F/OSS is the salvation of humanity... what does that mean?

Submitted by Norm Roulet on Thu, 11/11/2004 - 00:22.

I participate in a Harvard Law School open knowledge sharing program called H2O, which this week posed an inspiring issue regarding the origins and impact world-wide of Free and Open Source Software (F/OSS), which is the foundation of REALNEO. If you're interested in this subject (if you're into IT you should be), then consider the topic posed, take a look at my viewpoint, and feel free to visit Harvard H2O to review other viewpoints and the discussion. If you like what you see there - feel free to sign-up and participate, for free.

Harvard H2O site home page

Harvard H2O discussion at their ISIE Fall 2004 Symposium - Culture of Sharing

And the question is:

Berkman Center research fellow Ethan Zuckerman poses the following question:

F/OSS (Free and Open Source Software) developers have had a great
decade: Linux has transformed from a student project into the leading
competitor to Microsoft in the operating system market; open source
Apache webservers, mySQL and Perl/Python/PHP have emerged as the tools
the cool kids are using to build web services. Observers of the F/OSS
movement often describe it as being influenced by a "culture of
sharing". Participants in the culture are rewarded with prestige,
rather than financial gain, in proportion to the value to the tools
they produce and give away. Some thinkers argue that the success of
this culture of sharing points to a future in which content,
distributed under flexible, pro-sharing licenses like Creative Commons,
will challenge existing content creation models.

Geek philosopher Eric Raymond points out that cultures of sharing
appear to develop in an economic atmosphere of abudance. American and
European universities, and venture-backed dot.com startups are both
economically abundant atmospheres where many F/OSS tools were
developed. Will the culture of sharing around F/OSS continue as
developers in poorer nations (Brazil, India, China, Russia, Mexico)
become active participants in the culture? Will it break down? Or is
the "culture of sharing" a myth - a smokescreen for the complex
economics that allow F/OSS to come into existence?

And my viewpoint is: 

F/OSS is the key to empowering all people, for the first
time in history. That accomplished, all people can collaborate at the
individual level, world-wide, and perhaps save Earth. This is not happening
because of abundance in a few universities but because of scarcity world-wide –
poverty world-wide - and only through the heroic, individual, ingenious commitments
of 1,000s of the world’s smartest, most giving technologists, developing the most
intelligent, lowest cost solutions for all people world-wide… and F/OSS
champions do care about that, and saving the world. Consider them the Peace
Corps of the new millennium, who aren’t taking it any more.

As the question points out, F/OSS has reinvented content
management and, not stated, enables explosive virtual community development and
integration - disruptive technology enabling disruptive social and cultural realignments
shifting paradigms, at the best. So empowered, individuals are toppling
corporate monopolies and will topple autocracies (e.g. obsolescing mainstream
push media... radio... music distribution) - this is not about sharing but
about reinventing peer to peer relations and the global economy. Such
disruption may be possible with licensed software, if effective and available
to do any of this, but none is... IT innovations are happening much faster world-wide
under open source than has ever been possible at any software development corporations
large or small. With these disruptive technologies come innovative new business
models, and plenty of people are making money in the open source space -
programming, customizing, developing, integrating, managing, training,
hosting... reinventing economies. The only reason people in developing nations
may not yet be fully leveraging F/OSS is because they pirate licensed software
and so use that for free, and are still getting up the curve with that. Within
a few years, we'll see much broader use in developing nations of the best open
source applications, which will become free de facto standards world-wide.
Firefox will soon exceed 10% of the Internet browser market. LAMP is dominant
in the web development world. Community leaders in Northeast Ohio are
reinventing the Cleveland economy using Drupal, OurMedia and PeopleAggregator. All
practically overnight and for free. No smoke and mirrors about it.

CURRENT OTHER RESPONSES POSTED BELOW... FEEL FREE TO ADD YOURS

Culture of sharing is misleading

Having
had several multiyear engagements with transnational opensource
projects, the culture of sharing just doesn't quite describe the
experience.  It may be an adequate approximation of one possible aspect
of open source communities as seen from the outside, but if I had to
describe the experience of participating in an open source community,
it would be more like a culture of passionate commitment to a
particular vision, with other participants self selecting into the
community based on their identification with the same vision.

