nutcroft blog

Open source movement as societal theory

I recently came across the Open Insulin Foundation:

We’re a team of biohackers with a variety of backgrounds, and skills, and relationships to insulin and diabetes from [...] around the world.

We’re working to develop the first practical, small-scale, community-centered model for insulin production to make insulin accessible to all. [...]

and:

We envision a world [...] where people living with diabetes and their communities can own and govern the organizations that produce the medicine they depend on to survive.

The problem is well-known to the Western world. Pharmaceutical companies are taking advantage of the US citizens. All of them through taxes. Some of them more directly through having to pay high prices for a cheap drug, insulin, which is literally vital to their livelihood.

The people of the Open Insulin Foundation want to solve this problem by the most direct and effective solution they can think of: teach everybody who needs it how to create it—full stop.

Somebody commented:

Wouldn’t it be easier to lobby the Congress to fix the laws?
(not verbatim)

The US Congress is probably aware of the issue. The Open Insulin Foundation is direct action. It reminds me of something else.

Open source movement

I think the open source software movement is like this.

In 2003, somebody thought it’d be a good idea to write software for a newspaper website using Python. Then, they gave it to the world, for everyone to use it and solve the same problem they faced—for free. Not only that but there is a good amount of people who keeps improving it (now, 20 years later) without immediate reward. I’m talking about the Django web framework here, just one among the countless open source projects which serve as the bedrock of the modern software industry.

All of these projects, as part of the open source software movement, work in a gift economy. Their creators don’t expect anything. They just build, maintain, improve—rarely asking for rewards.

Why?

I can see (at least) two potential motivators. One: they are happy to help. If they have already solved a problem, why not release the code so that someone else can find the solution instead of someone having to solve it again?

Two: they believe in the open source movement. Politically paraphrasing: they believe in the power of the gift economy. When I was starting to learn coding the open source movement wasn’t as big as today. All I wanted was to find some code to read, copy, understand how it works, and change it, for my own ideas to materialise. Turns out copying code is not legal—unless it’s an open source piece of software1.

Open source software was the most exciting thing for me back then because it meant that I can read it, understand it, change it. This is the gift I received and this is the gift I want to give back now that it’s my turn. I think a large percentage of the open source movement shares this kind of motivation.

In addition to this simple “give back” mentality, many also believe in the movement in a more political way. Free software is similar but not exactly the same as open source.

Impact

It’s important to clarify, here, the range to which the free and open source software movement extends. Anyone (however inexperienced) can release a project as open source3 but this doesn’t mean that there isn’t an abundance of world-class open source projects. Django, as the example already mentioned, is widely successful and used by lots of companies the average non-programmer Western citizen knows, eg. Instagram, Spotify, NASA, et al.

To reiterate more clearly: all of these companies (and practically all internet companies) use—not just as a nice supplement but—as part of their most essential and critical infrastructure software that was made in the past and released for free and for anyone to use.

For example, Instagram, as one of the most extreme examples, makes billions using Django. Yet the people who created Django have not received much from them2. I am not interested in presenting this as unfair. The Django authors shared their creation for others to use without any expectations—as a gift! My claim is that we should admire their eminence and maturity. It’s a true ethical achievement.

Applying it to society

The Open Insulin Foundation applies this philosophy (of the gift economy) to the non-programming crowd and specifically to the healthcare industry. They face the problem head-on and fight fiercely to solve it with no fanfare, only essence.

  1. We need insulin.
  2. Let’s make it for everyone.

There’s nothing more to it.

This might make us ponder: can we apply this thinking to more things in our societies? Can we make food for everyone and be done with this issue? Can we make houses for everyone and end the constant stress and misery?

It feels like this is a nice4 first answer to the ever recurring question: if not capitalism, then what?

Maybe gift economy.


  1. This is not exactly true, either, though. There is a wide array of licenses that define more specifically what one can and cannot do with some code. 

  2. At least I couldn’t find any indication that they have. One can see the corporate members of the Django Software Foundation here

  3. And/or free software. 

  4. In reality, it’s a “nice” answer only for me and very few others. Not only advocates of capitalism but even its opponents would claim that this is not a viable alternative. To which I poetically respond by paraphrasing Devine: “everything is dark under the ultraviolet sun”. 

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