Wednesday, May 22, 2024

The Intersection of Alchemy and Open Source

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As open source continues to take over over the software development landscape, so too are the metaphors for how its success today has multiple historical precedents. For science-fiction author and activitist Cory Doctorow, open source is an idea that helped to raise humanity out of the dark ages.

In a keynote at the LinuxCon North America conference in Toronto last week, Doctorow compared the age of open source to the enlightenment.

“FLOSS (Free/Libre Open Source Software) is is everywhere, it lets you be an engineer without needing to be a lawyer,” Doctorow said. “If you’re going to instantiate a million virtual machines, you don’t want to have license all of them.”

Doctorow commented that before the Enlightenment modern science didn’t really exist, rather in its place was the mystical art of Alchemy.

“Alchemy looks a lot like science except that instead of telling people what you thought you learned, you keep it a secret,” Doctorow said.

By keeping the results of research secret, Doctorow said that every Alchemist had to discover for themselves that drinking mercury is a bad idea.

“After 500 years of Alchemy, something happened, they converted the base metal of superstition into the noble business of science through publication and adversarial peer review,” Doctorow said.

In Doctorow’s view, it’s an amazing thing to live in a world where the ideals of FLOSS have apparently won. Being open is better than being closed, as the openness enables innovation to be added incrementally, rather than every organization needing to re-discover the same things time and again.

Going a step further, the nature of some open source licenses, in particular the GPL (general public license) that is used by Linux, is of particular importance in how it enforces freedom.

“Open licenses are irrevocable,” Doctorow said.

Doctorow added that the concept of an open non-revocable license is akin to an old idea known as a Ulysses Pact. In a Ulysses Pact a decision is made that is binding in the future. The idea comes from Greek mythology where Ulysses wanted to hear the song of the sirens, though he knew if heard it, it might drive him mad. So Ulysses had wax put into the ears of the men on his ship, while he himself was tied to the mast of the ship, so that the ship could continue on, while he could hear the sirens.

“When you FLOSS your code, you make it pointless for anyone to de-FLOSS it,” Doctorow said. “That principal has saved FLOSS from that same pernicious human frailty – our ability to rationalize our own self-serving decisions.”

Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at Datamation and Follow him on Twitter @TechJournalist

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