The notion that prestige somehow replaces monetary incentives is
also a simplistic way of describing motivations in an open source
project.  Prestige certainly may accrue eventually to one or more
leaders of an open source project, or the eventual product itself, but
more than likely during the early to middle course of an open source
project leaders can face the opposite, such as ridicule by participants
over any differences of opinion ( of which there are many, in any
sucessful project) or actual revolt as members chose to "fork" or go in
their own direction with the project.  Such bifurcations are also quite
typical in open source projects.

For every Linux there are literally thousands of far less compelling
examples of open source software projects out there of which only a
very small fraction will ever come close to the prestige or notoriety
of a Linux. So I would say that the dynamics of emergent self
organization are at work at least equally if not more so than the
simple notion of sharing.

A Ticket Out, Professional Respect, and Parallel Processing

A few thoughts in response to this question:

1. International credentials.  There may be a different, but
potential even more powerful, set of drivers encouraging participation
from developers in poorer countries.  As a former dotcom CEO, I hired
many programmers and DBAs from Russia in 1998-1999, including some that
did significant work on the PostgreSQL database (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Postgresql),
winner of the 2004 Linux New Media Award for Best Database System,
offered under the BSD license.  The broad participation of the
PostgreSQL user group resulted in invitations for these developers to
speak at conferences around the world, and dramatically enhanced their
resumes.  In short, they were a ticket out of Russia.

2. It’s the props, not the bling.  While in the past “cultures of
sharing� may have depended heavily on economic prosperity, the Internet
is a great equalizer, particularly in matters of intellectual property,
where distribution is virtually instantaneous and global.  The Internet
also foster communities of users around topical issues, and work done
for the community garners praise from the community.  In other words,
it’s not about money, it’s about professional respect.

3. The “many hands� theory.  In the pre-Internet world, sharing is a
slow and expensive process.  It requires a significant number of
man-hours to manually compile writings and emails and maintain current
versions, bug fixes, documentation, and so on.  The Internet offers a
way to use parallel processing to attack these large problems.  There’s
little discipline in it (no “checking out� of development copies, very
loose version control, little change management, etc.), but this is
more than offset by having thousands of programmers simultaneously
attacking the problem, and sharing thoughts and progress reports in
chat and discussion boards.  This also allows for heavy customization.
 Add-on tools for specific purposes or with functionality that is
highly desired by a particular user group increase adoption rates for
the F/OSS software, which in turn get more programmers involved, and so
on.

Culture of Sharing Will Continue--Openess is a Scientific Value

I'd
agree that many of  F/FOSS tools were developed by students in US and
European universities and, to a lesser degree, by folks in the dot-com
arena.

However, from personal experience, I'd disagree that the actual F/OSS developers were in a personal 'economy of abundance.'

Students and most dot-com workers, though living in materially
well-endowed (and very materialistic societies) tended to be relatively
cash-poor, with trashcans overflowing with Sprite cans, pizza boxes and
ramen noodle wrappers. Very few dot-com workers--especially the
programmers--were paid much in cash; only a very few dot-commers got
stock options that ended being worth much at all.

If anything, I'd argue that it took extra idealism to stay committed
to these ideals while existing in a very materialistic culture that
provided many opportunities to make money.

More importantly, I'd like to point out that the 'culture of
sharing' is not just driven by the the altruistic 'societal good' value
but more strongly driven by the worldwide technical/scientific
community's value that excellence and innovation come from an
environment of openess, experimentation and iteration. Computer
scientists are, after all, scientists with professional values that
will, hopefully, continue to override mere capitalist money-grubbing
values. ; -)  

I'd also like to note here that certain mega-billionaire software
company owners (you know who you are) dropped out of university.
Perhaps the world might be a less buggy and less litigious place had
they stayed in school. ; -)

An interesting sociological question

This
is a very interesting question that undoubtedly merits further
sociological inquiry.  It may well be true that a culture of sharing
can thrive only where the participants do not need to rely on their
creative products for sustenance, and can therefore afford to give
their creations away for no economic gain.  On the other hand, a
society that enjoys economic abundance may not be one where
participants intuitively understand the value of sharing and instead
come to the table with a more individualistic desire for success. If
this is the case, then it may well be developing nations that do not
foster an individualistic approach to progress (e.g., a culture of
shared stories rather than individual authorship) that will more
naturally transition into a culture of sharing in the F/OSS
environment.  Resolution of this question will require more work by the
sociologists, I think, to see whether, and how well, creative culture
in other spheres translates to this new creative environment.

Financing the Creation Models?

F/OSS
has come into existence and various governments have already been
operating their systems on IT due to various reasons such as cost
reduction on specific expenditures; value added security etc.

