Open Source Culture

These essays correspond to the six chapters of the film. They foreground the key ideas of each chapter and flesh out additional themes.
We offer the essays as commentary on the film, and hope they provide a springboard for further discussion and debate.

Open Source Culture

Linus Torvalds didn’t set out to change the world. When, in August 1991, he posted on the internet the source code for the new computer operating system he’d been developing, he was after advice from the community. Torvalds had developed the system as far as he could by himself. Now he was stuck. He explained to the members of the newsgroup:

“I’m doing a (free) operating system (just a hobby, won’t be big and professional like gnu) for 386 (486) AT clones. This has been brewing since April, and is starting to get ready. I’d like any feedback on things people like/dislike in minix, as my OS resembles it somewhat (same physical layout of the file-system (due to practical reasons) among other things).”

Responses came in quick from about the world. Linus was surprised. He’d been after comments. But some people did more than comment – they played around with the code, fixed things up, and started developing the system in new directions. Torvalds could have got proprietary at this point. He could have taken down his code and threatened legal action against those who were using it. Instead, he took a different approach. He said: “Let’s keep this going.” Torvalds made the source code freely available under a General Public Licence on the condition that any changes to the code would be made available to the whole community, which basically meant everyone.

This sparked a free-for-all process of on-line collaboration the likes of which the world had never seen. The rest, as they say, is history.

The operating system that Torvalds helped create – Linux – is today a major computer operating system used in various sites and applications from the Mozilla Firefox web browser to BMW cars. Linux is remarkable for the fact that it is free for anyone to download and use. What makes Linux historical, however, is the “open source” design strategy that is used to create it. Rather than being developed in-house by a closed team of programmers, Linux is developed by an open network of volunteer programmers from around the globe. Anyone is free to join in, so long as they have something to contribute. No one gets paid – not by the Linux Foundation, at least. But those who participate are, for the most part, deeply committed to the task, a fact reflected in the soaring number of contributions to Linux in recent years.

On the face of it, the Linux community looks like Marx’s communist utopia realized online – a horde of happy workers, freely contributing to a mutually rewarding task. What is it about Linux that generates this developer support and enthusiasm? To understand the initial success of Linux, we’d need to consider a raft of factors, including the prior existence of the free software movement, the rapid innovation of computer and internet technology through the 1990s, and the sense and vision of Torvalds himself, who presides over the software development process, keeping things on track. Still, none of this really explains the motivation and enthusiasm of the unpaid participants to Linux, especially in the early days of the venture. What drove participants to commit long hours to designing and coding Linux, when for all they knew, the project might come to nothing? Was it simply a love of Linux? Or was it love of a certain kind of collaboration, which Linux exemplifies more than any other online project?

Love is a splendid thing. But it is a big and unwieldy idea – too big and unwieldy, I’d argue, to help clarify the dynamics of online collaborative communities. To make sense of the psychological motivations that drive participation in projects like Linux, we are better off with the notion of “empowerment” than love. People contribute to Linux not because they love it, but because they find the experience personally empowering.

Linux empowers participants in at least two respects. The first thing to note is that, in the absence of top down management, contributors to Linux are free to manage the nature of their contributions to the project. This enables them to apply their favored talents and skills to the project – the talents and skills of their choosing. This apparently mundane point is psychologically important. To have the opportunity to apply one’s favored talents and skills to a project, and to apply those talents and skills in the manner, and to the extent, of one’s choosing, is intrinsically empowering. Essentially it amounts to being given the opportunity to act to one’s potential, which is always a satisfying experience. Here we see the intrinsic psychological value of an open source design approach. Open source projects give participants the opportunity to apply and develop their favored talents and powers. This is part of the reason why projects like Linux inspire such enthusiasm amongst participants.

But it is not the whole answer. Plenty of open source projects start and go nowhere. The second condition for a successful open source project is that it satisfies the human need for belonging. Consider the early days of Linux. Linux gave a bunch of over-educated, inspirationally malnourished, tech-heads the chance to apply their knowledge and skills to a collaborative project that they genuinely believed in – the world’s first freeware operating system. Collaborating on this project enabled participants to become something that they’d always wanted to be – co-creators of such a system, and members of a legendary community. If I romanticize the event, it is for the sake of bringing the salient point into view. Engaging with the Linux community gave (and continues to give) participants the sense of being part of a collective power – an open society with its own ways of working, sharing, caring, and engaging with others. That is a deeply empowering experience.

When collaboration becomes an empowering experience, it becomes an end in itself. This is the secret behind Linux. It is essential to any successful open source venture.

Tim Rayner

About the authorTimothy Rayner is a writer and philosopher based in Sydney, Australia. His consultancy, Philosophy for Change, teaches practical philosophical skills for everyday life. Tim has taught philosophy at the University of Sydney and the University of New South Wales, Australia. He recently completed 'Philosophy for Change' the book, and is writing a book on innovation.

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