Community Software, Science Fiction, and The Machine


Not many presentations can start with a video co-promoting a new computer and the latest Star Trek movie, but Mark Atwood, Director of Open Source Engagement at HP Enterprise, started his LinuxCon Europe keynote with a video about The Machine and Star Trek Beyond.

The Machine uses a new kind of physics for computation and data storage allowing it to be very fast, energy efficient, and agile. The Machine runs Linux, and Atwood says that “the best way to promote the use of any sort of new technology is to make it open source.”

There are quite a few parallels between how open source software is developed and the science fiction community. Atwood talked about how they even share some big milestone years: Linux is 25 years old; Star Trek is 50; and the genre of science fiction turned 90. 

The story starts in the early 20th century when high technology meant vacuum tubes and wireless radio and the field was full of passionate hobbyists building on each other’s ideas. A man in New York City named Hugo Gernsback helped facilitate this discussion via articles and letters from readers in his magazines. Atwood points out that they were essentially open sourcing the conversation through a moderated discussion forum with a one-month cycle time. 

In 1926, Gernsback started a new magazine, Astounding Science Fiction, thus creating the genre of science fiction and the beginning of science fiction fandom. This magazine was run like his technology magazines where he would publish stories and then later issues would contain stories that were written in response to earlier stories and letters from readers discussing them, again these were ideas built on ideas. The people in this community gathered together in 1939 for the world’s first science fiction convention. Also, in 1939 on the opposite coast, two men who’d grown up reading those technology and science fiction magazines founded Hewlett Packard out of their garage in Palo Alto, which as Atwood points out, helped create the very idea of Silicon Valley. 

Building ideas on top of ideas is at the core of how open source software and science fiction came to be what they are today. Atwood says that “science fiction is a way to have a conversation about the kind of world that we can make; the kind of world that can be made of the technology that we have and that we’re building and the world we can make out of our various ideas for organizing people.”

To get the full experience of Atwood’s talk, you should watch the video!

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