Josh Haas's Web Log

Should all technology be open-source?

without comments

In my last post, I wrote about frameworks for seeing the world that have lost their transformative power.

Here’s one that hasn’t.

I’m a fan of the open-source software movement. Open-sourcing software means releasing it under a license that lets others freely use, modify, and build on top of it. When the movement started, this was a deeply counterintuitive idea. Software was and is valuable; people’s livelihoods depend on selling it. Giving it away, for free, with no strings attached seemed as crazy as throwing a stack of hundred-dollar bills out the window of your car.

Since the movement started in the late 90s, open-source has moved from a fringe practice to the lifeblood of the entire software ecosystem. Pretty much every new software company builds on top of years and years worth of open-source code. Meanwhile, programming has become increasingly lucrative as a profession, and I would argue that that’s because of, not in spite of, open source: an hour spent by a programmer today is worth hundreds of times more than an hour spent by a programmer twenty years ago, because today that programmer is building on top of twenty years of open source code.

Instead of hoarding their efforts to themselves, open source programmers donated their efforts to the community of technologists. They lost out on whatever money they could have made selling their time, but gained from the overall boom in technology they helped create.

Did that decision make sense? When does that decision not make sense?

Webster’s defines trust as “dependence upon something future or contingent, as if present or actual“. For instance, when a mountain-climber leaves the ground, she’s engaging in an act of trust: she’s trusting her skills and her body to rise to whatever challenges she encounters.

What many discussions of social justice leave out is that what we take for granted from civil society, at a basic level — enough food for everyone to eat, enough clean water for everyone to drink, for instance — has more in common with mountain climbing than with walking on flat ground. It’s only through phenomenal amounts of skilled effort, requiring constant maintenance, that it even exists at all.

Most human accomplishments are possible because we’ve built shared resources such as transportation infrastructure, sanitation systems, civil government, etc., that let us go about our lives without constantly worrying about things like famine, fire, or disease. The open-source pool of technology is a small subset of this larger common trust.

So to rephrase my question: at what point is it rational for people to freely contribute to the commons (in any form they’re able), vs demanding that they get paid back immediately?

The open-source movement gives us the answer: it’s rational insofar as we trust that the expanding capabilities of the commons will grow at least proportionately to the value we add to it. This is what happened in software development; people who spent their time building open-source software are often as well-off or better-off financially today than people who didn’t.

Hypothetically, if we trusted that in twenty years, open-source technology would be able to feed, clothe, and house everyone for pennies a day, it would be no-brainer to devote all our time and effort to making that vision a reality, while demanding the bare minimum salary we need to stay alive in the interim. This is a big hypothetical, but in a best-case scenario where we have a lot of trust in our society’s expanding efficacy, it’s not totally outside the realm of possibilities.

Our political and economic problems can be viewed as a lack of social trust. This is true on both sides of the traditional libertarian vs socialist spectrum. Low-trust socialists want to force people to contribute to the commons, which is a vote of no-confidence in it: you only force people to participate in a system that you don’t think they’d volunteer for. And low-trust libertarians respond by wanting to opt out of the commons as much as possible.

From an open-source perspective, both sides of this debate seem nuts. Forcing people to participate in open-source would be a disaster: you might be able to make people spend time on it, but you can’t force them to be creative or innovative. And the opt-out perspective is equally crazy: open-source is a part of pretty much every modern developer’s life.

Once you increase the trust level, libertarianism and socialism converge: you get un-coerced participation in building a social and technological commons, which makes everyone happy.

So here’s a spectrum for measuring social progress: how much are people giving their time to society, trusting that it will be a good investment, and how much do they trade it for short term gains? Trusting, vs trading.

It’s a spectrum, not an absolute: most people can’t stop working for money today. But the degree to which people feel empowered to do work without immediate compensation seems like a good starting point for seeing the health and progress of society.

Written by jphaas

May 21st, 2014 at 10:15 pm

Posted in Uncategorized