About Open-Source

Why do you like open-source? Why are you so passionate about this idea? Why do you like working on an open-source project (in my case WordPress.org)? 

These are some versions of the same question I am asked, and the best answer I have managed to give them is captured by this quote from the popular sci-fi book “The Second Foundation” by Isaac Asimov.

He never created a finished product. Finished products are for decadent minds. His was an evolving mechanism and the Second Foundation was the instrument of that evolution.

I love that quote as it captures what a truly great project should be all about. A continuous work in progress, an evolving thing and never finished. This is very true for open-source projects, especially very large and successful ones.

I spend some of my time contributing to the WordPress.org project and the forever evolving, iterative improvements part is pretty much a central ethos in the WordPress project.  It is also the most satisfying part along with building in the open.

After sometime talking about licenses, freedoms et al, we are back to the same question. But why? What do you find so cool that you dedicate your time to this project; when you could be paid to do it.

Okay, here’s why!

Okay, let me share this right away, I have made a living with WordPress for over a decade now. But this is not about giving back or learning more or networking.

All those are valid reasons too, but they don’t sit with me as authentic to myself.Pondering over this question as to why I really love the concept of open-source, I walked to a small eatery in Chennai and ordered a cup of filter coffee. The coffee arrived in its very familiar South Indian tumbler.

And I started to wonder about the people and their lives that went about creating this filter coffee I was now about to drink.

The steel tumbler was from one of the several foundries in South India, the coffee was probably grown on some plantation, picked by someone. The warehousing of the coffee and then sourcing of it, transporting it to now someone boiling it with milk, again sourced from some nearby dairy over a stove that used an LPG cylinder and so on.

I realised the immense number of moments in the lives of several people, amount of technology and processes that went into bringing this wonderful tumbler of filter coffee in front of me.

A majority of what made this possible is common knowledge. Shared processes, some developed over the last decade or so, some over the past couple of centuries – but generally open to everyone to study, replicate and distribute. A lot like how open-source code works.

And come to think of it, a lot of our life is really just that. Filled and informed by the commons, from the first lullaby you might have slept to, to your favourite food dishes, to musical instruments you have learned to play, to clothes you wear, or to the biggest open-source project in the world which is human language. A lot of this is open for anyone to study, replicate and distribute.

Inherently Authentic

Open-source, the open web, an open culture that nourishes, informs, changes and invites participation just feels inherently authentic. 

It seems to be the default setting for things that make us humans, participation in our society and changing it for the better (hopefully). The default setting is always openly sharing things with people, mentoring or being mentored by your friends or people you find interesting and instigating change.

So this is really why I love open-source as a philosophy. It seems like a good default setting or at least an inherently authentic place to start with.

It’s not that easy!

But it’s not easy at all, there is a cost to getting involved in an open-source project. Gaining familiarity and some influence to navigate through the project requires

  • Showing up
  • Showing up regularly
  • Being able to disagree and commit.

These three things together will allow someone to get more attention, more responsibility and often get more mentoring and opportunities.

But that’s not as easy as it sounds. Showing up is hard. Showing up regularly is even harder. Privilege and luck plays a big part in being able to show up and show up regularly. 

The “Being able to disagree and commit” part can be learnt but requires good mentors and possibly some early life influences that shape your personality to thrive while building in the open.

All that is great but what do I get right away without all this jazz?

I am sure there are more things we can find, but I can think of at least 5 very useful things that I got access to while participating in the WordPress community.

  1. Learning to become comfortable building in the open
  2. Finding mentors
  3. Mentoring others
  4. Community, sense of belonging
  5. Professional growth and personal growth

Is there more?

Obviously there is more. But for now I will sit quietly contemplating the inherent goodness of open-source over maybe another cup of coffee!

Post Script: A friend said this post is a bit mellow and still finding itself. I thought that was a fair reflection of how I feel open-source should be. Mellow and finding itself.

Thanks: Special thanks to Topher, Hari, Pranitha and Yogesh who read this post and gave me some inputs before I hit publish.

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4 responses to “About Open-Source”

  1. Hari Shanker Avatar

    First of all, thank you for writing this. This post was a journey in self-discovery and introspection for me, because I could connect with the same ethos that drives me as a person. I loved this post for so many reasons, the connection with The Foundation (as a fellow-Asimov nut) and the comment that the post is mellow (it is not, but finding ourselves is a perennial journey, isn’t it?)

    I can deeply relate to what you’ve mentioned about the WordPress community. The sense of belonging that I have picked up from this community is immense. For the longest time, I felt that I never had a place in this world. But this community made me feel otherwise by connecting me with like minded folks.

    The beauty of open source and its principles is that they can also be applied anywhere. In a way, it has parallels with democracy. But I think the power of open source is that by showing up, one can make a huge difference in the world! Of course, there are power structures as you mentioned; with that said, many open source projects allow folks to make an impact on the world, by just showing up and putting in the work. And I think that’s pretty darn awesome.

    Keep writing! I would love to see more from this blog (and from you)!

  2. […] Kane recently wrote an excellent post on Open Source. He talks about why it’s important to him to take part, and make the world a better place […]

  3. aurovrata Avatar

    > “Finished products are for decadent minds. ”

    This really captures the half-baked open-source attempts by developers, who often publicly sing and praise the open-source philosophy and yet go out of their way to block additional contributions that fail to comply to their view of what the final product is intended to be.

    As a WordPress plugin developer, contributing to the project, I have come across several examples of users and developers alike requesting more openness in the code in order to facilitate the extensibility and/or functionality of a piece of code to ease other usages and applications of the product, but being firmly dismissed or even blocked by the original author of the code simply because they do not envisage those possibilities.

    When one sets out with the understanding that the product one develops could be used in other ways that one could not envisage, then one sets out to approach the problem with a wider approach that includes the possibility of extending the process flow even though one does not see its need in ones own immediate requirements.

    I have always strived to solve a problem presented by a project, by attempting to understand the more general problem, one that supersedes and includes the specific problem at hand, so that the resulting solution may be re-used for other similar requirements in the future, as well as welcoming other’s perspective. That to me is a fundamental tenet of the way of the open-source master!

  4. IdeaSmith Avatar

    This is a powerful thought but also a really gentle, life-affirming way to express it. The conversation around open source tends to be riddled with end goal-orientation. This invariably falls into the smallness of individual agenda, personal profit and hierarchial ideas of win/loss. But the very idea that even the smallest thing we eat (so fundamental to us), is a combination of many collaborative efforts by people we may never meet and spread across geographies – superbly illustrated.

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