The Renaissance was one of the most culturally, artistically, and scientifically significant transformations in Western history. It was an age of experimentation and innovation as cataloged by da Vinici’s numerous sketches and notebooks. A hallmark of this period of creation that mirrors today is a culture of sharing, and we see that in both times, innovators benefited from spaces and mediums to explore, share, and build upon each other. It seems in these places that fantastic innovation occurs seemingly out of thin air, but it’s not magic – innovation is an iterative process filled with fits and starts, catalyzed by the ability to share and build upon each other’s work. It defined the Renaissance and it will define our age.
Consider first the broader context in which the Renaissance happened. It was a time of advances artistically and technologically, but it was also a time of extreme wealth disparity similar to today. During the Reformation, which occurred within the span of the Renaissance, those within Christianity questioned long-held beliefs and traditions and then drove it to evolve towards inclusivity.
Like the Reformation, in our time we see a shift towards more inclusive definitions of traditional and dogmatic structures like family, religion, and relationships. Both economic disparity and a larger cultural awakening are what drive a questioning of the status quo and innovation for the common good.
But it was the settings in which this innovation took place that mirrors our era and demonstrates the opportunity we have now. Within Renaissance workshops, artisans, craftsmen, and artists, on behalf of their patrons and under the tutelage of their masters, worked together sharing ideas and practices as they developed them. Apprentices coming to masters’ workshops learned under those such as Andrea del Verrocchio, a goldsmith who helped his young artists learn not only his trade but also pursue engineering, architecture, or various business or scientific ventures. These workshops were marketplaces where the best ideas rose to the top.
This parallels our modern open source ecosystem – innovators from across the globe take part in an open ecosystem to learn and share new ideas as they develop them, garnering input and new material from fellow collaborators as they work. It is this participatory ecosystem that led Linus Torvalds to create Linux, inspired by efforts like Minix and GNU. Apache too would not have found life without its ability to couple with Linux and other open source operating systems as a viral distribution channel. None would have life without the work of others. None would be as useful and robust without others.
At first the well-known phrase, “good artists copy, great artists steal,” seems cynical, but it recognizes that artists figured out what makes great collaboration long before the open source movement came along. For instance, we see in Raphael’s work, influences of and concepts building upon da Vinci’s composition and modeling from The Virgin of the Rocks and other works. As Walter Isaacson tells in his biography of da Vinci, the great master perfected the Vitruvian Man amid a debaucherous Florentine party with peers and friends all working and assisting alongside the great master.
Open source contributors even share the concept of a patron – via either corporate sponsorship or through donations – imperfect as that arrangement may be. But as organizations like GitHub, the Ford Foundation, Open Collective, and others take up this issue of real, sustainable funding of open source work, we will begin to see these projects both flourish even more than they have now and have a stable path to the future.
This model allows open source contributors to remain independent, which permits them to freely innovate and iterate off of each other in much the same way as Renaissance artists and inventors.
In our time of open source, we have the opportunity for quick and easy access that did not exist those many hundreds of years ago. It’s an obvious point that in that time you needed to be in generally the same physical space to instantaneously collaborate. Anything else was an exercise in patience while messages traveled by courier.
But schooling was also harder to access, and spaces in these Renaissance workshops were limited to those who had families to contribute financially. In many ways, we’ve advanced so much since then, leading to expanded possibilities for more to take part in innovation and collaboration, but this is also where we have an opportunity to do more.
It is no secret that the open source ecosystem lacks in diversity and inclusion, despite the understanding that diverse teams produce work that is more equitable, more robust, and performs better. Our age, like the Renaissance, will be remembered for collaborative innovation and questioning of traditionally held beliefs that drove society forward, but it can also be remembered for an expansion of who takes part in this work. We must continue to invite people and organizations from across the globe and across sectors – those who might not have ever been able to take part in the open source community – to come use, share, and build upon the great work of this ecosystem.