distributed. We will know we have failed if the status quo remains unchanged, and the powers that be remain comfortably seated.

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.

Source: https://opensource.org/faq#evil

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.

Embracing complexity

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.”

~ Mark Twain, and a bunch of other people

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

It’s actually open source that’s eating the world’. ‘Open source has won’. Commercial Open Source Software is very much a thing.

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.

Rediscovering simplicity

There is a singular condition that necessarily precedes all other definitions and principles for free and open software: Source code availability.

I’ve no idea how much more closed source software is running in the world compared to open source, but I’m guessing closed software is still in the overwhelming majority, to the tune of 70-90%. We can’t really know, because closed software is by definition kept secret from us.

Let’s say closed source software currently makes up 80% of all software, and open source software (including ‘free software’) makes up the remaining 20%.

Can we all agree that a great first step would be to turn the biggest possible chunk of that closed 80% into source-available code? Once we have insight into most of that 80%, we can commence our bickering over how much more open all these source codes ought to be.

Access to freedom

Did you notice how the four freedoms kept 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.

(Don’t be ashamed if you think think that sounds a bit kinky; just roll with it.)

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.

~ Melissa Joy

If you’re a company, you’re not supposed to have any vulnerabilities.

If you’re a person, you might have experienced feelings of hurt that you’ll avoid at almost any cost. Being 99% open is an immense privilege. I’m personally in this position because I’m exceedingly safe. Economically, emotionally, politically, spiritually… My Maslow pyramid is all filled up. I can reveal just about anything about myself (but no, you may not have my credit card information) because I have no enemies. Sadly, a lot of people can’t say that.

Most people, corporations or products can’t be entirely open, because it would make them too vulnerable. Their enemies would find a way to hurt them through that opening.

Thankfully, modern companies are finding ways to incorporate their openness into their holistic business model. They’ve devised ways to turn openness into a competitive advantage.

Human beings have been working on this openness thing since we first started consciously communicating a million years ago, and we are getting vastly better at emotional openness with every generation. People 10 years younger than me tend to be more openhearted than people 10 years older than me.

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.

Just ask:

  1. Is this application Open Source?

  2. 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,

  • [insert yours]

…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.


Free Love

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

Thank you for your time. I hope you enjoyed the free bits.