Developments on "culture of sharing", thus, active participation
will increase; financing the owner of the creation models will secure
the productions.

I, WWW Inc. finds Creative Commons as the Intellectual Property
Rights protector partner with possible future add-on applications that
will be bundled to operating systems including Microsoft; thus, enable
producers to freely create content + models like we do here now;
whether for operating systems and/or for innovative venture
developments which I am sharing on H.2.O in complete trust.

More about motivations

I
am skeptical about the "culture of sharing." I would need accurate
first-hand information about the motivations of the people involved in
the FO/SS movement to speculate on whether it will eventually break
down. Prestige can certainly be a motivator in academia, but I think
there is more to FO/SS. It is probably filling an important need. As
this need is met, the culture may not continue, or may change as a
result.

It's more a culture of fame

At
a corporation like Microsoft, no matter how good of a programmer you
are, in the end, any great achievement of yours will be remembered as
Microsoft's, not your own (unless you want to take the route of
academic fame and publish).  As an individual, you can create several
popular tools and suddenly gain a little bit of fame in the Open Source
community.  In a  wealthy countries like the US, extra money is less an
incentive than fame for many people, middle-class and above.  Without a
doubt, as poorer nations begin to enable cushier life-styles, you will
find this culture of fame continue.  

One possible flaw with this theory is that fame doesn't necessary
require an open source attitude.  True, but good F/OSS developers come
off as rather magnanimous, which is certainly a more welcome quality
than monetary greed.

"Culture of sharing" is not a myth

As
a computer science student in the early and mid-90's, I have observed
first-hand the power of the "culture of sharing" among my peers.  I'm
not sure if it's been done, but a survey of attitudes among those in
that community would add a lot of meat to the bones of the movement.
 The "culture of sharing" is true for no other reason than enough
programmers believe that it is true. In other words, I think that a
"culture of sharing" is a self-fulfilling prophesy. It is a movement,
and I do believe it is already spreading across the globe including
poorer nations.

Culture of Sharing

The
Creative Commons project should be commended for promoting the culture
of sharing, enabling authors to determine whether they want to share
their product(s) or operate through an exclusive licence.

The culture of sharing, however, also has its difficulties. Not so
much with open source software such as Linux, which is preferred over
the mainstream software offered, but rather the use of peer-to-peer
networks such as Kazaa and the like. The sharing of music and so forth
has led to companies instigating legal proceedings against individuals
and could hamper the very culture of sharing (albeit illegal).

As for poorer nations, maybe you should consider whether the culture
of sharing may be hindered through political as well as economic means.
For example, a country may block the development of cryptography
software because it may have political implications ie. security. This
happened with PGP software, which was later disseminated to circumvent
the restrictions that would have been imposed. See http://www.skypoint.com/members/gimonca/philzim2.html.

F/OSS is a good thing, but there's more to it than that

Apache isn't just a tool for cool kids - it's got 68% of the market and holding, if not climbing slowly (source: http://news.netcraft.com/archives/web_server_survey.html)

And participants in the F/OSS culture do receive financial rewards
from time to time... Netscape started the practice when the Mosaic code
was lifted from NCSA and dropped into the Netscape company's product...

There is a culture of sharing and it has many well-meaning people in it. But it coexists alongside, and overlaps considerably:

- a culture of people who might use open software in separate for-profit activities

- a culture of people who develop for *credibility* or *prominence*
that can be parlayed into profitable activities (for example, sendmail
is open source software, but the software, support, and books about the
software are sold by a company formed around its creator)

In summary, the "culture of sharing" is real - but it exists in a
greater economy of money and ideas that is overlapping, connected, and
complementary. The GPL has also been shown to be a sometimes-hindrance
to both purely money-driven commerce, and broad uptake. For evidence of
this, one need only consider the rich assortment of licenses covering
software to see that contractually-enforced sharing, and the "viral
effect" of the comprehensive GPL are not suitable for every
circumstance.

Finally, it's easier to work for free in times of excess and
abundance, and it would be a mistake to forget that. It's still hard to
write, maintain and support good software and for some software and
other products of intellect, the "cost" to the creator is so impossibly
high that those things cannot be made for free *except* in a time of
extraordinary abundance.

See latest "First Monday" for great articles on this subject

The excellent peer reviewed Internet journal about the Internet, First Monday, happens to address many aspect of this issue, this month - if you are into this subject, check it out... hot not off the presses...

http://firstmonday.org/issues/issue9_11/

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