My Open History

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This is a story about the sort of "open" that matters to me, and how I got to this point. (This entry originally appeared on an earlier blog of mine, written sometime after 2012 and before 2015)

I'm an immigrant from the US, having moved to NZ 20 years ago from Seattle (I grew up on the east coast and migrated west after finishing my undergraduate degree)... I was passionate about Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) and sharing in general even before leaving the US but shifted to it completely, on principle, upon arriving in NZ and starting work in Canterbury as a software developing research scientist for an NZ Crown Research Institute (a state-owned scientific research organisation)...

I developed prototype software doing image processing and photogrammetry (on Linux using C++ and the fledgling cross platform Qt framework, now wonderfully mature and fully open source) for 5 years until the CRI decided that they wanted to force me into a proprietary software mould and embargoed my research papers (which it thought might have "valuable IP" - ugh), which struck me as incompatible with the fact my work was funded by the NZ taxpayer... at which point I quit.

Luckily, shortly prior to that point (on 11 Sept 1998, to be exact), I'd seen the writing on the wall and had taken the precaution of establishing my own FOSS company, Egressive, which I moved to full-time in February 1999. Egressive (Egress with an "ive" rather than Aggressive with an "E" - in hindsight, it might've been a bit too clever for its own good) was created to make a "business out of selling free software", lending commercial credibility to this community effort often derided by proprietary vendors as unprofessional, and working to educate NZ business and gov't about the advantages of openness... I ran Egressive until 2012 (14 years), when it was acquired by Catalyst IT (a much bigger FOSS company in Wgtn which many of you will know). I'm now happily working for Catalyst, a company which, for the most part, really gets FOSS, not just "open source".

Some of you may not understand the distinction between "Free (Libre) and Open Source Software" (FOSS) and "Open Source Software" (OSS)... Explaining the difference is a big topic (explained very well in this New Yorker article about the GNU Manifesto's 30th anniversary)... but my synopsis is this: FOSS is a set of principles and ideals which can be reflected in software. Open Source is a necessary by-product of those principles. OSS is a ''methodology'' for creating software, and is characterised by a relative lack of principled openness, and more a de facto ethos of relentless expedience. OSS co-exists far more comfortably with proprietary businesses and their models, than FOSS does. FOSS tends to be incompatible with many traditional "pre-digital" business models which have been adopted by many digitally-focused companies (see "artificial scarcity") in a world where many sources of capital (and the power structure which sets policy) don't yet get the implications of digital abundance.

In about 2001, I wrote an open letter to various gov't ministers at the time (here it is thanks to the hugely undervalued Wayback machine) requesting that they move NZ gov't's IT towards FOSS... it garnered a fair bit of interest in the IT media at the time... and apparently inspired my friend and colleague Peter Harrison to create the NZ Open Source Society (NZOSS), and I've since taken on the role of president, trying hard to live up to the very high bar set by my predecessors!

FOSS has already won in the technology world, but the rest of the world is very slow to realise that fact (for which they can be forgiven - after all, all the advertising they see is paid for by proprietary software adherents who have far more capital available to them - they make more money because they tend to exploit their users as well as the commons rather than contributing towards it in equal measure). One of my big bones of contention is the group of companies/corporations who have built thriving, global-scale proprietary software businesses ironically using FOSS as the building blocks, meaning that they only had to write relatively small amounts of code to realise their business proposition... and yet, despite celebrating the role FOSS has had in their success, their primary business is built on software which itself is not FOSS. I'm not a fan of this trend at all.

This "openwashing" is combined with a trend from a new generation of software developers - for whom the software world has always been dominated by the availability of FOSS resources - to move away from FOSS and towards OSS. They're dropping the principles of sharing and focusing on personal gain. If any sharing happens, it's a lucky side effect, it's not by design. These people seem oblivious to the history of FOSS that has allowed them to build their wealth by exploiting the commons it has created. I refer to this as the FOSS "generation gap". In failing to "share and share alike", they - I'll charitably say this is probably unconscious on their part - undermine the whole ecosystem on which they've built their proprietary money machines by erroding its principled basis for freedom, the copyleft (as implemented by GPL and other "Free Software" licenses)... This is their manifesto, as near as I can tell, and I find it chilling. I'm disturbed by the thinking behind it, and feel that it is short sighted and self-serving. It dismisses all the struggles proponents of openness have had and moves towards re-entrenching the wrong thinking that came before it.

My mission for many years has been to demonstrate that it's possible to build a resilient and successful company, and a vibrant, inclusive, sustainable society on the principles of openness... But it requires that people let go of the idea of personal fortunes and instead work towards the goal of a successful community around a commons which can provide enough for all to be fulfilled. I certainly prefer the latter ideal, but I find that I'm forever coming up against cynics who have given up on the commons and simply do what they can to exploit it. It's part of my mission to identify this imbalance, and provide those cynics with evidence that openness creates more wealth and equality overall. The upcoming OS//OS conference seems like an excellent platform on which to spread that message. Great work to the organisers - I will do my best to make sure it lives up to the hype!

Topics which I'm exploring and would love to discuss include: commons-based peer production, permissionless innovation, antifeatures, the "economics of abundance", and the "end of growth"... I'm interested in plenty of other things, too, like slow food and living locally while thinking globally, but that'll do for now!

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