A Brief History of Open Sourceby@semturan
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2,214 reads

A Brief History of Open Source

by Sem TuranFebruary 4th, 2023
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Open source software has a crucial place in our understanding of the Internet and the world. The last decades have seen open source culture and community members experiment with ways of creating together. These experimentations were not only technical, but also social. Recent developments call for a new understanding of open source that has fair incentives for contributors and discourages evil.
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The emergence and development of open source software in diverse branches have a crucial place in our understanding of the Internet. Without open source software, many of the tools that let us access the Internet wouldn’t exist. Furthermore, the open source culture brought with it a plethora of resources for efficient global collaboration, new legal frameworks and a demand for transparency.

Why You Should Care about the History of Open Source

Everyday, we’re affected by the decisions made by the people and institutions that govern us. We wake up at a certain time because some hundred years ago, workplace owners wanted their employees to start work at a certain time. From there, schools and all the other societal institutions adapted.

We wait for the traffic light to turn green before we cross the road. As we get our morning pastries, we can pay with a slim plastic card, or even with an image on our mobile phones. All because people agreed upon some global rules and protocols.

Open source culture comes with its clever twists and never-ending, progress-oriented debates on how populous groups of people can and should create rules and protocols that will benefit the whole society. If you care about thoughtful progress in society, you should start to look for ways to contribute.

Philosophy of access benefits you, me, and all of us, thanks to Richard Stallman

Among the key occurrences that led to the open source movement’s emergence is the donation of a printer to MIT in the 1970s. Staff programmers, including Richard M. Stallman had previously implemented a social hack with the old one they owned. It would send warnings whenever it was jammed. Because the new software development team had signed a non-disclosure agreement with the company producing the printer, Stallman and colleagues couldn’t access the source code to implement this social hack that made their lives easier.

The inability to access the donated printer’s source code made Stallman determined to create a complete operating system that granted all its users the freedom to know how it worked and change things. And like this, theGNU Project was born. Penning the GNU Manifesto in 1985, Stallman defined a Golden Rule:

[I]f I like a program I must share it with other people who [might] like it. Software sellers want to divide the users and conquer them, making each user agree not to share with others. I refuse to break solidarity with other users in this way.

Good Internet citizens like to share. Illustrated by kertburger.

The hacker attitude as a way of life

If you share similar views with Stallman, you might want to learn more about becoming a hacker. Eric S. Raymond, a software developer and open-source advocate who also wrote the widely-known essay the Cathedral and the Bazaar in 1997, describes the hacker attitude in How to Become a Hacker.

Hackers solve problems and build things. One shouldn’t mix them up with crackers, crackers are the ones that break things possibly because they are not as bright. They believe that the world is full of fascinating problems. Hackers get a kick out of exhausting their learning capacity to create solutions that, bit by bit, solve the problem for good. Out of respect for fellow hackers, they don’t force each other out to reinvent the wheel and share the creative solutions openly.

The hacker attitude builds upon the philosophy of access.

Access is the word. Illustrated by kertburger.

Open Source Expansion to the Physical Realm

The hacker attitude extends to realms that have nothing to do with computers and programming. For example, with the Grid Beam building system, you can learn to build beds, chairs and tricycles with basic supplies, for free. You can even build yourself a Hexayurt house with common building materials. If you’re searching for the Gutenberg of our era, look no further, there are kind souls on earth that maintain an open-source e-reader project and have students access textbooks for free. Also, now that we have Signal, you actually don’t need any other Internet-based messaging application on your phone.

State-of-the-Art in Open Source Culture

The last decades have let us accumulate learnings from interesting social experiments of co-production, also giving way to the emergence of concepts like copyleft, peer production, crowdsourcing and user-generated content. And it doesn’t look like it will stop here.

Community as the Force Multiplier

Arguably because things are not as top-down as anywhere else in the corporate world of production, the culture of open source evolved to include not only ideas on how to co-produce software, but also more broadly, to co-produce anything above a technical depth threshold. Many such ideas were widely adapted by the corporate world, especially among the stakeholders in the global start-up and entrepreneurship ecosystem.

Further expanded in the works of open source pioneers like Cathedral and the Bazaar by Eric S. Raymond, here are some key ideas that widely impacted teams producing technology all over the world:

  1. Release early, and often. Don’t wait for your plan to be perfect.
  2. If you share your work and issues with a wide enough pool of co-developers, any difficult problem can be solved.
  3. Your co-developers are your best allies: They will point to your weaknesses and celebrate your strengths. Keep them near.


Open source, in practice, is a social phenomenon where groups of people make decisions online. Possibly, it is the realm where collective decision-making has visibly progressed towards including more democratic, bottom-up practices.
Smart folks working on the building blocks of the Internet. Illustrated by kertburger.

