Open-Source Philosophy

1998-08-15

One of the most fascinating things about the open source software movement is that it presents a different model of economics than that typically extolled by "radicals for capitalism". I find that open source aligns well with my experience in the corporate world, which is that corporations are often no better than governments in their internal relations, and that (as John Perry Barlow argues) "any corporation, because of the intensity of the reality distortion field of the collective organism that is a large corporate entity, has a totalitarian quality". Call me a left-libertarian if you will, but an organization puts the organization first, not the individuals within it. The open source model does away with organizations and central control, replacing them with networks of individuals. This is not to say that there is not central coordination, just that in open source this is handled in a non-coercive way through the charisma of or general respect for one individual (as in the case of Linux or Perl) or through a committee of experts (as in the case of Apache). There is a minimum of control and bureacracy. The model is more merit-driven than anything I have experienced in the corporate world (and I have not been working in large corporations, but small start-ups).

Further, I see the potential for philosophical implications in the success of the open source movement in software development. We have already witnessed, in many spheres, the success of open systems relative to closed systems. This is a large reason why Wintel is more successful in the market than MacOS, even though MacOS was better technologically. In the market for ideas, I've always held that Peikovian Randianism will be less successful than Objectivism of the Kelley variety, because Peikoff alleges that Rand's ideas form a closed system. Yet, can we go further? Can we come to see that "open source philosophy" would be better than "closed source philosophy" -- better in the sense that it would be able to adapt better to change, become more fully realized more quickly, etc.? I have wondered about this. Of course, it's not clear what is meant by "open source philosophy", since philosophy is a little different from software development. What I see in this notion is the value of disclosing how one arrives at one's ideas, not just presenting a philosophical system as a fait accompli. Partly this means making one's methodologies clear, especially one's epistemology; this has been done in Objectivism to some extent but I think we can go farther in this regard. Partly also I think it means writing in a way that makes clear one's thinking processes; this is something that Robert Nozick said he was doing in Anarchy, State, and Utopia (see the introduction). Actually I'm not sure that Rand was successful in this regard, since her writing is often rhetorically strong and pulls the reader along, but does not necessarily encourage the reader to think through the issues in a fully logical manner.

Are there other attributes that an open source approach to philosophy could borrow from open source software development, or create to apply to the circumstances of philosophy? Is the open source approach applicable to anything outside software development (e.g., hardware or manufacturing or law or any other endeavor)? What is it about software development that makes open source a viable methodology there, but less viable in other pursuits (if indeed open source does not work in other domains)? There are all fascinating questions to me and I hope to seek out answers to them.


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