Digital Enlightenment Terminology (2)

The future is now open for business

The future is now open for business

This is the second part of a three-part series

A second key term in our new vocabulary of Digital Enlightenment is openness, which is closely related to but not identical with transparency, and admittedly there is a risk that less enlightened minds will confuse the two. We will have to live with that.

Systems like the Open Source movement, which mandates that programmers publish their code for free, or the Open Data initiative which is based on the principle of free access to all data, have been part of online culture and economy from the very beginning.

The antonyms of openness are “closed” or “proprietary” solutions and services which are typical for corporate cultures and which are based on such traditional concepts as copyright and intellectual property. In a capitalist system, protection of property is a top economic priority, and it has therefore been transformed into a moral imperative. Immaterial property, the reasoning goes, also leads to material gain and so should enjoy similar protections. In fact, though, in the digital sphere open systems have long proving themselves both more effective and more profitable, at least in the long run.

Just a few years ago, “open” systems were considered anathema by most computer scientists and software developers. This started to change only once the Open Source movement began to demonstrate its technical and economic superiority. The reason lies in the very nature of openness: Once programmers are allowed to reuse existing code created for some other project instead of replicating the efforts of their peers, they can use their talents to create something even better. The only requirement is that they agree to hand what they have created back to the community by agreeing to its use under the terms of „Creative Commons“ agreement. That way, software can be developed much faster. In addition, the quality of the software will usually be higher because of the process of “peer review”, which is also part of the Open Source concept, performed for free by the online community as a form of self-regulation.

The business benefits of such a system are obvious. Programmers and entrepreneurs get to use the code for free, speeding up the development process, and leaving them free to concentrate their efforts (and their capital) on providing service and support for the products they have created.

Richard Stallman, a programmer and activist, was one of the first to push the open source approach as opposed to proprietary software development. Stallman became one of the founders of the Free Software Foundation, an association devoted to the concept of “freeware”: programs that are often, but not always, simply given away (donations are welcome!).

One of Stallman’s pet propositions was the “GNU Project”, which stand for for „GNU is Not Unix“. Stallman and his friends wanted to demonstrate that you can develop an entire computer operation system from scratch using freely available digital “building blocks”.

GNU was an early forerunner of Linux, the Open Source operating system for personal computers that has since been installed on at least 67 million PS around the world, according to Linuxcounter, itself another Open Source project.

Stallman was quite a radical, and his aggressive attacks on the “commercialism” practiced by his fellow software developers eventually led to him being ostracized by the community; one of the most poignant dramas in the history of computing. His place was taken by Linus Thorvald, the author of Linux, who proved to be more politic in his dealings with other software nerds, so he soon became the poster child of the Open Source movement. It is largely due to the personal charm and open-mindedness (sic!) of this Finnish-American software engineer that Open Source is not only accepted by most computer professionals today, but also has become integrally linked to the globally networked digital community.

Openness is undoubtedly one of the keys to accelerated innovation, not only in the technical sense, socially, as well. Openness not only helps us to assimilate latest technologies, but it exposes us to foreign cultures, too, turning it into an important value, and one without which Digital Enlightenment would be impossible to achieve.


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