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STAFF NEWS & ANALYSIS
Open Source is Tech’s Explosive Organic Movement
By Bill Ottman & Schuyler Brown - March 24, 2018

Written for The Daily Bell by Bill Ottman, Co-Founder of minds.com & Schuyler Brown, Futurist.

It’s hard to believe the Food Revolution has only been in effect for about ten years. In that time, we’ve seen drastic changes in the way citizens of the world choose to buy food for their families. What was once considered a pricey preoccupation of the body- and health-conscious has risen to become a major industry, topping $42 billion in 2014.

Why? Because people woke up. We woke up to the fact that most of the products on our supermarket shelves are atrociously mislabeled and composed of artificial and genetically modified ingredients. This is not food; at best, it’s maybe food-like. We woke up to the reality that many of America’s most popular and beloved food brands — Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Kraft, Post, Pepperidge Farms, Nestle — are making products that aren’t good for us. We also woke up to the realization that the government isn’t looking out for us when it comes to our food, so policing it is our personal responsibility. Thus, we can no longer afford to be negligent or apathetic in a food environment that has become corrupt and toxic.

We’re now understanding the truth behind that age-old saying: You are what you eat. We literally become what we consume, on both genetic and epigenetic levels, and we don’t want diabetes for ourselves or our children, or to be exposed to unnecessary hormones and antibiotics. We want food made with integrity, not just for our well-being, but for the health of the earth. Conscious food production practices are crucial for long-term sustainability of soil, biodiversity, and many elements of the biosphere.

The explosive growth of the organic food industry represents an ethical response to the conventional agro-chemical world, one projected to continue through 2018 and beyond. But the organic movement doesn’t just stop at food. Let’s consider another thing we consume every day: information.

For anyone who has bought into the food revolution, it’s not much of a stretch to see we’re ripe for an open information revolution. Not one defined simply by the omnipresence of information via the Internet, but one — like the food revolution — in which people demand accountability, transparency, and participation in the dissemination and consumption of information. Likewise, the outcome would be a new set of practices and players contributing to more healthy and sustainable environmental and personal practices.

If information is like food, packaged in technological bits and bytes, then you might say free and open source software is equivalent to organic, labeled products. Just as we care about what we put into our bodies, we should care about what we install in our technology systems. Some of the big players we currently know and trust are, frankly, serving up a bunch of cookies that aren’t great for us. They help advertisers track us, compromise our privacy, and in some cases, make us susceptible to infections in the form of viruses and malware. When you navigate the app market, what do you put in your basket? What are you allowing into your life?

Before the food revolution taught us the importance of scrutinizing our food, many people didn’t think much beyond calorie counts or fat content. Vanity drove the illusion that food was merely an energy source, the flow of which we could control to keep our bodies looking “healthy.” And this was because for a long time, prior to the industrialization of food, food was in fact, just food. And there wasn’t much to worry about. It had integrity.

Similarly, there was once was a day when software was just software. The source code (ingredients) of various programs was always shared with the global development community for the practical purposes of fixing bugs and making improvements. However, financial incentives to alter this system entered the picture in exactly the same way they did with food. Software companies started creating software patents in the same way that Monsanto created seed patents. Thus, greed and corporate possessiveness created a corrupt and toxic software environment, just as they had with food.

And just as the organic movement rose in the food world, free software and the open source movement emerged as a direct response to proprietary and closed-source practices. In a 2008 interview with Paul Kim, VP at Mozilla, Treehugger described how Firefox successfully marketed itself as a “100% organic” browser. Kim said:

“I think for people not in the open source movement, the term ‘organic’ is a lot clearer and immediately graspable…People have a preference for organic produce because it hasn’t been tainted by, say, pesticides. The reason consumers prefer organic goods in part are that they are better for you and your family. In a similar way, what we’re suggesting is that Firefox is better for you because it’s produced in a way that respects the user…Whether you are coding open source software or farming sustainably, you are part of a greater world that needs you to be mindful of your actions and that is a powerful message to send to the powers that be.”

Software’s “organic” movement is starting out just as niche as the real organic movement did many years ago. Though the movement is gaining real momentum, we still have a long journey ahead of us. Of the top 100 Internet companies, for instance, only 2 are open source: Wikipedia, and WordPress.

In order for open source to flourish, we need to destigmatize it. It has traditionally suffered from a shadowy exclusivity owned by the hacker, coder, and programmer backwaters of the Internet — because, for the most part, only the developer community and the very tech savvy have cared about its possibilities. But these are not the only people who stand to benefit from its rise. Just as you don’t need to be a food scientist to benefit from organic, you don’t have to be a developer to care about open source; in fact, you don’t even need to be particularly tech savvy. The values of the movement will speak to anyone who cares about social consciousness, freedom of information, privacy, transparency, community, the commons, and a more fair and equitable world on the whole.

We need to communicate with and help educate users about the free and open source software movement, which is predicated on four essential freedoms. These are similar to the freedoms granted when films, media, and documentation are put into the public domain or licensed under Creative Commons. They are as follows:

Freedom 0: The freedom to run the program as you wish, for any purpose.

