Open Sourcing Is Human Nature / by James Kelly

Yesterday was Earth Day. It’s a time when we awe at our world, the good and the bad. I get the feeling that with every passing year Earth Day grows in importance. Maybe it is all those Netflix documentaries I've consumed starting from “An Inconvenient Truth” and on down the list, maybe it is the yogi in me, or maybe it is just plain to see that Mother Nature is wounded and begging us to look beyond the economy to the ecology of our habitat, our impact on it, and each other. Dr. David Suzuki says, our collective egos get caught up in progress for progress’s sake, creating false externalities (boundaries) on our impacts, instead of remembering that everything is connected (I had a another beautiful reminder of this when I recently re-watched Avatar).

Instead of thinking about changing lightbulbs this week or thinking about what to cut out, I asked myself, “How I can better the world using my own talents and passions?” Earth Day seems like the perfect opportunity to reflect.

Because I've been thinking about an article on technology to kick-off my revamped blog here, when yesterday by odd coincidence an idea sparked in an unlikely reflection on nature, I jumped on it...

Technology and nature? Yes! A software-focused technologist by vocation, yesterday, my above train of thought collided with my thinking on open source…

For those friends that need the background… Defn Open Source: In production and development, open source as a development model promotes universal access via a free license to a product's design or blueprint, and universal redistribution of that design or blueprint, including subsequent improvements to it by anyone.

Yesterday, I was reviewing the newly published 2015 Future of Open Source Study. (Even if you’re not in high-tech like I am, I bet you have heard of open source software like Android, Linux/Unix, and maybe WordPress, SugarCRM and OpenStack to name-drop some prominent examples and of late Microsoft is getting into it too.) I was reviewing the study when I began to ponder how the growing momentum in the open source model that I know so well for software like the above examples can be applied to answer my question in general… how the future of open source (and my advocacy for it) is important for the future of the Earth and our lives here. Could open source even be adopted beyond the realm of software?

I didn't have to consider that for long before I realized…. Of course! Open source has applications beyond software. Humans have long been openly sharing things like education, cooking recipes, stories and books in libraries, and much more (hello! the wheel). However, more importantly I realized that open source is in our nature, aligning with a recurring pattern of successful species and group behavior and decision making…Birds flock together, fish swim in schools together, animals pack together. In all cases science has shown that group consensus decision making and a democratic model is present, and it leads to the success of a species and the good of the whole. This wisdom through successful trials has gotten baked into our DNA.

Have we lost touch with our nature?

So why isn’t open source always the default model? Have we lost touch with our nature? I think so. I think just like we have wounded the Earth, not realizing it is our very mother, we are sometimes equally delusional in believing that the closed competitive structures we create are real.

Obviously there are the supporters of closed and proprietary source that point to creating value for “the shareholders” (almost as vague an excuse and unreal an entity as “the economy”). Also there are proponents in our unconsciously capitalistic culture that see open source tradeoffs through a different colored lens, the lens of business. Peter Levine an advocate and experienced open source software project founder himself, describes “the success or failure of open source is not the software itself, but in the underlying business model.” However, this view taints the way to look at the open source model in general, by tying and measuring it in economic impact and corporate winning.

Having moved south from Canada to Silicon Valley and America 5 years ago, I know too well the fast culture of capitalism, corporations, and its demand for consumerism and profit. A problem that is at the root of many other problems as well examined in "Capital in the 21st Century" (a must-read on inequality, capital, and democracy) and the easier-to-digest documentary “I Am” where Tom Shadyac asks, “What’s wrong (and right) with the world and what we can do about it?”

Summarizing the lessons of “I Am” and my own life learnings in democracy, holistic health, philosophy, yoga... one detriment to society at large is the idea that competition is of great value. This stems from the ego of course and the delusion of separateness, but it was further propagated by well-touting “survival of the fittest” when in fact Darwin’s book showed that to be of little value.

What is of value? What is right about the world? What is worth our awe? It turns out that care, compassion, and above all collaboration and cooperation are responsible for the success of species…including us, humans. We aren't the biggest, strongest, fastest… but we are highly cooperative. We are born because of communities and into communities. As Desmond Tutu put it, “We are, because we belong.”

Open source in service of cooperation is utterly ingrained in human kind’s most basic nature.

If we believe this and in a world where we and everything are all connected—The universe’s “Internet of EveryThing”—as most spiritual paths teach and even science sees in GCP and quantum physics, what can we conclude about open source? It seems obvious to me that it aligns with the wisdom proven out in the evolution of life. Open source in service of cooperation is utterly ingrained in human kind’s most basic nature.

In a culture of innovation built around competitive corporations, open sourcing at very least hedges us against our collective corporate egos. At best, it can introduce a community's sense of greater meaning, humanity, heart, love, and compassion into the business place and across them. I am reminded of playing hockey as a kid. My dad used to coach me and his teams to play for fun, not to win. Competition was (is) a game. It has a lot of benefits like a score to measure oneself against and improve, but in the end we're all out on the ice (on this Earth) to enjoy experiencing growth through different perspectives, or the duality of life. A nice corollary is that when we intended to have fun, we also improved and often won (did our best work).

Having used, developed and evangelized open source software, I always had an altruistic feeling that it was the right thing to do for many reasons. But now I see beyond just the practical and business reasons. In a world seeking and needing more consciousness, the open source model aligns with democracy, citizenship, and the natural order of things.

In software and high-tech at large, there has been rising strength in open source projects and communities. It is nearing a watershed moment as the preferred way to collaborate on and use technology, not just in software but also in hardware with projects like the Open Compute Project (OCP).

Let’s make future Earth Days and everyday day closer to a global consciousness, not simply a matter of LED bulbs and reducing, but also being conscious about what we are adding and choosing. For me that is a passion and advocacy for the open source movements. I encourage you to partake if you can, and if not, simply use them (vote with your wallet). There are all kinds of documented practical reasons, but now you have one more!

Over the bottom half of this decade we'll see open source change the technology industry, and I can't wait to see what other industries will tap into our nature and collaborate out in the open.