Open Source and Sustainability

Last week I read the book small is possible. It’s a great read, and I heartily recommend it to anyone who enjoyed books like The Tipping Point, The Wisdom of Crowds, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and other books that powerfully explain the world from a new perspective.

From the back cover of the book:

Forget homeland security-meet the folks from Chatham County, North Carolina, who have discovered the meaning of “Hometown Security.” This fascinating, diverse group of people, unwilling to rely on government and big business, set about finding actual solutions to actual problems at their local level. They developed a thriving food co-op with sustainable farms to back it up, turned a backyard biodiesel venture into a full-tilt commercial plant, and created numerous enterprises, from music festivals to wireless networks along the way. The residents discovered it really is possible for a community to feed itself, fuel itself, heal itself and govern itself.

The parallels between this community effort and the communities I have seen arise in the world of open source share more than a few similarities. I myself started writing GNU software because I was more willing to rely on myself and other developers willing to treat me as an equal than I was to rely on proprietary software companies who saw me as only a customer if I paid and as a criminal if I did not. As articulated by Eric Raymond in The Cathedral & the Bazaar, the effect of developers finding actual solutions to their actual problems appeared to be a superior innovation model to the MBA-led marketing teams who spent their time and money dreaming up abstract features in the hopes of selling new licneses to customers that were not exactly getting value from the licenses they had already. And along the way we created a community, rich and thriving, that develops not only some of the finest software in the world, but has a lot of fun doing it, too! The open source community has boostrapped a sustainable, community-driven software model whereas the proprietary model appears to be headed toward collapse.

So I start reading the book as if it will be about doing the same thing, not with bits, but with atoms. And the writing is great. But when I got to page 53, I realized that open source does play a role, even in a community where most people are trying like heck to get off the grid. Here’s what the author said about my field of expertise (in the context of talking about how various people make money in Pittsboro, population 2,500):

One of the underpinnings of the Open Source movement is that the source code is available for free. Rather than buying a software package to complete your task, you simply fetch the open source equivalent you need for free.

Network monitoring is not free. It’s ungodly expensive. Which means that when Tarus [I told you the characters were colorful–mt] rented an office in Pittsboro to set up his “free” software enterprise, he was a bit of an anomaly. […]

And so began my education in Open Source. Tarus brough his OpenNMS project into BLAST [the local network service that Lyle established–mt], and for awhile I was selling accounts for him. The only one I landed was the British Broadcasting Corporation[…]

He filled his space with highly paid experts who travel the world offering consulting, delivering code revisions, and upgrades based on free source code.

Talk about Small is Possible. The mightiest corporations on earth turn to a five person software company in Pittsboro for their network monitoring using OpenNMS.

I won’t type in the whole chapter (too lazy), but I will say that he goes on for four pages talking about how open source makes it possible for small people to do powerful things, and how, as it inevitably gets better through user-driven innovation, it is the model of a sustainable system. (He even quotes from CATB and explains how he, as a biodiesel farmer and producer, has seen the open source effect in action, applied it to his own way of working, and has profited from it.)

But really, if you have read this far, then stop reading my blog, get a copy of small is possible, and enjoy a friendly tour of what is possible when a community decides to approach the 21st century by making itself sustainable, open source software and all.