Ouroboros and Open Source

All men by nature desire to know.

Aristotle- Metaphysics, 350 B.C.E.

At the dusk of International Women’s Day, 2021, I pen these words. On a keyboard. Cos that’s how we roll.

“Open source,” I ask some friends; friends who generally know things. “What is it?”

“Isn’t that something you put on pasta?” says one.

“I think I saw them play live, back in the 90’s,” says another.

“What was the middle part of the question?” says a third.

Not many of us are in the know, when it comes to Open Source. My son, my baby, my ten-year-old innocent flower, pipes up, “It’s software that’s developed by many people in collaboration, Mamá. And I thought you were a nerd.”

Not for the first time, I notice the kindly roast. Like any self-respecting ‘digital native’, I scuttle off to consult my sage – the internet.

According to the Grandaddy of open-source, online information, Wikipedia, the definition of open source is as follows: a type of computer software in which source code is released under a license in which the copyright holder grants users the rights to use, study, change, and distribute the software to anyone and for any purpose. Open-source software may be developed in a collaborative public manner. Wikipedia

Another hit reveals that: Open source software is developed in a decentralized and collaborative way, relying on peer review and community production.

37 different pages later.

The participative context in which such software is developed is widely lauded as one of the benefits of this type of digital technology development. Its opposite, Proprietary code, is developed under copyrighted conditions, and the source code is not available for public reference or modification.

The Open Source Initiative, (OSI), champions an egalitarian ethos, ethically committed to equity, equality and engagement between communities of practice. People, random individuals with a proclivity for coding, read, develop and share back into the system code for open-source software programmes. Common examples include Mozilla Firefox, Linux and Moodle, the online learning platform preferred by universities worldwide. I haven’t dabbled in Linux, but Firefox and Moodle are magnificently manageable and intuitive. I’ve used different Moodles over the last six years, and they all have left me with the unshakeable sense of being a tech savvy person. I swear!

Firefox had its moment of starlet super-fame, but it remains popular for its privacy, its speed and its customizability according to literally every review on the first web search.

So, what makes Open Source so ephemerally appealing? And what is it that the OSI does, if it’s all a big free for all, anyway?

From what I can glean from Aunty Google, Open Source appeals to the souls of this so-called generation of “digital natives”, (Prensky, 2001.) These individuals were born and bred amongst technological advances. They have never known a world before technology, and therefore think, process and respond on a neurological level that is fundamentally different from their ancestors. They multi-task, flip screens and were raised on apps and tablets, according to popular lore. The cut-off point has helpfully been set at circa 1983 for this new breed of human. And because they have been weaned on Google, instant searches, content at a keyboard tap, their primary source of information is the Internet, and their primary tools for life are centred in digital devices.

Proprietary source software claims a higher level of dependability, using the best minds to develop the optimal software solutions. Yet our post-modern practitioner coders ask, “And how is it that you could possibly ever begin to know what it is that I need my software to do, exactly?” Open source allows users access to the source code for software, and the right to add a bit of bling as they see fit. Users return this code to the mother ship (I’m a bit sketchy on the details of HOW exactly, more on that later), where it is shared with the community of collaborators.

Harking back to the very birth of the internet and digital technology, code was an open source field day. Early computers had to be programmed by hand. A single error in the input, and the software would not run. Proto-nerds painstakingly typed hours of code to run the now legendary Pong; retro tennis in Paleo-Tech times. This trait has remained a defining feature of nerds, the heroes of our era. Nerds are unapologetically, unequivocally cool people. They like to share. The treat others with respect. They function almost effortlessly as a perfect example of a community of practice.

A community of practice is a group of learners within the same domain, who engage in activities aimed at increasing the proficiency within this specific domain. So, book clubs book, fisherpeople fish, and coders code. Formed in 1998, the Open Source Initiative, OSI is an ‘educational, advocacy, and stewardship organization’,, and embraces a global community who develop and modify open-source software code under licence from the OSI- sort of like an ouroboros, the serpents that eats its own tail, a symbol as old as time itself.

Create open source software, share it, ensure its integrity, create open source……….

The OSI argues that the home and hearth of software development is under its inclusive umbrella, not in secretive tech labs, whatever one of those may look like. From a luddite perspective, the Open Source ethos is not without its charm. Philosophically, it lends itself more to a Marxist worldview than Capitalist. Its scope is global, embracing its collaborators worldwide, from the comfort of their own coding snug. The community of practice develops together, shares together and is bound by a common, altruistic ethos.

As an initiative, there is much to be learned from the Open Source ethos. Sharing is caring. As we bravely embark upon March, 2021, the zeitgeist is humming with the need for connection after long months of separation. Travel bans mean that for many of us, our families now only exist on the virtual realm. And virtual hugs and kisses don’t cut it.

Sharing is a must in the code of our common humanity. For example, sharing medical source code for vaccines would be hugely beneficial to humankind right about now, so we could make enough to inoculate 8 billion people, fast. Sharing power, sharing time, sharing your truth.

Software development began in the garages of nerds. We have the nerds to thank for WeChat Pay and Taobao and Yellow Kangaroo. For Netflix and Baidu and Didi. When I was younger, I thought that I was a nerd. Now, I know that I am not that smart.

I am just at the beginning of my Open Source learning journey. I’m pretty sure it doesn’t go on pasta.

I think about the Moodle, the way it allows me to navigate its space with ease, the way instructions like “Access the ‘Settings’ Tab in the scroll down menu on the Dashboard” don’t induce a conniption fit. It is a safe place, a digital space that is welcoming, foolproof - tried and tested. Wikipedia, wise old grandpa, full of rambling, open source articles of information has sites in "300 different languages, with 46 million articles accessed by 1.4 billion unique devices every single month. An army of 200,000 editors and contributors patrol this repository of online knowledge every day.” Less than 300 people are gainfully employed in this endeavor to disseminate information.

I am appreciative of this software, and the horse it rode in on. Is this because I am a digital emigrant? Does my pre-tech passport condemn me to a life of not knowing what stuff like “Open Source” means, and finding tech bewildering?

No. Of course not.

I don’t believe that the metaphor of “digital native” works optimally in the case of the defining tool of our times, digital TECHnology. Rather, as a species, we have stumbled upon a new terrain, a virtual paradise that is ours for the making. We are all navigating this new space. Our little ones may find certain tasks easier, having optimized the neurocircuitry for gaming, or watching YouTube for hours without blinking. But they aren’t born with an innate desire to game like they are to sing, or laugh, or hug. They are no more native to this virtual realm than any of us. We still have to warn them of snakes.

We could think about Open Source, once we’ve had a spin around Google and found a definition that works in our own mind. We could consider what it has to offer the model for how to use Tech in the 21st century, so that we may bear to read of it in history. Open Source proposes an egalitarian path forwards, sharing and developing software as a global population. It’s almost a perfect reflection of epistemology itself.

Another International Women’s Day has passed. I pray for a day when this too, is a meaningless relic in a more egalitarian world.

Because we can. Because I’m guessing the joy of writing a kick-ass piece of code must be glorious. Because now is history, tomorrow.

First Published in The Nanjinger, March 2021

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