Originally Published: Friday, 21 January 2000 Author: Jessica Sheffield
Published to: featured_articles/Featured Articles Page: 1/1 - [Printable]

The Renaissance of Open Source

Power. Money. Intrigue. Art. Violence. Innovation. Philosophy. Emulation. Influence. Change. Sound interesting? Read on.

It may surprise you to learn that I apply these words to the past year's events in the open source world, and I anticipate even more events in the year to come. I could easily have chosen other words that might be more descriptive from a strictly technological point of view. But I chose these words because of their significance to another time in history (specifically Western history), when for the first time humanity broke out of the "old" ways of thinking in favor of a new, more simplistic approach: examine the world in which you live, and do what works....

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Power. Money. Intrigue. Art. Violence. Innovation. Philosophy. Emulation. Influence. Change. Sound interesting? Read on.

It may surprise you to learn that I apply these words to the past year's events in the open source world, and I anticipate even more events in the year to come. I could easily have chosen other words that might be more descriptive from a strictly technological point of view. But I chose these words because of their significance to another time in history (specifically Western history), when for the first time humanity broke out of the "old" ways of thinking in favor of a new, more simplistic approach: examine the world in which you live, and do what works.

It's no accident that history classes are divided into pre- and post-Renaissance. Likewise, computer geeks of the future will look on these years as the time when everything changed for the industry. We looked at the system and disliked it, so we changed it. UNIX too behemoth-like for your tastes? Create your own operating system. Don't like the way a particular program behaves? Rewrite it, or write your own. The attitude of our community is, "If it's broken, fix it... and then make the fix available, so everyone doesn't have to do the same thing." In many ways, this credo is a new way of thinking in a world where art has gone the way of corporatism and no one just does anything for fun anymore.

So what? We've been doing this for years. What has set 1999 apart from all the years that preceded it, and shaped this community into a force to be reckoned with in the world outside our walls? The answer is the same thing that brought about the Italian Renaissance and ultimately led to the development of Western civilization as we know it. As my history professor Dr. Gerberding would say, carefully enunciating both syllables for extra emphasis:

Mo-ney.

There are a variety of theories on the effects of money on the open source world and the industry that spawned it. Some say that it is the influx of money into open source development via IPOs, venture capitalists, and investors that has caused the world to sit up and take notice at this little thing called Linux. Others contest that the time was right, the industry primed, and the cash is simply a reward for a job well done. I rather think it's a combination of the two, a cycle of interest -> money -> hype -> investments. The fact is that the money is here has changed the face of the open source community and will continue to do so. As in the Renaissance, these changes will occur for good and bad, and we must learn to take them in stride.

For merchants of northern Italy in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the burgeoning wool trade and the wealth that came along with it meant an unprecedented chance to rise to power. Suddenly, the region was controlled, not by the legitimate heirs of nobility, but by the most successful merchants. For the first time since ancient days, power was in the hands of the truly talented. Today in the computing world, the money and power belong to the people who have helped build that world from the ground up. Twenty years ago, no one would have believed that a university drop-out computer geek would one day be a multibillionaire and control a sizeable portion of the operating system market. Now many geeks enjoy the life that used to be reserved for 'nobility' only. In this at least, the open source renaissance has been truly positive, as finally people are being paid to do what they love.

But with power and money comes competition. Webster wrote, "Certainly, the way to power was strewn with corpses." Myself, I've not seen any geek corpses littering the trade show floor, but it is true that competition has arisen in the open source world. Of course, that's one of the ways we've gotten here -- by refusing to buy into the monopolies -- but it has its negative aspects, too. Think of the last time a "distro war" got ugly and degenerated into personal attacks. Of course, I rather doubt that any conflicts will result in one party's being chopped up and paraded through the streets as a warning (the Renaissance had more violence and gore than a John Carpenter film), but one only has to read some of the comments on Slashdot to realize that this is a community in which emotions run high and loyalty deep. 'Righteous' anger is a powerful tool, no matter how it is wielded.

A subtler side of the competition lies in what a friend of mine once called "geek flexing." Of course, this is nothing new: every age has had its "I have the best/fastest/largest [fill in the blank], therefore I am the best" mentality. To competing Florentine families, it was art and artists, scholars and thinkers. Now, of course, it is who has the fastest processors, the thinnest monitors, the smallest notebooks. But above all else, success is measured by who you have working for you. Would the Linux community have waited in so much anticipation for Wednesday's Transmeta announcement if Linus Torvalds' name hadn't been attached to the project? Would Andover.Net be a (geek) household name if they hadn't acquired Slashdot? The ultimate sign of prestige and credibility is to have a 'name' in your company, to be able to say. "OpenSourceCelebrityX believes in us, obviously, because he works for us." In this way geeks are becoming valued as artisans in their own right, and the true vindication of their art is the vindication of their peers.

Their peers, however, aren't the only ones watching anymore. Linux is Hot Stuff. Corel realised the potential of having their own distribution, computer manufacturers like IBM and Dell have jumped on the bandwagon, and even Be, the oft-forgotten "other OS", turned heads earlier this week with their announcement that version 5.0 of their operating system will be available free (as in beer) on the Web. All of a sudden, the 'different' way of doing things is garnering a great deal of positive attention. Everyone wants to be on the inside of this phenomenon.

And therein lies the challenge, for to keep the interest -- and dollars -- of the world we must not rest in our efforts to keep open source development ahead of the game. To Renaissance scholars, the revolution was not in the artifacts of society, but in the new ways of thinking that produced them. Change first occurs at the level of the human mind, and works its way outward from there. Open source may be new to the 'outside' world, but we must constantly review and reinvent the system in order to make it better, else those 'outsiders' will quickly return to safer territory. If we learn nothing else from history, let it teach us that the complacent always lose. If we let down our guard for an instant, there will be an army at the gates.

We stand at a turning point, a time in which our words and actions will affect the future of the world we have helped to build. If that sounds a bit too heady, consider this: One year ago, could anyone have predicted that the open source community should be where it is today? The Renaissance of computing is here, and open source is the new way of thinking that will change the way we live. The lessons of the past can guide us in the way of the future, but we must be ever vigilant lest we lose sight of our goals.

Jessica Lee Sheffield, starlady@linux.com





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