Open Source as Politics

Is Open Source a political statement? Many would argue yes, and just as many would argue no. Linux Torvalds, with his pragmatic and non-ideological approach to kernel development, stands in stark contrast to the uncompromising idealist Richard Stallman. Yet Linus, despite his pragmatism, is as much a revolutionary as Stallman, an accidental revolutionary to be sure, but a revolutionary nonetheless. Torvalds represents a revolution in process and organizational structure.

And what is emerging from this process is, what Prof. Anil Gupta describes as a “polycentric network”; in such a network there are no leaders or subordinates. There may exist hierarchies within the network, but each node represents a discrete unit that is not critical to the functioning of the network as a whole. The emergence of horizontal, network-centric groups is one of the primary forces driving the current trajectory of human history. This phenomenon can be observed everywhere, and it is not constrained by ideological considerations or philosophy. Though clearly their world-view, their goals, and their methods can be diametrically opposed, The Honeybee Network, Al Qaeda, the FOSS groups, and the global indigenous movement all share similar organizational characteristics: non-centralized, non-governmental, and network-centric. Slowly but surely, networks are proving themselves a force to be reckoned with.

For most people that follow this story, from security analysts to software geeks, none of this is news. Polycentric networks certainly threaten the established order. Look at the United States government’s irrational and disproportionate response to Al Qaeda, or Microsoft’s fear campaign against GNU/Linux. To be clear, I reject any and all institutions or organizations that resort to unmitigated violence as a first response to a changing world order. And to be clearer, I also reject any attempts to lie and misinform merely to protect the interests of the powerful.

Open Source communities, by their very nature, reject the centralization of big government and big business; they have proven that a dedicated legion of soft-core geeks can slowly and inexorably pull the rug out from beneath the feet of even the largest behemoth, without the need for firing a single shot. And, from a historical perspective, this is a critical point. Revolution has almost always been characterized by violence; the rallying cries of freedom and democracy have galvanized communities time and again, only to have the reality fall far short of their expectations. For centuries, the struggle for true democratization has been bloody and slow: the French revolution culminated in Napoleon crowning himself Emperor, the Haitian revolution degraded into unending chaos, the American revolution forged a paradoxical slave Republic.

Not so long ago, to be a Liberal was a very enlightening prospect. Our early American liberals were those who celebrated the unencumbered intellectual, political and spiritual freedoms of the individual: Thomas Jefferson, Henry David Thoreau, James Madison, Walt Whitman, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Only much later did the term become polluted by media spin machines and power mongers, to the point where now, liberalism means very little, and in almost all of its guises (a bleeding heart or a neo-liberal) it is undoubtedly pejorative.

Politically, the true inheritors of Liberalism’s stately mantle are the Libertarians, and Congressman Ron Paul, though marginalized by a corporatocracy threatened lest he take away their access to our legislative process and billions of dollars in government subsidies, has brought to his loyal cadre of political activists a message that resonates deeply with our genuine American political traditions.

The relevance of the Libertarian message is not lost on the Open Source community, for as we dismantle and decommission the war machine and the welfare state, we must now demonstrate real alternatives to replace it with. Open source, decentralized models that can effectively integrate their activities with the initiatives of local governments, non-governmental organizations, and local communities are the recipe for success in the 21st century. We are a world community invigorated by the prospects of our empowerment, capable of solving our own problems more effectively, more efficiently, and more profitably than any large and cumbersome institution. And so, the democratic revolution continues, quite differently than ever before in our history as a species, and peace, even against the backdrop of war, becomes a true possibility.

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