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The Future of Open Source

On imperialism and idealism.

Spring 2022

I despised anyone who was not describable as a 'gentleman', but also I hated the hoggishly rich, especially those who had grown rich too recently. The correct and elegant thing, I felt, was to be of gentle birth but to have no money.
- George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier

The Imperial March

The Western Empire is declining. It looks like its final installment will be the American - you know, the one that picked up the slack where the British left off and copied the Victorian era: worldwide free trade backed by a massive navy and imperial tributes paid in a global reserve currency.

No matter what geopolitical and economic analysis one might subscribe to, this decline should by now be apparent - not least given recent events in Hong Kong, Afghanistan and Ukraine. We may curse and and kick and scream with the moral indignation and stubborn entitlement of a once great power, but it looks as if nothing is going to stop the East from rising once again.

The reasons for this are many and I won't go into them now. Suffice to say, the world is changing and so called doomers of various flavors are having a field day. I'm afraid I subscribe to some of their analyses, but I also think that many of them are, in their zeal to discredit our current decadent and incompetent elites, all too eager to ignore or even forget that the west has been capable of some fairly interesting and even decent things - both historically and recently.

Whether or not we should count open source software among those is up for debate. Nevertheless, it's an interesting phenomenon in many aspects. While currently co-opted by NGO:s and for-profit entities, it's both originally and ultimately the product of a society where highly specialized craftsmen have such abundant access to wealth, knowledge, free time and tools that the surplus of their creativity is willingly shared for free - even with large, profitable, corporate enterprises.

The Source Awakens

A vital component in this is that these craftsmen are steeped in a particular ideology and shaped by a societal tradition that for various reasons not only tolerates but encourages and rewards this kind of behavior. Call it social democracy, liberal democracy, western science, enlightenment - whatever name we use for it, it's firmly linked to idealistic notions of free speech, egalitarianism and meritocracy. The reason this type of idealistic hacking is mostly popular in the US and Europe is as much cultural as it is economic.

Open source is currently enabled at scale because large corporations depend on it to the point that people are getting paid to write free software - but Linux originally reached that position mostly because of the work of idealists. The economic intricacies making this possible are complex and also linked to the western empire and its culture and philosophy in many ways, but a lot of it boils down to the same principles that enables open source in the first place. Empires in general and the western one in particular has a tradition of exploratory research funded by imperial surplus, in the hope that the products of such research will prove beneficial in some way. Historically, this has been successful - if not always for humanity, then at least for the empire. Among other things, it's given us GPS, nuclear weapons, antibiotics, vaccines, air travel and the Internet.

What makes open source rather uniquely western is its dependence on certain cultural and legal abstractions. Apart from free speech and a rule of law of unprecedented rigor, there is for example a very western notion of privacy that in some ways runs counter to the interests of an empire, and a fairly modern notion of individuality and personal realization. Ideas such as l'art pour l'art and the long march through the institutions have surely played their part as well.

A short explanation might be in order: I'd like to think I'm not overly naïve. There are several examples of corruption, mismanagement and even tyranny carried out by and in the west - but as far as open source goes, I have a hard time placing it in another political framing. As such, I do believe it's the nominal values of the empire that's enabled it. It's an implementation of ideals the imperial elite may have paid mere lip service to and that may have resulted in tyranny in some of its client states, but which has at least earnestly (and perhaps sometimes foolishly) been shared by the citizens at its core. At risk of sounding pompous, it's an echo of grand founding phrases, even though they in our current trying times can feel like hollow mockeries: Liberty, equality, fraternity. All public power emanates from the people. Life, liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Defending the Source

This mix of ideological and corporate backing may make Linux and certain similar projects seem "too big to fail", but the only reason Russia, China and India (and indeed certain western corporations) hasn't completely ignored all or parts of the GNU Public License is because its rise in popularity coincides with the world turning unipolar: the Linux kernel was released in 1991, the same year the Soviet Union toppled over and fell apart.

Almost all common open source licences have been designed with US law in mind and none of them have been thoroughly tried in court. Like it or not, they are in a sense inverted mirrors of US intellectual property law and thus the adherence to them is intimately linked to the reach of the American empire. The imperial ability to enforce such laws on a global scale - whether economically, militarily or culturally - is mainly what enables US tech and media giants to act internationally in a meaningful way. This ability is clearly diminishing.

Even at the height of US imperial power, Asia was a veritable smörgåsbord of counterfeiting and blatant public piracy. In the decades before that, the eastern bloc was teeming with illicit clones of the British ZX Spectrum computer. Russia and China still regularly top various piracy rankings: their attitude towards such activities is simply different than that of western megacorps. This attitude has hardly changed and we were recently treated to a preview of what imperial decline might look like for western tech companies.

When Microsoft and other software vendors enforced sanctions against Russia after the invasion of Ukraine, Russia - quite predictably - responded by announcing a relaxation of copyright and piracy laws. In a multipolar world, there's no reason to heed the whims of Californian attorneys and bespectacled billionaires from Washington. Because of cloud computing and online license verification, the Russian strategy may be untenable in the long run, but it should at least give a respite allowing them to regroup and minimize their dependence on restricted software. Linux (and Wine) may prove to be an alternative here. Ignoring, for a moment, the fact that some people would presently feel ideological qualms over accepting Russian commits upstream, we probably shouldn't hold our breath waiting for anything substantial to show up in any FOSS repository from sanctioned countries or, indeed, the countries that may become their biggest trading partners in the future.

One such country is China, where the situation may at least ostensibly be somewhat different. Huawei is currently a large contributor to the Linux kernel and several other Chinese companies have skin in the Linux game, but that doesn't guarantee their further commitment to GPL intricacies. In a unipolar American trade empire, there's been enough incentive for them to play nice. With mercantilism and trade wars likely to intensify, nothing is stopping them from either patching around the kernel, forking it or - if need be - rolling their own from scratch.

It may be a major undertaking, but recent events have hopefully taught even the most stubborn of western pundits that what may seem unthinkable to them is in no way impossible or even improbable. That which does not serve the purpose of a rising East will be dealt with accordingly: domestic industry will be protected, but foreign interests can be ignored if no retaliation is to be expected. And most of all, nobody will lift a finger in order to uphold the lofty liberal ideals of their former imperial overlords. This is rational and expected, but may still come as a shock to an industry that's never experienced anything but the full support of a great empire.

May the Source be with you

Open source is, in a sense, of gentle birth but without money. A western middle class rebellion turned semi-corporate, at its fringes still struggling to remain credible with the ideologically pure and even serving some purpose to those distrustful of the current imperial elite. I make no pretense of not having similar rebellious ambitions myself - within reason, of course. I may seem contrarian but I am, after all, also steeped in sensibilities shaped by centuries of western hegemony. I am penniless global gentry, a middle-class imperial gentleman. It is my culture.

Culture, just like wealth and power, can be squandered. But unlike wealth and power, parts of culture run deep and is hard to uproot. A great global power doesn't disappear overnight and neither will open source software. In light of recent events however, the once bright future of what at times felt like an unstoppable force is now shrouded in the same murky fog of decline and uncertainty as the empire that gave birth to it. The kind of idealism and abundance open source sprung from tend to be early victims during hard times and increased open source politization is already underway - itself a sign of dwindling prosperity.

Then again, the current direction of the world is going to bring about more profound change than the computational autonomy of a bunch of spoiled geeks like myself. I urge everyone to prepare as best they can; others might seek solace in the possibility that I could be completely wrong. In the meantime, take care and happy hacking.