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Thursday, February 19, 2004

Open source, not just for hackers anymore

This linked article in ArtsJournal on open-source software development rekindled my fondness and interest in the connections of that approach to arts and cultural management (especially on the community level).

For those unfamiliar (the article above is a bit thick for the newbie), open-source is a way of developing software through the independent work of dozens or hundreds of distributed programmers: each drawing on software code developed by others, enhancing or extending it for their own projects and purposes, and reposting the updated code for the rest of the world to see and use. The phrase 'open source' refers to the source code...the inner workings of a software program that proprietary companies such as Microsoft hold under lock, key, and encryption. Says the article:

Yochai Benkler, a law professor at Yale University, has called this 'commons-based peer production.' The commons refers to the sharing of the underlying code or the output that is open to all, akin to the public land that farmers once grazed their livestock upon. Peer production means that producers participate for their own varied reasons and in ad hoc ways, not necessarily via legal contract or management fiat. Benkler calls this a third mode of production for the market, distinct from the company and the "spot market" (or, in employment terms, the freelancer). Open source shows that it is possible for part of the economy to function without companies but with many self-employed individuals contracting with each other.

The idea of 'commons-based peer production' feels closely connected with cultural production, especially in the community setting, where artists have always collaborated and cross-collaborated across organizational boundaries. It also exposes the contrast of so many local arts organizations that perceive their work as proprietary -- just try to wrench their mailing lists out of their grasp for a shared mailing or a community-wide market assessment.

Despite the recent withdrawel of Howard Dean, who built a massive infrastructure through (in part) open-source grass-roots-enabling software and open-source principals of organization, there was something quite astounding in the energy of that campaign, and lots to learn from its work.

It's interesting to consider an arts community constructed and supported on similar principals -- where individual artists and organizations are unflinchingly willing to expose their own 'source code' for each other to share, learn from, and build upon. If we're looking for a charter to guide us, we could adapt the open source definition, which seems a great beginning.

NOTE: The open-source article prompted me to dig out an opinion piece I wrote for the Chronicle of Philanthropy back in March 2002, which I just dumped into this weblog's Thoughtbucket section.

posted on Thursday, February 19, 2004 | permalink