In the last two decades, the open-source movement – the free sharing of knowledge – has grown across the worlds of software, hardware and beyond. But what does the term really mean, how does it work and how does open sharing help people and business? TUNZA asked Catarina Mota – who’s finishing a PhD in the social impact of open and collaborative practices in technology development – to give us an overview.
‘Open source means choosing to give away information such as the designs and instructions for making products, as well as data and skills. This challenges current concepts of intellectual property rights.
‘The last decade has seen the rise of open-source software – software that is free to use and modify – and a growth of open-source hardware. People have always built, modified and repaired their machines, gadgets and implements – the technology was transparent, and people were familiar with it. But over time, technology has become less transparent, with things made to be used and then thrown away. Devices, from cars through cookers to computers, are becoming proprietary black boxes. We can’t see how they work, and some don’t even allow us to change the batteries!
‘However, with the help of the internet, people are now uploading designs and instructions, making it possible for others to learn how to repair and make all sorts of things themselves. People source their own parts, create their own designs or modify others, and share the information.’
Free R&D and market research
‘I’m often asked how open-source hardware and software can work economically. After all, don’t companies make their money by securing information, and then re-invest it in further research and development (R&D)? The open-source movement doesn’t seek to overturn established business: it’s an alternative model where the originating business benefits from sharing information.
‘Typically, open-source licences allow free copying and modification as long as the revisions are in turn shared and the original inventor is credited. This gives the originating company free market research and R&D – both traditionally very expensive. “Hackers” modify their gadgets and publish their designs, crediting the original manufacturers, who can then work any popular improvements into subsequent iterations of their product – effectively accelerating innovation.
‘Open source can help create employment, too: not everyone wants to make their own stuff, which means that entrepreneurs can take advantage of open-source designs, modify and manufacture things to meet local needs, and grow their business by training others, creating local jobs. The environment can benefit from the shift to economies based on locally sourced materials and the emphasis on repair, which promotes longer product life cycles.’
A shift in values
‘People ask why open-source advocates are so passionate. Whether we like it or not, technology shapes the way we think, communicate, act and learn. People used to understand their tools and, unlike today, understood how they worked. But if we can’t alter or even understand our technology, it will shape us rather than the other way around.
‘We live in an information society, and are told again and again that information and knowledge are the most precious things available to us. Indeed they are, and that’s precisely why we should be prepared to share then. It’s the only way to progress as a society.’