The open source movement is widely recognized as “an important development” in the computer industry and has been both lauded and criticized by many pundits. However, despite exhaustive analysis and discussion, the phenomenon of open source has remained singularly vexing to classify. Variously, the open source movement has been classified as socialism, communism, a “gift economy”, charity, futilism and gullibilism. It has even caused distinguished Yale professors to wave the proverbial white flag and invent remarkably catchy new phrases such as “commons-based peer production”. Rolls right off the tongue.
Because it is widely understood that for anything to have any real meaning or be properly studied that it must first be stripped of its outward trappings and pigeon-holed as narrowly as possible, I, The Objective Observer, have risen to the challenge and will now properly classify the open source movement. In three scintillating acts I will first describe what open source is, dispel certain myths and pejorative characterizations of it (what open source isn’t) and finally analyze the open source movement’s goals and tactics to properly and succinctly explain its true nature.
The layman’s definition of open source software is software that is non-proprietary or “free” and can be modified by anyone with the requisite programming knowledge without the constraints of overly restrictive licensing. Now, there are certainly those that will decry this definition as incomplete since there are apparently entire organizations, such as the Open Source Initiative, whose seemingly sole reason for existence is to maintain the exact definition of the term “open source”. Thus, it is highly unlikely that a single sentence definition for so complex a term as to require its own dedicated organization to define it; no matter how expertly crafted, will universally satisfy everyone. However, the important thing to remember here is that open source software is different than commercial software because commercial software makers incur expenses from employing software developers, charge for their software, have restrictive licenses on its use and do not release their source code. Conversely, open source software is built by a process in which one or more individuals collaborate to create software and then release that software and its source code to the public domain. These individuals are not paid to create the software and they may never make a dime from it.
As altruistic and benevolent as this all sounds, open source is not without its detractors; who have variously categorized open source as “socialism” or even “communism”. Most notably, SAP; a large European software manufacturer has criticized open source as “intellectual property socialism” and Bill Gates has even hinted that the open source movement is communism. For some perspective, remember that Bill Gates has been feuding with the “free” software movement for over three decades. These characterizations are used pejoratively and are highly inaccurate, proving yet again the age old adage that technologists know much more about bits and bytes than they do about socio-economic systems.
Socialism and communism are both economic and political ideologies typically characterized by State control of property, distribution of wealth and/or means of production. Open source has no “State” or governing body and thus it is perhaps more correctly characterized as Anarchism or Fascist socialization, which is not really as bad as it sounds; look it up. However, the problem with all of these characterizations is the same; they make certain incorrect assumptions and thus fail to capture the core essence of the movement. All of these characterizations attempt to fit the open source movement into the presupposed category of a political ideology or socio-economic system. But this is most definitely NOT what the open source movement is all about because it completely and utterly misses the mark with respect to the origin of the open source movement, its goals and its tactics. Under this ridiculously broad characterization, two neighbors who borrow sugar from one another in order to make cookies for a volunteer church function could be categorized as socialists or communists.
Another myth that must be dispelled is the analogy of a charity or non-profit organization. While there is most definitely an element of volunteerism present within the open source movement, again, there is no clear organization that masterminds or directs giving. In addition, most true volunteer efforts offer direct assistance to specific groups of individuals. For example, after a flood, the Red Cross might show up on your doorstep and give you a bucket and mop or if you are house-bound “Meals on Wheels” might show up on your doorstep with some vittles. With open source, there is no central organization and there is no direct beneficiary to benefactor relationship. Open source projects are simply posted online and it is up to potential beneficiaries to find them. This is akin to the Red Cross keeping a warehouse of mops and buckets and expecting flood victims to come get them or “Meals on Wheels” cooking mass amounts of food and hoping people show up to eat it.
This volunteer aspect of the open source movement is frequently reinforced by such things as the “Bee Keeper” model. In this model of open source development, alternatively known as the “Profiteering and Exploitation” model or “Rape and Pillage” model, open source development volunteers are the bees and a professional services organization, such as Red Hat, are the “bee keepers”. Thus the bees volunteer their time and the professional services organizations profit from their labors. While this seems to be an accurate analogy, businesses may wish to keep in mind the phenomenon of “colony collapse disorder” and the bees may wish to keep in mind that the worker bees literally work themselves to death for the sole glory of the “queen bee”.
This brings us to the second biggest issue with the characterization of open source as purely volunteerism which is that it completely misses the strong narcissistic drive present within the open source movement. Many open source or free software products are named after their lead developers or else the lead developer’s name is strongly associated with the product and used as a means to gain notoriety. Linus Torvolds and Linux is perhaps the best example of the former while examples of the latter are too numerous to mention, being characterized by individuals such as Bruce Perens who regularly brags about the notoriety he has gained from his work on open source projects. That, despite the fact you have almost certainly never heard of him and he will likely never sleep with a super-model.
The biggest issue with characterizing open source as purely volunteerism, however, is the same problem as classifying it as a socio-economic system or political ideology which is that such a classification focuses on only a single aspect of the open source movement. Any characterization which focuses on a single trait instead of all traits is undoubtedly flawed.
