True open source - death of the individual or celebration of individualism?

October 10, 2007

Many, many people speak glowingly of the benefits of open source software. A growing movement also seeks to make a great many other things “open source” - from the file-sharing freedom fighters at FreeCulture.Org to the unusual licensing of the newest editions of Dungeons & Dragons. Libertarianism and the concept of freely available content appears to be on the rise. However, is this necessarily a good thing? What of individualism and ego, concepts central to Western culture? Before the Internet and the World Wide Web enabled easy, free sharing of information and data, the individual had two primary levels of protection for his works. First was copyright law, which prior to 1976 and the introduction of Fair Use was a strong wall against unlicensed propagation of content. The other was the simple and undeniable fact that content could simply not be transmitted with any reasonable speed or transparency. The advent of Betamax and the subsequent legal turmoil ended up making unlicensed (and also, licensed) distribution of content much easier.

The recent case by Regal Cinemas against Jhannet Sejas highlights a similar paranoia by an industry juggernaut targeted against a consumer and potential distributor. Ignoring the legal implications of the Regal v. Sejas case (that the possibility of infringement is equal to infringement in the eyes of the law), these kinds of events demonstrate growing pains inherent in the development of an entirely new socioeconomic system. Instead of the traditional producer-distributor-consumer model prevalent throughout the past few hundred years, we are now presented with a direct producer-consumer model - or, in some cases, a consumer-consumer model, whereby the individuality of the producer is apparently cut out of the picture. And that, my friends, is the crux of this post. Does the removal of the producer from the cycle and the distribution and modification by consumers of their works remove the individualism from the quotient? For my part, I say no. In fact, it seems to me that rather than removing individualism, it promotes it - albeit in a slightly different form. After all, the concept of inventor-as-hero is a fallacy, with most inventions actually developing from several different points at several different rates. Ely Whitney, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and similar inventors - while important - were not absolutely critical to the development of the technologies they became famous for. They simply became standard bearers. Similarly, the advent of open source society is not going to crush individualism. Rather, it will promote the free exchange of ideas and, thereby, accelerate the process at which these producer-heroes arise. Further, with the free flow of information, their fame will spread far more rapidly than did their cultural predecessors'. Linus Torvalds and Matt Mullenweg are prime examples of this. So lead on, brave open source pioneers, and may your paths be paved with cookies. Yours is the cause of freedom and of the future.