The Way of Open Source

The Original Apple I Computer (Wikipedia) built by Steve Wozniak

The way of open source is a passionate ideological stance that many technologists and artists have taken as a challenge to hierarchical, profit-driven modes of production and distribution.

The term “open source” was first used in conjunction with the Web browser Netscape Navigator, one of the first widely used browsers from the mid-1990s. Yet open source practices date back further to describe a mode of technological production that is collectively authored or manufactured and distributed without profit, or profit-sharing according to specific guidelines, such as those laid out by the Open Source Initiative.  Siva Vaidhyanathan in his critique of open source culture takes a broad view: “Through most of human history all information technologies and almost all technologies were “open source.”

Open source versus proprietary thinking is a complex argument: while copyright laws were created to protect the intellectual property of artists, they can be the enemy of the common good when they stifle creativity and collective modes of production. Such systems as the Creative Commons have attempted to regulate intellectual property rights for individuals to designate how much they want to contribute to open source communities, and how they also need to be compensated for their work. One of the fundamental concepts of open source is the acknowledgement that creative inspiration comes from social interaction, peer-to-peer methods of collaboration, collegial sharing, and collective research. Vladimir Hafstein describes open source systems as based on the creative processes of social dynamics: “Creativity as a social process is the common denominator of these concepts and approaches. From each of these perspectives, the act of creation is a social act… works of literature are just as much a product of society or of discourse as they are of an individual author or, for that matter, reader.”

The history of computing and telecommunications provides insight into the value of open source philosophy: from large government-military projects such as ARPANET that freely shared its knowledge with the research community leading to the creation of the Internet and the personal computer; to small renegade organizations such as the Homebrew Club in Palo Alto, where the Apple Computer was born in the mid-1970s amidst the hacker and computer hobbyist community; or the World Wide Web, created in Tim Berners-Lee’s lab at the CERN research center in Switzerland, which to this day remains a classic model of open source development and community sharing.

But in the mid-1970s, a dramatic shift occurred when Steve Jobs convinced Apple I inventor Steve Wozniak that he could turn his hobbyist machine into a product; or when Bill Gates created the first operating system for the do-it-yourself Altair personal computer kit designed as an open system, and created an empire built on the commodification of software: Microsoft. These acts of entrepreneurial ambition created a tectonic transition from computing as open source hacker / hobby activity to a multi-billion dollar technology industry.

Since then, open source activists have been continuously challenging the corporate establishment. The hackers have been preaching openness and collaboration in a world dominated by elite control of patents, copyrights, and proprietary ownership. These renegades include Richard Stallman, who launched the Free Software Foundation in the 1980s in an effort to fight for software rights to protect hackers and open source devotees.

Despite the marginalization of the open source community, they have produced software and hardware used by millions, including: the Linux operating system, Wikipedia, Mozilla Firefox browser, and the WordPress content management system. Many of these projects, which began as alternatives to commercial products, have become dominant, due to the power of open source ideology to stimulate innovation and creativity.

The open source way may be viewed as a quasi-utopian form of peer production that inspires transparency, collaboration, collective processes, non-proprietary methods of production and distribution, and a commitment to the creative process as a social exchange: not necessarily for profit, but for the common good. Open source promotes the free distribution of goods and services, it has an aspirational intent to better the world, or mankind, or a particular field of study, and embraces socialist ideologies of economic and political equality.

As an artistic stance, open source thinking has served as a way to challenge the prevailing status quo, such as the profit-driven market system of commercial galleries and art fairs. Many artists will only show their work in alternative art spaces that serve as resistance to the commodification of artistic production, and which support more ephemeral forms such as conceptual art, media installation, and performance that can’t be bought and sold. Open source is a way of life and a philosophical commitment to breaking down existing hierarchies, promoting openness and fairness, encouraging experimentation, and insuring the freest and broadest possible distribution of knowledge, intellectual, and creative resources.

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