How Open Source is Changing the World
The tech age is showing no signs of slowing down as we confidently venture into innovations in AI, machine learning, and a plethora of other technological achievements. For most people, we only see the “product” side of things. We see the user interface (UI) for the AI chatbots, and we see the finished flagship smartphone launch or augmented reality (AR) Goggle demo. We don’t see a lot of the development behind the scenes and, importantly, we don’t see the undeniable influence that open-source has had on the dev community and discipline. Visible or not, it would be tough to overstate the role that Open Source has played in modern technology, as well as in the culture around this sort of production and innovation, and the role it plays in the future of development.
The World’s Infrastructure
Open-source software is software that is not only available for anybody to use but also accessible with access to its source code and licensing. This means that not only can anybody or any entity download and make use of the software, but also that anybody can contribute to and modify the software as needed. It is an explicitly collaborative concept, and importantly, it is a widely used and circulated resource.
In fact, open-source is far from a niche practice. Although it may not be terribly familiar to less tech-savvy individuals, open-source code serves as the foundation for over 90% of the world’s software. GitHub, a platform dedicated to the free and accessible exchange of code, hosts over 94 million developers. Open-source is not a trend or an ideal; it is the backbone of our technological infrastructure.
If we are to speak of ideals, however, the open-source principles and profit-chasing corporations can sometimes conflict. Information and code that are not only un-proprietar but also openly shared, maintained, and developed, often free of cost, are not exactly the poster child for bottom line reports. As much as open-source code and software span our technological lives, companies and brand logos populate everything we own and use. How can these two things co-exist?
Open-Source in a Corporate Economy
To put things simply, open-source code and software often serves as building blocks for larger, more personalized programs. Individuals developing personal projects might incorporate open-source code into their larger program, simplifying the process and allowing developers to avoid having to flesh out every minute detail of their work. Incorporating open-source material into a larger body of work, however, is often not trivial work and still takes plenty of expertise and attention to detail to do cleanly and efficiently.
For larger companies that want to make use of open-source code and software, a lot of the compensated work that employees carry out has to do with scaling the software for the company, and fitting it carefully to the company’s needs. Even if the final software product ends up being proprietary, chances are a good chunk of its infrastructure is open-source. Open, accessible software is a powerful resource for anybody at any level.
There is tension between profit-seeking corporations and the use of free-to-use code. Fortunately, some organizations are committed to doing more than just taking from these repositories. Companies may pay their employees to produce open-source code and programs, or to contribute to and maintain existing open-source projects. On one hand, this is a great way for companies to support open-source creators while also compensating their efforts. However, it is important to acknowledge that such altruistic work also has value in terms of public perception and other PR angles. Despite the potential conflict between the collaborative and passion-driven nature of open-source and bottom-line mindsets, open-source code continues to populate our world inside and outside corporate products.
A Spirit of Collaboration
While it is certainly not the only force to do so, open-source code and the open-source mindset are some of the biggest factors behind democratizing technology. We are now very much in a world in which technology, the internet, and the knowledge and tools that they beget are nothing short of human rights, and keeping these things behind corporate paywalls is dangerous. The collaborative spirit of open-source, and the powerful community and vast library of resources that it represents—that same vast library that powers nearly all the world’s software—represents a creative and professional force that cannot be bought. It represents a capacity and an ability for creation that goes beyond paychecks and unlimited PTO.
Of course, we do not live in a world in which passion pays our bills, but the open-source community answers there as well. GitHub’s repos may be filled with passion projects and code built during somebody’s off-hours but, sometimes, those chunks of code become incredibly useful to very large demographics. If you build it, they will come. But also, with a small donate button, if you build it, they might buy you lunch. And dinner. And maybe a car. Even without the hierarchy of an employment contract, some programmers and developers end up receiving significant compensation for very well-received work.
These points speak to the power of the open-source dev community and to just how difficult it would be to contain this product force in “traditional” contractual terms. Many companies would love to own and indiscriminately profit off of everything that their employees make, or anything that they can fund. They would love to be able to do this with any product or service that falls within their reach, it is clear that this productive force will not be contained.
Open-source sparks and maintains a collaborative spirit and an autonomous community, on top of which the world’s tech infrastructure is built. It revolutionizes the concept of production in this sphere and gives way to new solutions and new ideas. There are, of course, difficulties that come with open-source development, but no revolution is a bed of roses; rather, it is a struggle between the future and the past.
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