2011-02-14

Open source vs the scientific revolution.

What fueled the scientific revolution, which began in the latter half of the 1500s and went all hockey-stick in the mid- to late 1600s, was not a sudden emergence of talent or genius, but that participants begun to share information and do experiments together.  Genius in isolation and with no incentive to share information did society little good.

And "genius in isolation" used to be the way science was largely done prior to the scientific revolution.  With the notable exception of closed societies and scattered publication of works from time to time.

In much the same way I view the open source movement as a variation over this theme.  The tangible artifacts that result from open source, ie. the software, is no so important as is the practice of sharing knowledge and presenting one's peers with concrete works that can be studied, understood, criticized, and improved in a collective manner.  The open source movement is bigger than the software artifacts produced since it is a tradition of sharing knowledge that benefits everyone -- whether directly involved or not.

Much of the same criticism that was leveraged against openly sharing scientific results and discoveries during the scientific revolution, are today being leveraged against open source.  That is:  the same sort of detractors,  for which history has little more than disdain and ridicule in the scientific arena, have their present day counterparts.  People who view the open source movement with skepticism and fear.  Skepticism because if someone is willing to give away something it must be because it has no value.  And fear because some practitioners believe that it will make them redundant.

Science has flourished exactly because we can build on the results of others.  It has also flourished because we now have better ways of separating falsehoods from fact.  Stupidity and dishonesty is still a big part of scientific discourse, but unlike the middle ages, a falsehood is now considerably more short-lived because communication and verification is now part of the way we do science.

In much the same way, software development, and our approach to architecture, is now in far better shape than just 15 years ago.
When I went to school I still had to study the works of opinionated, though not very intelligent people who wrote about the practice of designing, planning and creating software.   Numerous non-practitioners and pompous academics wrote books about software engineering and these were taught as canon at schools and universities.
As the software world opened up and collaboration increased we gradually got a new culture -- driven by people who create software rather than make a living out of the manufacture and sale of engineering dogma.

Sure, there are still dogmatic cranks and people willing to reward these cranks, but methodologies and the more philosophical aspects of our approach to software has become more in tune with reality.

You could say that software engineering has graduated as a trade (though perhaps not science)  much in the same way that chemistry was able to separate itself from the nonsense that is alchemy and astronomy from the poppycock that is astrology.

In this perspective, viewing open source as a threat to the software industry seems somewhat myopic and ignorant.  Because it is myopic and ignorant.  Open source is crucially important to all of us because it furthers the art and trade of creating software far more than any isolationist approach would ever be capable of.

And of course, just as in science, there is plenty of room for making a buck.  Though perhaps not in mere parlor tricks and trivialities.  But then again, who cares about those who are content to dwell on the trivial and the mundane.

2 comments:

  1. Funny, I had many of the same thoughts while reading The Baroque Cycle. :-)

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  2. Yeah, after reading the Baroque Cycle I read "The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, The Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World" and the similarity between the Royal Society and the Open Source community was too striking not to point out.

    It also casts the open source detractors in a historically relevant light: as the somewhat simpleminded and frightened naysayers.

    The biggest two differences between the scientific revolution and the open source era is that we have the Internet and we have pizza.

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