July 31, 2001

Open Source -- it's about control, and maybe about healing

Author: JT Smith

From an e-mail letter sent to editors of several online publications.
- by Eric Raymond -

"A few hours ago I got a letter from a long-time programmer, a guy who
writes software for financial houses in New York. He movingly
described his reaction to reading The Cathedral and the Bazaar:James K.:

>The hair stood up on the back of my neck. I nearly cried and I often
>laughed. You'd been doing this for 20 years, so it's probably hard
>to imagine what it was like for a virgin. You spoke straight to me
>and you changed my mind about lots of things in a few minutes (only
>because you were right, of course).

Of course I felt very honored by this -- but the important thing about
James K.'s letter was that it made me think hard about some things I
had perhaps not given enough attention to in the past. It combined
with something that I had heard at the IFIP 8.2 conference a few hours
after I gave the keynote speech there this last Saturday.

One of the scholars there (who will remain anonymous not because I
want to conceal his identity but because I can't remember how to spell
his last name) observed that he had recently read a very interesting
paper about "communities of affliction". Some of these communities
are religious cults and some of them secular therapeutic groups like
Alcoholics Anonymous. The defining thing they have in common is that
they are organized around coping with and healing an affliction --
that one becomes initiated into them by having the affliction, by
healing oneself of it, and developing an identification with the
group's mission to heal others.

He then suggested this model might apply to the open-source culture.

What I said to the scholar was something roughly like this: "That
makes sense. I remember finding the closed-source world obscurely
painful. I'd do good work and watch it get buried or mangled. I felt
that the system seemed designed to frustrate my creativity and
alienate me from my own code, but I didn't understand why -- I only
knew that it hurt me. Discovering open source was...liberating,
exhilarating." And, I told him, discovering that I could help others
understand it was (and remains) a tremendously rewarding experience.

Compare this:

James K.:

>You changed my life. [...] Microsoft's documentation was always a
>study in conceal-by-reveal techniques. I was always aware of being
>talked down to, but it wasn't until the Internet caught up with me
>that I started to realize how much.

The scholar's reply applies both to what I had just said to him and to
James K.'s outpouring of emotion to me. He grinned and said: "Gee.
That sure sounds like a conversion narrative to me!"

And be damned if he wasn't right, on both levels. Both James K.'s
language and mine were continuous with Paul of Tarsus's fit on the
road to Damascus. But in changing James K.'s life, I was simply
passing on the same moment of enlightenment, of healing, that I had
experienced myself a few years before. We were both defining ourselves
as members of a community of affliction.

Ever since I did "The New Hacker's Dictionary" back in 1991, I've had
a strong and humbling feeling that the hacker culture invented me in
order to see itself more clearly -- that my recent power as an advocate
comes, when it comes, from expressing as purely as possible the dreams
and aspirations and values of the hacker tribe. The scholar showed me
that this feeling is a sort of secular equivalent of "Not for my glory
but for God's", a primary mystic's dedication to the service of the
divine. And James K. reminded me that when you dedicate yourself in
that way and bear witness for whatever your conception of the good is,
people feel that and respond to it in a way that parallels the
language and emotional power of religion.

More importantly, though, the scholar and James K. really drove me to
think about an argument for open source that both FSF and OSI have
neglected. And that's a little odd, because the argument reflects an
important subtext in Richard Stallman's famous encounter with the
locked-up printer drivers at MIT, the moment that he says set him on
the path to founding the FSF.

That is this: if you are a creative programmer trapped in a system
that reduces you to the status of anonymous cubicle peon in a
crap-code factory, open source cures your affliction.

Yes, open source is about software that doesn't suck and all those
efficiency things that OSI talks about. And the FSF is not wrong that
it's about freedom, either (though it's still best we not say that
where the suits can hear it). What I've been powerfully reminded of
is that open source is also, or even mainly, about something else.
It's about control.

*Our* control of *our* work, that is. Open source is the producers of
software seizing back their autonomy and their identities and their
self-respect from the suits and marketroids and MBAs. The delicious
paradox is that by giving up control as totally as an open-source
license requires, we get back control. We break the corporate
collectivism and reclaim our power to deal with each other as
individuals in mutual respect. We gain back the power to code as *we*
see fit, to do the best art we can conceive -- and everybody (even the
suits) benefits.

I've noticed often that it's the brightest, most creative programmers
within a closed-source shop who are most likely to grab onto the
open-source idea, and to evangelize for it. Now I think I understand
why. A majority of these early adopters may be the first to get OSI's
pragmatic arguments, and a minority may ethically agree with FSF's
moralism -- but now I think the down-deep emotional reason for all of
them is because they feel the affliction most keenly. They need our
cure the worst.

And that's a message we can take to our peers. If the shoe fits,
wear it. If we're a community of affliction, let's make the most
of it. Programmer, heal thyself -- and then, heal others. That
is work truly worthy of the best we can give.

Eric S. Raymond

"You [should] not examine legislation in the light of the benefits it will
convey if properly administered, but in the light of the wrongs it
would do and the harm it would cause if improperly administered."

-- Lyndon Johnson, former President of the U.S.


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