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May 17th, 2010

The Zen of Open Source

There is a spirituality involved with the open source process.

Open source proponents, especially those who earn their living distributing or supporting free products, are more often than not adamant in proclaiming there is nothing spiritual or religious about the FOSS model. They maintain the position that the GPL and other open source licenses are only ways of doing business and getting code written. Open source isn’t a New-Age-feel-good-and-meditate sort of thing. It’s a business model, pure and simple, and everyone knows that businesspeople can’t afford to get embroiled in the murky world of spirituality.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise. The business world is full of people who refuse to let any sort of spirituality, be it Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu or something else, intrude into any area of their lives. They are pragmatists who believe the only divine forces that need concern them are the gods of money and growth. There’s nothing particularly wrong with this viewpoint, and most of us encounter it often since it tends to be held by those at the top of the food chain, even in the open source world. These are the nonbelievers.


There’s another group, probably smaller than the first, who might suspect there’s some sort of spiritual connection with open source, but who deny it just the same. These would mostly be people working to raise families, pay mortgages and put children through college, who know they will not have much luck convincing a regional hardware chain to abandon Microsoft or Oracle to adopt an open source stack by saying things like “open source has helped me see the light” or “the GPL is basic spirituality applied to software.” Instead they talk about total cost of ownership, vendor lock-in and the importance of open standards, things the IT buyers at the regional hardware chain need and want to know. These are the agnostics.

Which brings us to the true believers. These would be a small minority of people, like myself, who were immediately attracted to open source for reasons that have less to do with the mundane side of computers and networking and more to do with our views on how the world should work and how the divine would wish us to live our lives. We would mostly be folks who came out of the psychedelic fueled we-are-all-one experiences of the 1960s, and we perceive that open source applies to computer technology the very same communal spirit of cooperation and sharing that we learned then. To us, open source is the “I’ll get by with a little help from my friends” way of computing.

We true believers are despised by the nonbelievers. Those who sit in their ivory towers at IBM, Novell and perhaps even Red Had don’t want us following a moral compass that doesn’t meet with their approval. We mess things up and supply ammunition for Microsoft’s FUD campaigns. While they’re spending big bucks in eWeek and other trade journals to foster the perception that the use of Linux, Apache, MySQL and other open source products makes more business sense than using anything the propriety crowd has to offer, we’re out there proclaiming the GPL to be hippie philosophy brought home to high tech.

Because the nonbelievers hate us and wish we’d just go away, the agnostics are suspicious of us. They may not dislike us, they may even secretly admire us, but they’re afraid of us. Their bread is buttered by the decision makers at the tech giants who use and distribute open source, the nonbelievers, and it’s important to them that their bread remains buttered, especially in economic times such as these. Many of the agnostics would like to embrace a more holistic view of open source and the GPL, but they can’t afford to do so.

However, there can be no doubt that the open source idea was born out of a deeply rooted philosophical approach to life. Perens, Raymond, Stallman and other pioneers of open source were not cut out of the same materialistic who-wants-to-be-a-gazillionaire cloth as the Gates, Ellisons, or McNealys of the world. The former were people who’s vision was that all computer software should be readily available to every human being, just as all scientific knowledge ultimately belongs to mankind, not to Eli Lilly, Monsanto or General Electric. And I’m reasonably sure that the founding fathers of open source try to apply this “share and share alike” philosophy to other areas of their lives as well.

Because of the holistic nature of open source, it would be easy to use the GPL as a spiritual tool, even though it wasn’t originally intended as such. Just as the alchemists used chemistry as a method for discovering the way to mystical attainment, so too can the modern user or developer of open source products use the GPL to become a better person, simply by applying open source ideas in every area of one’s life. This doesn’t mean we must worship at the altar of Tux, it just means that we have found an “as above, so below” aspect that resonates with our inner being.

We are gratified to see developers design and build apps that are given to the public freely. Just as we are gratified for the hackers who go in and fix bugs that no one else wants to fix, with no thought of fame or glory, but just because it needs to be done. And we are just as beholden to those at the top of the food chain, the nonbelievers who take the risks, pay the bills and distribute the open source products we all use and enjoy.

Just as important as these insiders is the end user, who only has a vague notion, if any notion at all, of the difference between C and C+ or between PHP, Perl, and Ruby on Rails. The user, who only installs and uses open source code, is as important to the open source paradigm as the distributor and software designer. For the user, it is hoped, will develop a sense of responsibility and realize that he or she must return something to the open source community.

Users find many ways to pay back the FOSS community. Some are able to donate to a favorite application, others help friends and relatives extend the lives of “obsolete” boxes by installing Linux, still others write blogs to further the open source cause. Through this process of paying for software used by giving back freely, the open source user might find him or herself helping society, friends and family in other ways having nothing to do with open source, computers or the Internet. In other words, through the practice of open source, the user might come to discover the joy and importance of serving others.

Most of the powers that be at IBM, Novell, HP, Dell, or any of the other companies that amass wealth from FOSS products do not see this hidden aspect of open source. To these corporations, open source is only a means to an end, a way of doing business. But to those of us who came out of the sixties, banging our heads against walls trying to get the “establishment” to share our vision of harmony and sharing, the fact that the IBMs of this world have embraced open source for any reason is in itself a miracle.

Christine Hall has been a journalist since 1971. In 2001, she began writing a weekly consumer computer column and started covering Linux and FOSS in 2002 after making the switch to GNU/Linux. Follow her on Twitter: @BrideOfLinux

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