Having debunked the typical characterizations of the open source movement, the question remains as to exactly what IS the open source movement? To answer this, the only objective thing to do is to first make a list of the open source movement’s defining characteristics and then draw some sort of analogy or conclusion. Research shows that there are five primary characteristics or traits of the open source movement.
First and foremost, the open source movement is to some degree a rejection and opposition to the direct capitalization of software but is perhaps more specifically and correctly defined as the rejection and opposition to what is perceived to be a “unipolar, capitalistic superpower”, in this case Microsoft. This appears to be a widely accepted attitude within the open source community as there are endless quotes spanning a large number of open source projects to the effect of “the enemy is Microsoft”.
Second, the open source movement is organized as a loose confederation in which a relatively small percentage of highly skilled and charismatic leaders exert influence over legions of faceless, and often fanatical, volunteers. Individuals such as Linus Torvalds and Eric Raymond are the leaders who admittedly serve as “benevolent dictators” and nearly everyone else is, well, a faceless minion.
Third, the open source movement by and large uses crude propaganda and hate-filled rhetoric to defame and demonize its opposition. For example, this third point can be easily demonstrated by the coarse language used by Linux proponents when debating or characterizing peers that utilize Windows-based technologies. More often than not, Linux proponents and other open source advocates go out of their way to characterize their opponents as “stupid”, “ignorant”, “retarded”, “evil” or much, much worse. If you don’t believe me, go browse any forum frequented by Linux or open source proponents. In addition to the name calling and hate speech there is even advocacy of sending Windows users to concentration camps or purposefully spamming their email with viruses.
Fourth, a favorite tactic of the open source movement is the use of fear as a weapon. Again, this can most readily be seen by Linux, Apache and Firefox proponents that tout the perceived security of their systems while attempting to instill fear, uncertainty and doubt in those that use Microsoft technologies by claiming that Microsoft systems are inherently insecure or inferior in terms of security.
Fifth, the open source movement often skirts the boundaries of the law with its open disregard and disdain for intellectual property rights (patents), association with criminal hacking elements (whose primary motivator is also often an attempt to damage or humiliate Microsoft), open advocacy of harm to Windows users (outright support or at least turning a blind eye towards Windows virus creators) and even outright theft, such as Bruce Peren’s self-admitted “stealing time from Pixar to work on Linux”. As a side note it might be interesting to conduct a study regarding the cost in unproductive time to corporations who employ developers that also work on open source projects.
Given these five characteristics, there is one and only one inescapable conclusion. The open source movement most closely resembles a terrorist organization. Now, I do not say this to be pejorative or otherwise mean-spirited to the open source movement but the similarities are rather striking. To point…
The main motivation and rally cry for terrorists, especially Islamic fundamentalist terrorists, is the destruction of the United States, which, as the world’s sole super-power, is perceived to be the “Great Satan”. The parallels between this and the open source movement’s attitudes towards Microsoft are inescapable.
The organizational structure of terrorists into cells and the open source movement into projects, the loose confederacy between these cells and projects and the tendency to form “splinter cells” or “forks” is also quite strong. In addition, within both groups, the followers tend to exhibit a particular penchant for fanaticism to the cause.
Both terrorism and the open source movement use propaganda and defamatory rhetoric to demonize the opposition. The level to which this occurs within the open source community is simply unforgiveable.
Perhaps the most telling characteristic is the use of fear as the primary weapon of choice. This fact is inescapable and irrefutable as the “security” argument is a mainstay in the propaganda of major open source projects such as Linux and Firefox. The main goal or aim of terrorists to defeat their adversaries is to cultivate fear within their enemies. Similarly, the use of the security argument is a weapon of fear and is apparently the primary method by which open source advocates hope to defeat Microsoft.
The criminal, or at the very least questionable, tactics and guilt by association is yet another trait that the open source movement shares with terrorism. While terrorists’ criminal activities are obviously much more violent and physically destructive, the point remains that the activities and tactics of both groups tend to skirt, or at the very least, flaunt the law.
I am not aware of any other entity, group or idea that matches these five primary characteristics of the open source movement as exactly as terrorist organizations. Even more telling, one final similarity that deserves mentioning is the complete disregard both groups have for “non-combatants”. In the terrorist world, innocent bystanders and civilians are fair game and considered acceptable collateral damage. So too are non-technical folks in the open source realm of thinking. The open source movement seeks to destroy Microsoft even though open source technologies are not as easy to use or intuitive for non-technical users. If the open source movement was to succeed, those non-technical users would be brushed aside simply as collateral damage.
I want to stress here that I am not a Microsoft apologist and bear the open source community no ill will, but facts are facts. Besides, it has been stated that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter so I am not here to judge but rather to simply provide an objective analysis. My sole purpose is to point out for academics and scholars that attempting to study the open source movement by latching onto a single trait or characteristic is a flawed endeavor. No scientific knowledge can be gained from incorrectly classifying and studying the open source movement in terms of socio-economic theory or as a charity organization. True progress can only be made by instead recognizing the open source movement for what it truly is, a form of terrorism.
Originally published March 2008