The Way of Open Source

“Open source” has historically described a mode of technological production that is collectively authored or manufactured and distributed without profit according to specific guidelines, such as those laid out by the Open Source Initiative. But the way of open source is also passionate and an often radical ideological stance that many technologists and artists have taken as a philosophical approach to circumvent hierarchical, profit-driven, capitalist modes of production and distribution. In Open Source as Culture / Culture as Open Source by Siva Vaidhyanathan, he says: “through most of human history all information technologies and almost all technologies were “open source.”

It is a double edged sword: while copyright laws were created to protect the intellectual property of artists, they can be the enemy of open source when they stifle creativity and collective modes of production. But such systems as the Creative Commons have attempted to regulate a compromise for the need for individuals to filter how much they want to contribute to the common good, and how they also need to be compensated for their work. Vladimir Hafstein describes the tension between copyright systems dictated by the industrialized world:

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. From the point of view of intertextuality, for example, 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.

One of the fundamental concepts of open source is the acknowledgement that artist inspiration comes from appropriation, as well as peer-to-peer methods of collaboration, which is essential to the open source studio to create an approach that encourage collective modes of research and production in the arts.

The history of computing and telecommunications provides insight into the origin of open source philosophy, such as ARPANET, which led to the Internet, or such renegade organizations as the Homebrew Club in Palo Alto, where Apple Computer was born in the mid-1970s, in which the hacker and computer hobbyist community freely shared information, or the World Wide Web itself, which to this day remains a classic model of open source development and community sharing. The label “open source” was first used in conjunction with the Web browser Netscape Navigator, one of the first widely used browsers used in the mid-1990s.

The open source way is a quasi-utopian form of thinking that inspires transparency, non proprietary methods of production and distribution, and a commitment to the creative process, not for profit, but for the common good. Open source promotes the free exchange of goods and services, that it has an aspirational intent to better the world, or mankind, or a particular field of study, or perhaps embraces socialist or communistic ideologies of economic equality. It is the commodity-driven, profit-driven ideology of capitalism that runs counter to open source thinking, that ultimately intervenes and alters these efforts. In this sense, transparency leads to increased collaboration, sharing, open systems of exchange, intellectual interaction, collegial openness, the very principles that were fundamental to the creation of the Internet, and later the World Wide Web.

The desire for economic gain and competition is ultimately what disrupts the open source spirit. It is largely due to the computer and software industry, led by Steve Jobs and Bill Gates respectively in the mid 1970s, that competitive business practices have brought an excessive amount of profit and wealth to the technology industry.

The cultural use of open source techniques brings these ideas much closer to 20th century and contemporary techniques of appropriation, the remix, collage, in which artists freely exploit mass media as an “open source” collection of materials to be incorporated into their work. The efforts toward open source, or rather, to protect the way of open source, often takes on political ramifications. It is often a subversive, radical effort on the part of the artist (or scientist) to restore a sense of communal common good within communities that honor these values. These communities attempt to protect these freedoms by adhering to strict forms of open source practice. As an artistic stance, it is a means to radicalize the role of the artist as a challenge to the status quo.

But there is a constant friction between the notion of appropriation and issues of copyright and intellectual property, in which copyright and fair-use laws are often ambiguous and difficult to interpret. The Creative Commons was established exactly for this purpose. According to Wikipedia: “these licenses allow creators to communicate which rights they reserve, and which rights they waive for the benefit of recipients or other creators.”

Digital media practices over the past 30 years have offered artists the ability to expand the possibilities of open source practice, by making the storage and retrieval of cultural artifacts infinitely more accessible, affordable, copyable and easier to distribute without physical limitations that earlier cultural producers were faced with.

The Internet has catalyzed the possibilities of an open source medium in the digital arts. As a repository for storing, indexing, retrieving “source” material, the Internet provides an open environment for appropriation and forms of the remix. The network is essentially the ultimate space for both production and distribution of “open source” material and its endlessly recombinatory artifacts. As an added layer, the network brings a many-to-many interaction to the interplay of users and the source for its manipulation. The speed at which this interplay and distribution takes place allows for real-time systems and forms of multi-user activity. The means of production, publication, and distribution are unprecedented on the Internet: users can create blogs, Websites, social media pages, etc., for the purpose of delivering open source materials endlessly and everywhere.

Publishing platforms are often open source, such as WordPress, which means that the techniques for freely distributing materials and development can be applied to the delivery platform itself. Thus the content, software environment, and hardware protocols of the Internet comprise a complete system that has the potential of being open source at all levels of creation, production, and delivery.