Developers of an open source project usually make decisions by consensus. Sometimes, if the problem is intractable or if consensus doesn’t form despite best efforts, communities need some pointing towards the way forward if they intend to work together in the long run.

What first started with Guido van Rossum's appointment as First-Interim Benevolent Dictator for Life (BDFL) with Python, quickly spread across other projects (like Ubuntu, Linux, OpenStreetMap and WordPress) that wanted the natural leader of the group to make decisions where consensus couldn’t be formed. Django had two BDFLs: Adrian Holovaty and Jacob Kaplan-Moss, who retiredin 2015 due to a lack of personal time and trust in the Django community’s ability to function without BDFLs.

Research has shown, time and again, that diverse teams where each member is attentive to providing psychological safety for each other are the best ones, by far. That’s why open source pioneers like Coraline Ada Ehmke are working on projects like Contributor Covenant to create more harassment-free instances of co-working in open source.

Is open source broken?

GitHub has long been the platform where software developers collaborate, with features in place to help ease virtual co-work on common software projects. GitHub has also been the most popular way open source communities store their progress and share their work. In 2018, the company was acquired by Microsoft to heighten the tech giant’s focus on open source development.

2018 and 2019 were the years where big tech players’ controversial decision-making caused huge backlash from their employees: Google helping Pentagon to build AI drones, Microsoft developing battlefield headsets for the U.S. Military and Amazon’s inaction towards climate neutrality were the cases that made it to the headlines. Thought leaders called big tech employees with ethical responsibility to organize for change, or quit their jobs.

Rules may not always be that bad. Illustrated by kertburger.

It was also probably not a surprise when it was discovered that GitHub had an agreement with the U.S. Immigrations and Custom Enforcement (ICE). In an open letter to GitHub the corporation, many active members of the open source community pointed at the aspects of ICE’s history that did not align with what they believe are the core values of open source: “[...] inverting power structures and creating access and opportunities for everyone”. The company responded with another letter, detailing the nature of their agreement as they interpret it, highlighting that its scope had nothing to do with the goodwill of open source developers, which is the main asset GitHub capitalizes on.

In another vein, the legality of GitHub Copilot is under scrutiny. Copilot is a support tool for programmers that offers suggestions to improve their real-time code-writing. It is based on the AI system Codex developed by OpenAI and licensed to Microsoft. The scrutiny continues at U.S. courts and it stems from Codex utilizing public and open source code repositories on GitHub to train its AI model. Matthew Butterick, an open source advocate among other things, summarizes the reasoning behind the unjust as follows:

By offer­ing Copi­lot as an alter­na­tive inter­face to a large body of open-source code, Microsoft is doing more than sev­er­ing the legal rela­tion­ship between open-source authors and users. Arguably, Microsoft is cre­at­ing a new walled gar­den that will inhibit pro­gram­mers from dis­cov­er­ing tra­di­tional open-source com­mu­ni­ties. Or at the very least, remove any incen­tive to do so. Over time, this process will starve these com­mu­ni­ties. User atten­tion and engage­ment will be shifted into the walled gar­den of Copi­lot and away from the open-source projects them­selves—away from their source repos, their issue track­ers, their mail­ing lists, their dis­cus­sion boards. This shift in energy will be a painful, per­ma­nent loss to open source.

GitHub’s recent actions, of which only a few are mentioned above, stirred up a big debate, marking an important milestone in the history of open source: Should you restrict access to open source? Should we expect open source maintainers, who sometimes -despite putting in extraordinary creative effort- struggle to make ends meet, watch their contributions be used in gargantuan profit-making constellations they don’t ethically support? According to the Open Source Initiative, the answer to all these questions above is, yes: They want to give evil people the freedom to use open source, too.

Evil forces now usually work online. Illustrated by kertburger.

Dan Goodman-Wilson answers with a no in his in-depth, philosophical takeon the brokenness of open-source, summarizing the root of the problem as follows:

Open source has explicitly rejected regulating access to the pool of open source software, while turning a blind eye to the extensive system of invisible, implicit, yet very real regulations that are woven through the structure of the community. This total abdication of control is toxic, pushing out people we need, and opening the door to those we don't want. The major failings of open source can be explained by a combination of the existing (implicit, covert) regulations governing the open source community at large, or lack thereof.

In his account of the post-open source world, Goodman-Wilson underlines the need for thoughtful incentive systems for open source maintainers as well as the need for mechanisms that disincentivizes open source usage for actors that are unwilling to commit to “basic principles of the value of humans”. Projects likethe Hippocratic License, Artless Devices and the Anti-Capitalist Software License are enabling open source communities to implement licenses that take ethical considerations into account and to disincentivize evil.

Although some bigger fish don’t seem interested, others -some even just as big- are still into not being evil. It’s never too late to find out where your interests and abilities fit best.

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Lead image: Open source anything and everything. Illustrated by kertburger.