Becoming an Open Source Society

Can 2017 be the year the open source paradigm goes mainstream?

In her 2015 keynote at PyOhio, Catherine Devlin made an assertion about the ultimate contribution of the open source community:

“Open source software will change the world. […] Software will not be how it changes the world.”

I wish her talk got more exposure❤️. Here it is distilled into prose, with a few added opinions and experiences.

The problem of globalization

Start with this assessment: much of the recent global stress is from cognitive overload caused by billions of people’s thoughts, ceaselessly streaming through our screens from everyone. And everywhere. All of the time.

Famous voices have said this too. Just two years after the birth of Netscape and Amazon (but more than a decade after we found out about Skynet 🤖), we heard this:

“To many, this brave new world seems dehumanizing and inhospitable. It is not surprising, then, that there is a yearning for the ‘good old days’ as a refuge from the problems of the present.” — Hillary Clinton, It Takes a Village (1996)

A generation has come of age and we’re still wrestling with the Web 🕸.

On the surface it doesn’t make sense. For millennia, we’ve existed at densities that confound nature.

Cities are unnatural

There’s an upper bound of around 150 on the size of close-knit human social groups—a number named after British anthropologist Robin Dunbar. It’s based on human brain capacity and the cognitive effort it takes to maintain relationships. This estimate isn’t far from the average size of modern hunter-gatherer communities: 148.4 per band or village.

Only highly motivated groups, such as the modern military company, maintain cohesion near that upper bound (rah, military!🎖).

In contrast, the median American church has only 75 people. And the median American business has less than 5 employees. So how do we coexist peacefully in cities of millions?

We invent tools for social interaction

New social paradigms accompany disruptive change in technology, allowing us to coexist in ever larger communities.
  • In hunter-gatherer societies, every group member had the necessary skill to survive individually, trade was done person-to-person, and decision making was by collective assent.
  • Agrarian societies added specialization, marketplaces, social hierarchies, and taxes. We delegated interaction to commonly understood rules ⚖, and collective decision-making to the strongest individual 👑.
  • Industrial societies added patents, stock exchanges, and division of labor. Groups interface with other groups using elected representatives. And lawyers help us decipher increasingly complex regulations ⚖ ⚖ ⚖.
We’re living through the birth pains of digital society.
Paul Butler’s stunning representation of Facebook’s network (source)

The Internet demolishes geospatial barriers

Kenneth Reitz gave a talk in 2014 equating the Internet’s contribution to humanity with the invention of speech (connecting us with others) and writing (persisting our ideas through time).

The Internet provides a way for average humans to broadcast ideas across space, at nearly no cost, for the first time in history.
Slides from Kenneth Reitz’s talk, Documentation at Scale

There are good and bad things about a borderless society. Here are both:

A scary Internet dystopia

Whether we admit it or not, much of the wealth transfer in the past generation was due to the Internet: it’s no longer just entertainment and sports celebrities who can entertain the whole world with one blockbuster movie or a single Superbowl appearance. Now teens posting videos to YouTube have equal reach, and can reap salaries proportional to their audience.

Good for them.

But while the Internet community sifts out the extraordinary, those of us with average skill lose our audience: if one MOOC can successfully explain calculus, why do we need a thousand universities? Everyone’s tuition can go to one rockstar teacher 🎸, who will command a rockstar’s salary💰💰💰.

One bookstore. One music store. That’s all the world needs. The friendly kid at the local video store? Unnecessary.

So enters our dystopian fear: what about me? Will the Kim Kardashian of my sector drink my milkshake? Everyone’s milkshake?

Yes, I know this is Selena.

I was afraid to google “Kim Kardashian drinks my milkshake.”

A hopeful Internet utopia

But, wait! The Internet’s big enough for all of us.

We little folk don’t need to impress the whole world to survive; platforms exist to connect us with our small sliver of Internet audience: Kickstarter. Patreon, Gratipay, and GoFundMe. Steam, Spotify, and the various app stores. Ebay. Etsy, Zazzle, Threadless. Kaggle, TopCoder, and Upwork. And the geolocal ones: Craigslist. Airbnb. Uber and Lyft. Taskrabbit.

