What are we learning from Open Source?

This post about Open Source is in response to an essay called What did we learn from Open Source? by a scientist in Finland, Ilkka Tuomi.

Open Source is a philosophy that promotes “free redistribution and access to an end product’s design and implementation details” according to the free, open-source platform Wikipedia.

Open Source software has become extremely important for everyone who uses the Internet. As Canadian designer Bruce Mau asks, “Now that we can do anything, what will we do?” designing for social change, innovation the betterment of society is something to consider.

The Industrial Age has defined needs through laws, industrial structures, business models, professions, and social institutions, which are changing today. While Intellectual Property Rights are important and should be respected, working on such open, collaborative platforms compels a re-design of these rights and principles. When the Open Source movement began, without rights for developers, it was thought that technical progress could slow down – yet this has not been the case. However, because corporate jobs and software fees do not necessarily motivate developers, they may only be interested and inspired to create things that they want to – not necessarily what the world needs.

The idea that developers “do not produce for others; instead, they create code to create themselves” could be detrimental to society’s future. What really motivates designers and developers is the urge to “make a meaningful difference in life, listen to a calling, and to become real by participating in a project shared by others who value the same values”, as Tuomi explains in reference to Aristotle.

People who have no money to spend cannot vote on the market of what is being developed and whose needs are being met, however. This is concerning because developing countries (which house the majority of the world’s population) and individuals with low income are stuck in Tuomi’s “bottleneck” of money being required to pay inventors – cutting off all those that do not have the financial resources. If the inventors are being paid for their inventions, “someone has to find them worth paying for,” Tuomi states. The exception could be in the case of impoverished nations, however, where Open Source products could be extremely valuable despite users not being able to pay for them.

Two years after Tuomi wrote this piece, a report from Boston-based Standish Group stated that the adoption of Open Source software models had already resulted in savings of about $60 billion per year to consumers. Ironically, to access Standish Group’s full report “Trends in Open Source”, a fee of $1000 per copy applies. These savings are a positive for consumers, and great news of the success of Open Source products – but neither the developers, nor the existing companies that customers did not pay, benefit financially.

Considering the developer and designer perspective, OCAD University Graphic Design Program Chair Keith Rushton, asks, “how do we design and work in a world, when we’re not thinking about the future of that world?” Rushton states that designers can facilitate change, however, with Open Source, it is completely up to the developers to decide whether they are interested in facilitating positive change or not. Tuomi states that there is “no guarantee that Open Source developers would focus on societally important challenges.”

Today, global information and communication networks have enabled an ongoing socio-economic transformation toward an “expansive economy of meaning, where culture, values, identity, and communication matters”. Tuomi argues that this economy requires a new concept of intellectual property.

There is evidence of hope of developers doing positive things for the online community, however. When it comes to recent successes, there are many – some of which have become extremely popular and mainstream. Namely, WordPress is a huge Open Source platform that hosts over 71,295,000 blogs and websites by individuals and many of the world’s biggest brands and industries (from TechCrunch to TED, CNN, and the NFL). Additionally, MySQL is the most widely used database server in the world and is required to install WordPress; a majority of websites use the Apache web server; and Firefox is one of the world’s top web browsers.

Open Source is part of mainstream society and everyday life, which is a sign that developers can build quality products useful to the world. Evidently, the future of communication depends on cooperation from a variety of groups and users – and today discussion continues on intellectual property rights, which may be transformed dramatically.

This emerging network society will require new institutions, new laws, and new ways to understand intellectual property and Open Source projects are the alternative – as long as everyone is on-board in support of the greater good.