Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Open Source and Thoughts from Outside the Box

The Finnish software engineer Linus Torvalds wrote a computer operating system and gave it away for free.  Of course, that is not what Microsoft was doing with Windows.  For quite a while, people seemed to basically feel that if it was free, it couldn’t be any good. 
Over time though, people began to be interested.  Since the system was available to all, it could be modified by anyone in any way.  Of course, some modifications did not appeal to many but those users could use the original system.  The idea of an open cooperative system spread.  Today, we have what I believe to be the best web browser in Firefox.  It is open source and free.
Some observers today think that any system or product that is not open will fail to evolve fast enough and in a sufficiently user-centered way to be viable in the long run.  If a private company or organization is really on its toes, it may be able to keep up with widespread needs and fashions.  Certainly, many have done so in the past.
One of the weaker points of open source projects is cooperation and order.  It took a while for a mass of men, all with the famous male ego and pride, to gather and talk.  Back in the days when they carried swords and daggers, it was probably difficult to get everyone to quiet down enough to proceed and to allow all to be heard.  I have read that at one time, there was reluctance to put knives and forks on a dinner table for fear they would be used as weapons in case of a disagreement.  Some of the shenanigans in our own Congress involving weapons and assault are astounding.
Parliament (an assembly of talkers and discussers) developed parliamentary procedure.  There was a chair or president who called on those who wished to speak, a secretary who recorded what business was transacted and a parliamentarian and/or sergeant-at-arms to assisting in keeping order.  Now, in most parts of the world, there is at least some form of open or open-ish discussion between legislators.
A very famous open project is Wikipedia, the world’s largest encyclopedia.  It is free and cooperative.  Anyone can put in an article or edit what is there.  If you wish to modify the article on A. Lincoln to say that he was born in Spain, you can, right now.  Of course, if you do, someone will change it back to Kentucky.  Several hundred people watch over the whole thing carefully and try to keep it high quality.  Some companies and other organizations have adopted the idea and use it to develop manuals and company policy.  There is great fascination with the speed, flexibility and range of imagination possible if there are many contributors, thinkers and those all-important critics.  I tried “open source furniture” and “open source car design” and both have already been begun.
In some classrooms where students from a previously highly restricted and controlled environment have freedom, there has been a period of adjustment before such students found ways to use the freedom to their own benefit.  For a while, the sudden release of restriction has produced a slightly drunken euphoria and sometimes disorder. 
When President Obama visited with Chinese students recently, he emphasized the value and importance of free speech and exchange of information.  Many societies, including our own at times, distrust empowering all.  In some cases, they have good reason to beware of greed, madness, ambition and hatred and their fruits.
But eventually, all societies may find the benefits of openness, coupled with civility.

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