Openness

The logic of mean-spiritedness that follows from the law of supply and demand, can also be found in all fields of commerce where there is any so-called "immaterial property', including information technology (IT), music, film, and other kinds of entertainment, but the most glaring examples of it occur within the world of computers.

It is interesting that in the information business, handing over the product never means the giver has any less of it. Digital information can be endlessly copied. Einstein's famous dictum is true: "If I give you a penny, you are a penny richer and I'm a penny poorer. But if I give you an idea, you have a new idea but I still have my own.'

Unfortunately, Einstein's principle has not been the guiding light in the IT business. Instead of treating digital information in the way most appropriate to it, it is treated as if it were a natural resource that is running dry. It is sold in cardboard boxes just as oil is sold in barrels.
An average computer program costs, let's say, a bit less than EUR 1,000. Of course there are more expensive software programs - large corporate systems can cost up to EUR 50,000 - but even a grand is a still lot of money. Usually, a computer program is bought in the tangible form of a CD, which is probably additionally packaged in a pretty cardboard box. The manufacturing costs for one CD, including the cover, is about EUR 1. The cardboard box is even cheaper. To that you'd have to add transport and warehousing costs, and the retailer must have their commission. But the fact remains: when we buy a computer program, 99 per cent of what we pay is for nothing.

Of course it's not really for nothing, because we're not buying just any CD, but one with some specific software on it. Computer programs obviously don't just self-generate, which means the programmers must also be paid. But even so, the physical mechanics of commerce in the field of IT is inappropriate to digital material. And that has given rise to a certain tension.

One way this tension is expressed is through piracy. Piracy means that a computer program (or any other product available through IT) is copied without permission of the originator. Copying, of course, doesn't cost anything, nor does it take anything away from anyone - that is in the sense that nobody has less computer programs than they had before some copying was done. However, piracy is illegal and a lot of time and money have been spent and tears shed in fighting piracy in both the IT and entertainment industries - almost as much as in the US versus Arabs fight over Iraqi oil.

But we also have a lot to learn, particularly from the IT industry, about breaking the cycle of mean-spirited business practices. An ever-increasing number of programmers are writing their software based on the principle of Open Source. In the Open Source movement, there is no ban on copying software. Actually, it's encouraged. There is no disguising of how the programs work; instead, the source code in Open Source programs is, as the name suggests, open and freely available.

The existence of Open Source programs in itself is hardly surprising. Thanks to the Internet, there need be no costs for distributing a program, which means it would be far more surprising if the Internet wasn't used to distribute free programs. What is extraordinary about Open Source is that in recent years it has become apparent that in many ways the Open Source programs are often better than the corresponding closed source programs. It would seem that by working in accord with the inherent nature of digital information, rather than doing its utmost to fight against it, the Open Source community has released an extraordinary resource, one hitherto much misunderstood and neglected within the IT industry.

The power of this is best illustrated by the question, if Open Source programs, such as Linux, are better or merely just as good as the corresponding non-open programs, then where do they come from? Who makes them, and who finances their work?

At first, it can look as if the Open Source programs are self-generating! Of course, that can't be true, and isn't. But when you ask who has made them, the answer is nobody in particular! For example, Linus Torvalds has been working on his Linux for more than a decade, but even so he has only written a small part of the code of the Linux kernel. Most of it has been written by somebody else. Who else? Many other like-minded people. Some do it for fun - Linus is one of them - others do it for work.1 Aha, so what corporation are they working for? The answer to that is: several unconnected businesses. However you twist it and turn it, the end result is that no one person designed Linux, it wasn't financed by any particular party, and you could almost begin to think it was self-generated! Behind Linux, there are lots and lots of programmers who are not mean-spirited!

The Open Source community is turning the practices of the IT industry upside-down. And what is most encouraging about this is that in practice Open Source code seems to be proving that mean-spiritedness is the worse option - openness is better. Could that also mean that music is more beautiful when played and that jokes are funnier when told? Can we learn to identify and eliminate the logic of mean-spiritedness wherever it's at work in other areas of life, so that along with open code, we can also have an open mind and live a more open and generous life?

  • 1Actually, while this book was being written, Linus started working for a foundation called the Open Source Development Lab, where he is paid to work full time on Linux - for the first time in the twelve-year history of Linux. See also Just for Fun: The Story of an Accidental Revolutionary (2001), Linus Torvalds, David Diamond, Texere Publishing, US.
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