Yes, there’s inequality and possibly exploitation on some network platforms. But lots of people have recently been posting thoughtful essays about tech’s siren call, and started to think about what we can change🌱.

There’s even an upside to sites like Udacity and Coursera: they’re giving away their content. A quarter million dollar education (minus the paper) can now be acquired for free.

Free! (Sorry unemployed professors, you can’t beat free…)

I’m not 100% sure this was a convincing utopia.

I’m freee!

Enter Open Source

We’ve finally made it to the part where Catherine Devlin’s main point gets fleshed out. Here it is again:

“Open source software will change the world. […] Software will not be how it changes the world.”

Do you want to know who’s built functional, profitable digital communities? Ubuntu. Red Hat. Apache. Python. Pick an open source project. For example, Python has over 95,000 free packages in its official repository, contributed by over 180,000 people (and that’s just counting the project owners).

This is what an equitable future could look like.

The past decade has produced dozens (hundreds?) of profitable companies that contribute heavily to and sometimes have built their entire company on Open Source, like Cloudera and Hortonworks, Facebook, Google, MongoDB, and (hosting all those repos) GitHub.

The individuals in these developer communities share freely. On the various StackExchange sites, millions of people ask and answer questions. Or check out GitHub’s 2016 summary: at 5.8 million active users, this community is bigger than the country of Denmark. And they’re all giving their work away.

The culture has grown beyond just software. People contribute to and consume Wikipedia (now 15 years old) for free. Medium’s got all of us writing for it 😛.


Because trust ⇒mind share

The Internet’s profit model is to maximize mind share. And that hinges on trust. Secrecy? Patents? For dinosaurs of the industrial age.

There’s a recent in-depth study of collaboration within the Apache product suite by Tadeusz Chełkowski, Peter Gloor, and Dariusz Jemielniak. Their snapshot of the community contained over 4,600 committers contributing to over 200 Apache projects. The conclusion?

A developer participates in a gift culture, develops one’s network, gets recognition for one’s skills, and also can often combine work with some commercial endeavor. This combined model is increasing in popularity [55,56]. Thus, reputation may be a major factor driving people to develop open source [57,58,59].

I disagree with the last sentence (that you don’t need people skills to build reputation), so I omitted it. I’ll justify that soon.

Network diagram of Apache projects, node diameter is i think betweenness not degree, Chełkowski, Gloor, and Jemielniak

Innovating interaction for digital communities

Back to Dunbar’s number. We’re still hardwired for less than ~150 relationships, and from the diagram above we can see most Apache projects are bounded by this community size. The question is how projects and people interconnect.

The claim: paradigms from open source will shape human interaction as much as the invention of patents, division of labor, and elected representation did in the industrial age.

In other words, GitHub has created a successful, equitable community paradigm for the digital age:

  • Autonomy — like it or fork it
    Decision making is done by the repository owner(s) — usually a nice Dunbar-comfortable single digit number of people. People are free to use the product, or fork it and go off on their own.
  • Regulations — simple and standardized
    To govern IP, the developer community has settled on a handful of licenses that everyone understands (e.g. GPL-3, MIT, or Apache 2.0). 
    The same standardization has come to human interaction: most groups now fork the Ada project’s Code of Conduct, which acknowledges cultural differences and provides actions for conflict resolution.
  • Interpersonal communication — all in public
    Anyone can submit an issue to request a change to a public repository. All comments and discussion are public, and changes submitted by anyone automatically attribute work to the contributor if accepted.

(To the paper authors:) Of course we need people skills to (1) get project owners to accept our work, (2) get collaborators to improve our work, and (3) get customers to use our work. If we fail to promote our libraries, or dismiss and disregard people’s issue reports, our audience, collaborators, and along with them our reputation, will disappear.

This meme from Allie Brosh’s blog is an example of lax copyright (prominent acknowledgement requested) that (hopefully) brought her notoriety and a little cash (buy her book or her stuff).

