Last week I was talking to Nimrod Vardi from @arebyte gallery about the possibilities of an art exhibition organised using an open source approach. That conversation made me realise there are lots of interesting questions about using open-source outside of software. I should note that open source is strictly about the terms under which computer code is distributed, but here I take here to mean the collaborative processes that allow many people to write code together.
Some open source software projects provide essential tools to the whole of humanity at no cost by combining the work of thousands of individuals – so not bad thing to emulate.
Another less obvious benefit of the open source model of collaboration is how well defined it is. If someone says ‘cooperative’, what does that mean exactly? It could encompass all kinds of things. Assuming you are familiar with it, open source immediately defines a relatively well defined set of processes and social norms.
But how applicable is it to the arts, or local government, two areas where I’ve heard it talked about a lot? Or, for that matter, anything else that isn’t software?
So let’s take that question and examine it: how would you organise many volunteers to make an exhibition happen? Can you answer the question with open source?
Aside: I worked on a BBC documentary called The Virtual Revolution, which billed itself as the first open source documentary. (We all hated the name by the way.) Here is an anecdote the person who commissioned it told us:
TV Commissioner: Will you support us in making this documentary about the virtual revolution, with interviews and so on?
Tim Berners-Lee: Yes, as long as the documentary is open source.
TV Commissioner: Of course it’s going to be open source, I can’t believe you even asked. I have open source with my breakfast. Tim, it’s going to be great working with you.
Tim BL: Lovely! [Tim BL leaves the room]
TV Commissioner: Can somebody tell me what open source is?
There is no literal way a TV program can be open source, it has no source code. But it can be include its potential audience in the decisions. Even this was incredibly difficult for TV producers, who couldn’t release control – and with good reason, a documentary is an aesthetic product that needs to have a consistent voice, and consultation is insanely labour intensive anyway. Anyway.
How can non-software use open source ideas?
I asked “can you organise collaborative non-software projects along the same lines as open source software projects?” on Twitter, and @adamamyl, @amcewen and @floppy came back with some interesting examples, included below.
Even if you’re not writing software, if you are doing something where the output is text then you really can follow an open source model. You can use many of the tools and you can use the licences (which are the legal mechanisms for sharing your software and protecting yourself). That’s exactly what @floppy has done, using Github to collectively write a manifesto for his campaign to become MP for Horsham (Github is a website that manages code that multiple programmers are working on at the same time, powered by a system called Git [I know], which is itself open source). In some ways this is a brilliant shortcut, getting all of Github’s fantastic tools to help you write collectively. However, for non-coders there is a high barrier to entry, the Git workflow isn’t that intuitive. In fact I’d describe it as hostile.
Alternatively, even if you are working on something non-textual, you can still use Github’s issue tracking (which is really designed for tracking bugs in code). @frabcus is using Github issues to track renovating a house, and @amcewen pointed out that @DoESLiverpool is using Github to track issues with… the city of Liverpool.
Again, if you are familiar with Github then it has a lot of useful features, if you aren’t then it’s probably going to make your head explode. In the second cases – renovating the house and Liverpool in its entirety – there isn’t any kind of open source output, they just borrow the tooling.
When people talk about open source I don’t think they (just) want to use the licences or to use Github – they want the scale of participation and the impact that open source has achieved. They want to ca capture the motive force behind Linux and friends, bottle it, and use it. And they want that well defined collaborative process I mentioned before.
Unfortunately, I don’t think there is anything about open source models that can just be read across to increase scale or impact of collaboration outside of software. There are intrinsic (and obvious) ways in which software is just logistically suited to collaboration:
- The goal is to create text (computer code), which can easily be shared over the web allowing a geographically dispersed community to work on it. How could you do this for an exhibition? Sure you can share documents, but when it comes to an install…
- If your code really solves a problem then it could end up with thousands or millions of people using it, which is very motivating. This is not the case for many non-software projects.
- Contributions are very defined, having even a small amount of code in a prominent OS project confers a lot of prestige. Having participated in group decisions about an exhibition might be less compelling and clear cut.
- Software developers collaboratively write software that makes collaborative coding easier, which makes it easier for them to collaborate… it’s a virtuous circle. Git, mentioned before, was written by the developers of Linux as a tool to help them track who wrote which bit of code, now it’s a brilliant tool that huge numbers of developers use.
So you probably can’t really learn a lot from open source processes when it comes to collaboration on projects that are fundamentally about information. Wikipieda, Open Street Map, Linux: yes. Curating a gallery space: probably not. Instead perhaps you have to look to the experience of coops, maker spaces, or other acts of voluntary cooperation where information isn’t the product.
In fact, as I’ve written before, the vague notion that your collaboration should somehow echo open source politics can be quite damaging.
Except. If you can find a some part of the collaborative process that needs a software solution, then perhaps you can make that into an open source software project. And, in creating that collaborative software, perhaps you can embody processes and social norms, just like Github does for open source. Which is what I’m trying to do with my PhD, where the underlying collaborative practise is local government consultation.
Update: @Tim4Shaw has just mentioned open source hardware, which definitely deserves a mention here and is a bit of a glaring omission. Sometimes it’s about hardware that runs only open source firmware, sometimes it’s about publishing files that would allow you to 3D print / laser cut parts. Tim mentioned @MeeBlip, other notable examples include the Novena ‘laptop’ and Wikihouse. All of them represent a blurring of the physical / digital.