Freedom 1: The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

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Freedom 2: The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor.

Freedom 3: The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others. By doing so you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

These freedoms are similar to food labeling initiatives and certifications, but potentially even more powerful because their effects spread so quickly through our shared neural network: the Internet.

Like anything new, open source may seem strange at first. Its protocols and invitations to participate can be daunting. And admittedly, the interface and features aren’t always as smooth or seamless as those developed by programmers working for big corporate entities. But it’s a bit like finding a worm in your organic strawberries — these little quirks serve to illuminate the organic essence of open source software. What’s incredible is how natural the process is; it’s imperfect, yet inspiring.

Oftentimes, the discussion surrounding open source can make it seem like a black-and-white issue, like either you’re with us or you’re against us. But the reality is there’s no reason for this kind of stringency. The shift to open source will likely be gradual, like easing into a new diet. It might start as simply as including an open source app alongside others on your phone or using WordPress over Squarespace. Like buying organic or removing animal products from your diet, this is a values-based decision; it doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing.

Persuading humanity of the critical need for transparency in every aspect of global culture is no easy task, and certainly not one that will happen overnight. Just as the re-imagining of our global food system still has a long way to go before it serves the needs of everyone, so will the software revolution unfold, little by little, one step at a time. It will take the same kind of awakening we experienced with food; an awakening to the real dangers that lie dormant and almost hidden in the current system. We’ve already seen the cracks in the rosy facade of the Internet: stolen credit cards, stolen identities, civilian surveillance, government contracts with consumer brands, and ever-more-creepy ad targeting.

This is not to say that an open source world would be completely crime-free. But the difference is that innovation would explode because the blueprints for the best technologies are accessible, and people will retain the right to control their information and technology. Tesla understands this and has open-sourced its batteries to build the market, though it has not yet opened up its car OS. MongoDB, the multibillion dollar database company, uses a free software license. So the transformation is already underway.

Self-driving cars will be everywhere on the roads soon, Kurzweil’s nanobots will be entering bloodstreams, and we are already seeing just how susceptible the Internet of Things is to hacking. In fact, we’re on the road to just about everything being subject to hacking. This needs to be discussed, openly and by everyone. Society is entitled to peer-review these technologies, as they pose major public health risks without open-source software and encryption. A cyber attack could crash 100,000 cars or more in one fell swoop, for instance.

A key challenge is that open source projects aren’t always as feature-rich as proprietary versions, mostly due to lack of funding and widespread adoption. It’s a classic catch 22: we need more people supporting the projects in order to bring in funding, but we need that funding to improve the user experience and attract new users. For this reason, even setting up an account on these platforms can be a helpful way to show your support, even if you don’t use them. That micro-movement matters immensely and is what creates the critical mass necessary to effect bigger change.

At the end of the day, not all of us are going to be growing our own food or programming our own apps. But potentially all of us can be contributing to the growth and spread of these organic practices by purchasing and using these foods and apps whenever possible. In case you don’t know how to tell if an app is open source or not, there will usually be a link in the footer of the company’s website pointing to source code or their Github repo.

From food justice and free Internet to politics and water rights, the onus is on us to shape the future we want to become reality. We have to ask ourselves: do we want to create a future where fundamentals like food, water, energy, and media are controlled by a few multinational companies, or one in which they are available to everyone? The answer seems obvious.

If this sounds like a vision you want to buy into, don’t wait to be persuaded. The invitation — like the technology — is open.

Bill Ottman

Bill founded Minds in 2011 with the goal of bringing a free, open source and sustainable social network to the world. He co-founded multiple viral media organizations, holds a fellowship at Boston Global Forum and serves on the Advisory Board of Code To Inspire, a non-profit building coding schools for women in Afghanistan. He graduated from University of Vermont with a BA in English.

Schuyler Brown

Schuyler Brown is a communications advisor and trends analyst who has worked with leading global brands including Facebook, Microsoft, Sony Pictures, and Levi’s. She started her career as a branding consultant at Landor Associates, then moved into advertising at Euro RSCG (now Havas WW), where she was a managing director of trends and strategic insights. During that time, Schuyler built the agency’s buzz marketing practice, collaborated on the book, Buzz: Harness the Power of Influence and Create Demand (Wiley, 2003), and was a contributor to Connected Marketing: The Viral, Buzz, and Word of Mouth Revolution (Taylor & Frances, 2005). In 2006, she started Skyelab Consulting in order to pursue projects aligned with her vision to be active in the emergence of a new age of conscious commerce. She now carries that mission through to her new company, Sightful, a strategic design agency, co-founded with Micah Spear. She teaches in the Design for Social Innovation masters program at the School of Visual Arts (SVA) in NYC, is a founding member of the NYC chapter of Conscious Capitalism, and writes around the internet. Schuyler has been called a “brand therapist” and brings a supremely human touch to her collaborations with clients. She lives with her husband and daughter in Brooklyn, NY.

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