The open source revolution is happening:

  • The collaborative writing platform appeared on GitHub in 2012.
  • Collaborative music platforms and appeared in 2013.
  • The collaborative video platform launched in 2015.

We may also soon have all civic laws online, fulfilling the vision of OpenGov, and even some sort of augmented law navigator open sourced by none other than the US government, to help humans decipher consumer finance protection regulation.

Imagine a world where laws are edited and commented online — where lobbyists must make public pull requests, and any one of us can file public bug reports.

*Not everything can or should happen in the digital world—I’m thankful for the real humans who do physical work to give me electricity 24/7, and to the ones who (amazingly) produce eggs for a dollar a dozen — but there are many things that would be great structured like an open source project.

Interfacing between groups

The last innovation of the digital age is one that’s common to all of us, whether in open source or not — so it’s discussed separately. Here’s more from that Apache network analysis paper:

In fact, being a lone hero may be an optimal strategy for portfolio building.

Hero? Okay.

But lone? Nnnnoo.

Don’t get me wrong…the paper’s awesome (or I wouldn’t obsess). But the digital world has relied on modular components and standardized interfaces for a long time, and that’s (imo) the real reason for compartmentalization.

Rather, it’s the cognitive limit of that Dunbar number combined with our preference for modularity and a humble acknowledgement of individuals’ limited expertise that drive the creation of new and separate projects.

The humility is novel to someone my age; youth now seem to have a self-awareness, honed from growing up entirely in public spaces, that rivals that of the ‘Davids’ in Malcom Gladwell’s recent book: they’ve gained an extra decade of maturity by living out their teens in the crucible of Facebook and Twitter.

Kids these days

The motive behind this entire post was my recent involvement with a group of bright-eyed young people in the ProgressiveCodersNetwork, formed after the Sanders campaign ended by supporters responsible for creating Bernie BNB, Field the Bern, and about a dozen other open source projects.

Their Slack community (what’s Slack?) was the first I’ve joined that wasn’t exclusively filled with coders—they’ve also got organizers, activists, and legal experts—and the first where people openly exposed their own weaknesses (and strengths!) in order to effectively find teammates with the necessary skills.

So, modular interfacing—it’s the standard paradigm of the digital age, and fits hand-in-glove with a refreshing humility that seems as natural as breathing to today’s youth.

He alone can fix this

It’s in stark contrast with the ideas of the industrial age; an era for Supermen and strong men; all-powerful heroes who act alone. My generation was like this—our skills were opaque, hidden behind a college pedigree, with the only hint at our integrity found through a credit check and a call to our prior employer.

Now everything’s in the open — every failure and triumph one Google search away. There’s nowhere to hide, so the kids just don’t hide anything.

The Marvel generation

Catherine Devlin describes modularity in the open source community as a preference to build small, sharp tools: developers state a specific problem and solve only that. Then they write an API.

“We don’t have to rule the world, we just have to interface with it.” — Catherine Devlin

These kids are self-aware at an unnaturally early point in their lives. They know their place in the world, and interface with everyone else to make something worth using. The new heroes of the digital age are supermen no longer—they’re modular, sharp, focused, and know that they’re just one part of what makes something great.


Our Open Source Society

So back to the thesis of this whole thing —we can innovate our way out of the pain we’re experiencing now as a society, just like past generations did in other great technological upheavals. Open source provides one possible successful model to build upon:

  • A gift culture where reputation → income
  • Communication in the open
  • Standardized, comprehensible law
  • Humble, modular teams that interface well
  • (And though it wasn’t mentioned before,)
    active effort toward inclusiveness to bring those with hidden superpowers to the table

I don’t know the answer, but whatever the tools are that come, they’ll define our perceptions of what things are possible for society, like the innovations in the past did in their time.

Tim O’Reilly is a historian, and so has a unique insight into what the future holds — here’s an expansive and eye-opening talk:

And if you’re so inclined, go join the Progressive Coders 😉 (they’re even okay with non-millennials), and let’s get to building our future.

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