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The Open-Sourced Future

November 24, 2014

In the age of credit cards and Apple Pay, it's harder than ever to come across coins. But if you do have one, and you look at the back side of a US coin, you'll see an inscription that reads, "E Pluribus Unum". In Latin, this means something to the effect of, "One out of many" or "One from many (parts)"*. It's a reference to the "united" part of the United States of America, and I usually take it to mean that the whole of the United States is greater than the sum of its parts, whether those "parts" are taken to mean the many states or the many kinds of people and ideas that comprise the whole. But nations aren't the only thing whose whole is greater than their parts combined; pretty much any collaborative effort, almost by definition, means that the sum is much more incredible than what each constituent part can be, and I think that's especially true in open-source, community-driven projects.

Symbol of Linux, one of the largest open-source, community-built software in history. (Wikimedia Commons, created by Larry Ewing at [email protected] using GIMP)

We come across the term "open-source" primarily in the context of programming software, and it's usually taken to mean the opposite of "proprietary" programs**. Let's take some examples. Most people are familiar with a software called Photoshop. Photoshop is made by Adobe, a professional software company. Adobe creates and develops these programs, and people who want to use them pay Adobe a price (or a subscription fee) to have access to it. The Photoshop project is only developed by a handful of programmers at Adobe, and is "proprietary" to Adobe. In contrast, most people probably aren't familiar with GIMP. GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program) is also a full-featured professional photo editing software, but it's not created or developed by a company. Instead, it's developed by an open community of programmers who volunteer to contribute to the collaborative project. As a result, GIMP is also free***, and its "source" -- its original copy -- is "open", or available to the public to view, modify, and share.

The largest difference -- besides the cost -- is that GIMP is community-driven, and Photoshop is not. Let's take a more familiar example: Wikipedia vs. Encyclopædia Britannica. Wikipedia is open, community-driven. If I just read about a new discovery from a journal article, I can take that information and contribute to the Wikipedia article about it. In contrast, E. Britannica is developed by a company, specifically Encyclopædia Britannica Inc. So its updates are less frequent, its more costly, and simply not as widely accessible.

For those two examples, an open-source mindset has just made more accessible what was already there. But beyond that, the same community-driven philosophy also makes possible what's simply impossible to be done by one company or institution. An example I keep coming back to is KickStarter. The crowdfunding website isn't possible without having a large user base with immensely diverse interests and expertise. In this case, a big seed company isn't funding a KickStarter project -- it's a group of small donations from a community of thousands of backers that produce the same effect, and if those same imaginative projects had to look for a corporate support for funds, things like the Pebble smartwatch couldn't have happened. The same logic applies to companies like Uber and Lyft, which both provide on-demand rides from anywhere to anywhere within dozens of cities in the U.S., not by hiring thousands of drivers to work in the company, but instead by finding thousands of users of Lyft who want to work with the company (drive) around the world. On the more artistic pursuits, "Life in a Day" is a documentary stitched together by short video submissions from thousands of normal people, literally, around the globe. Google recently made a memorial video of the fall of the Berlin Wall in much the same way. And perhaps most relevant to you, the idea of a "YouTuber" is only possible because their presence is community-driven. Vloggers can't exist without the support of a community -- a corporation would have to be pretty daring to promise to pay people to talk into video cameras every day -- and almost every YouTube-borne independent artist**** is indebted to the community that made their careers possible. Last but certainly not least, the annual Project for Awesome is a one-hundred-percent community-driven movement whose impacts far outreach the influence of any of its participants.

Wind back the clock just ten years, and a collaborative effort at these global scales was near impossible, save for a few exceptions. The power of the individual is growing, and with it, the power of communities is growing as well. The ability to get things done is shifting from large corporations with the dough to communities with motivation. Sure, certain things will probably always be left to the corporate powers to handle, just as some things will always be the duty of the non-profit organizations. But as more individuals connect with each other, I think the role of the communities can eventually out-grow the powers of the companies. If that's the case, everything from your favorite app to the next big social change can come not from some institution, but from yet another group of like-minded supporters. And who knows? Maybe you'll be a part of it.

* This was considered an un-codified motto of the United States, actually, until the Congress passed "In God We Trust", another common inscription, to be the official motto. Personally, though, I think the old one fits better.

** In the software jargon, the meaning of the words "open-source" is a topic of many debates and disagreements on usage, but for the sake of this post, I'll use the definition synonymous with that of GNU free software, which also seems to be Wikipedia's definition.

*** In this context, I mean the term "free" to mean "free of charge". Please don't murder me in my sleep, coders. I know the difference between free software and capital-F Free Software.

**** Yes, including Justin Bieber.