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Eric S. Raymond: Open Source -- it's about control, and maybe about healing

Jul 31, 2001, 14:36 (73 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Eric S. 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.