There is a lot of talk lately about outsourcing and globalization as the sure recipes for a better world, but for years computer hackers in the netherworld of the virtual have been talking about another kind of sourcing, one that, ironically, seems to carry more promise than the overvalued tenet of globalization. It’s called Open Source, a term that was invented in 1998 (the concept is much older), after Netscape had thrown in the towel to Microsoft’s Internet Explorer and opened its formerly closed code for the hackers of the world (the term “hacker” is not to be confused with “cracker,” the bad guys of cyberspace). Netscape’s CEO, Jim Barksdale, had read Eric S. Raymond’s seminal essay, “The Cathedral and the Bazaar,” in which the author had come to realize that proprietary closed-source computer programs were no match for Linux, the open, peer-reviewed, and free operating system unleashed by a young Finnish student named Linus Torvalds in 1991, and decided to switch allegiances. The rest is, well, the hackers’ relentless quest for freedom.
The Cathedral and the Bazaar, now a revised and expanded book published by an open source devotee, Tim O’Reilly, details the history of the quiet hacker revolutionary movement. And it’s a wondrous story to behold. One might think that the author has a bone to pick with the computer powerhouse and capitalist monolith, Microsoft. Not so, answers Raymond, a proud 20-year-plus veteran of hacking and ethnographer extraordinaire of the hacker culture. Because computer software infrastructure is now a major conduit for world commerce, the Open Source alternative is crucial to control the flow of transactions, as it prevents institutions from being beholden to proprietary blackmail. This, for anyone who cares about freedom, is no trivial matter.
After retracing the venerable tradition of hackerdom on both coasts of the U.S. (MIT, Stanford, etc) and Richard M. Stallman’s ideological crusade against commercialization of the Net and his Free Software Foundation, Raymond’s focus shifts to Linus Torvalds, whose Linux is not an invention, but a real system of relations across the computer world, allowing hackers to contribute to the making of the code in a never-ending process. Against all odds, the system worked brilliantly, proving that cooperation and openness trump proprietary and closed systems any time. Raymond is right to say that “the most important feature of Linux. . . was not technical, but sociological.” A free, open, peer-reviewed, democratic operating system turned out to be better than the cumbersome Unix it aimed at replacing.
“Linux is subversive” because it harnesses the skills of hundreds of hackers across the Internet; it’s a community that resembles “a great babbling bazaar of differing agendas and approaches,” not the command-style, hierarchical approach involved in building a cathedral. The “Linux developmental model” relies on a collective brain trust, one that ensures that bugs and glitches are caught and fixed faster than in the proprietary closed-source model. Call it the “Linus Law,” if you will; or the Delphi effect (the reliability, in sociological terms, of the average opinion); or what the 19th-century Russian anarchist, Pyotr Alexeyvich, in his Memoirs of a Revolutionist, termed “the principle of common understanding” and “the severe effort of many converging skills.” Whatever it is, such a system, with its assets of “joy, humor, and playfulness” worked for Linus’s Linux and for Raymond’s fetchmail project. It was not for nothing that Netscape shared its code in 1998 and the resulting Mozilla has been a “qualified success,” its trend “continuing at an accelerating rate.”
Like homesteaders of old, hackers, contemptuous of command-and-control hierarchies, or top-down management, inhabit the “noosphere,” the vast, still-under-populated land of ideas. They are more comfortable in an exchange economy, although they often live up to what anthropologists have termed a “gift culture,” in the sense that they abide by a set of honor principles and find ultimate joy in giving, a feature of societies that have overcome the struggle for subsistence. The “pure joy of craftsmanship is [their] primary motivation.” Nothing supersedes the gift culture in ensuring high-quality, peer-reviewed, creative work, a fact proven by a 1984 study concluding that commissioned work tends to be “less creative than work that is done out of pure interest.”
Paradoxically, hackers flourish most when no restraints are imposed on them, a situation that traditional employers, for instance, might find hard to manage. Again, as with Ben Shneiderman’s 2002 book, Leonardo’s Laptop (see my previous column), Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of values,” with its highest principle of self-actualization, is invoked. Unlike many academics, hackers are wary of ego traps and are intensely suspicious of self-promoters and posturing, and limit their critiques to code, not individuals or their competence. Though collaborative work is highly prized, the owner of the project makes the final decision, particularly since “forking” (i.e., when an initial project risks to branch out into different territory) is considered a slight violation of the rules (although care should be taken not to outlaw it).
All of this doesn’t mean that hackers don’t need to make a living, but what the world needs to know is that software is not an end product in itself, but a service contract, a continuing relationship involving software developers and their partners. For a business to buy a closed-source software is to deliver control to the software maker and become hostage to the software provider for all sorts of needs; far better to contract with a company that uses Open Source methods and keeps adapting its programs to its partner’s evolving needs. Raymond goes as far as to call a business practice that doesn’t adopt Open Source software “fiduciary irresponsibility.” The temptation to close software may make sense for people trying to stake their claim in the market, but Open Source folks know better than that–even when they share their code, they know that by the time it gets copied (and abused by the rare malicious opportunist or plagiarist) they will already have moved ahead, leaving poor imitators with the wreckage of an already superseded code. Rudyard Kipling in “The Mary Gloster” offers a suitable illustration of this still unappreciated truth:
And they asked me how I did it
And I gave ‘em the Scripture text,
“You keep your light so shining
a little in front o’ the next!”
They copied all they could follow,
But they couldn’t copy my mind,
And I left ‘em sweating and stealing
A year and a half behind.
Netscape’s historic turnaround in 1998 ushered in the era of Open Source (deliberately termed to avoid the anti-commercial connotations associated with Stallman’s Free Software movement). A concerted public relations campaign, headed by the extrovert author (a rare profile in the hacker constellation), tried to educate a still indifferent public and media about the value of the new system, and before long, Netscape began to make a turnaround. Microsoft, meanwhile, made things worse for itself by being caught (though the leaked Halloween Documents) trying to sabotage Open Source protocols. This lent more credibility to the Open Source project, now symbolized by a penguin. Thus, the Open Source culture, with all its high-flying components (Apache, Linux, Eazel, etc.) aims at making computers accessible to everyone and shedding unnecessary complications that make it harder for non-techies to feel comfortable in the computing world. “Computers are tools for human beings,” writes Raymond. “Ultimately, therefore, the challenges of designing hardware and software must come back to designing for human beings—all human beings.”
By this time in Raymond’s history, we realize that Open Source is about more than software. That hundreds of programmers across the “noospshere,” or, more crudely, cyberspace, can add to someone’s project without the lure of material gain remains anathema in a system that treats monetary worth as the ultimate value. But who among us, non-techies, could have predicted that a major revolution could be delivered in an open computer code? Computer hackers, long maligned for their anti-social habits, are now better poised to solve the world’s most intractable problems of coexistence through their astonishing habit of cooperation and highly developed sense of altruism. To be sure, theirs is, for the most part, a virtual, hermetic and quiet planet of solitary work, while ours is full of sound and fury. But we may yet learn. All we non-hackers have to do is decipher their code.