Why not change the world?

I have always been interested in science, technology and (most of all) computers. These are things that I always loved, even though they were sometimes difficult. I loved math and science class in school; I read science-fiction and fantasy novels in all of my spare time. I was the nerdy kid at school that was bullied and mocked. It would have been so easy to just give in and be “like everyone else”. I could have stopped reading. I could have played more sports.

But I didn’t. I knew what it was that I loved. I knew that what I wanted was more important than what they wanted. Most of all, I wanted to change the world.

No one in history has ever changed the world by being what others wanted them to be. They have changed the world by daring to laugh at conventional wisdom and try something new. They have changed the world by standing up and defying that “might makes right” or that “going along to get along” is the right course of action.

This is the sentiment that drove me into my open source career. I chose this path in my life because I see it as a way to effect real change in the world. This is a change really has happened in my lifetime and continues to do so. It flies in the face of the history of business.

At its heart, the open source movement is an extension of science. Sir Isaac Newton wrote “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”. One of the greatest minds in history acknowledged that his contributions to our greater understanding came not from his sole vision but from the fact that thousands of great and lesser minds had worked together to create a world into which his particular spark could ignite change.

The philosophy of open source is the same. It is a mechanism for enabling thousands of people to work together for a common goal. Classic software development has always occurred in closed environments that jealously protect their secrets. Essentially, it has operated on the same philosophies as invention and manufacturing has over the years. It is a difficult habit to break, especially when it seems like you’re giving something up.

That is the core piece that most people have trouble grasping, in my experience. While you are giving up exclusive control, you are gaining something much more valuable: you’re expanding the base level. You are feeding those giants so that you and others can see further and strive higher still. Where once you were an inventor standing on one giant’s shoulders, now you look down and can see the truth for what it is: that giant is standing on other, bigger giants. And on it goes, all the way (“It’s giants all the way down”, to borrow from a popular joke).

Once that realization is made, things become more clear. When you stand taller and can see further, you realize that your efforts can have greater impact than you once believed. Instead of the miserly hoarding of knowledge, you can share it with the world and see what they will do with it too. It won’t always be pretty and it won’t always match your original intentions, but it will always be greater than the sum of its parts. And in a small way, you will have changed the world.

One thing that gets forgotten a lot of the time when folks talk about changing the world is that they talk about massive shifts in direction. They talk about those moments in history where you can look back and say, “There! That’s the moment when everything changed!”. There will always be a few such moments every few centuries, but the truth is that most change happens glacially.

Open source is one of those glacial changes. I don’t use that term to suggest that it moves too slowly. Rather, I chose it to evoke the immensity, inevitability, and incredible moving inertia that drives it. A glacier may take decades, centuries or millenia to move across the land, but nothing can truly stand against that oncoming tide. This is the legacy of open source: the tide of progress.

Over the last twenty-two years of Linux, we’ve seen a great many strides made in the march of progress. When people ask what I work on and I say “Linux” or “open source”, they often give me a blank look. I usually follow up with the following sentence: “Do you have a device with an on-switch that doesn’t start with the letter I? Chances are, it’s running Linux or at least some open source code”. Every time I say this, I boggle at the magnanimity of it. All those years of hard work from so many talented individuals has paid off to such a degree that open source technologies are now the default, rather than the challenger or also-ran. Moreover, it has become so ubiquitous that the public at large is using it without ever caring or needing to know about it.

In a very real way, the open source community has changed the world. It continues to do so every day. I get to be a part of that, and I won’t pretend that the idea doesn’t make me a little heady and giddy.

I started this blog entry up with the question “Why not change the world?”, but that was a little bit misleading. We’ve already succeeded. The real question has to be “How will you change it next?“.


9 thoughts on “Why not change the world?

  1. So true, and at the same time it’s so hard to convince people that don’t have any perception about what order of magnitude Open Source is.

    What happens usually to me is speaking to some manager of sorts to explain that you don’t need 45 different companies and suppliers to host a MySQL database and a web application on a Linux system. So simple and yet so difficult to embrace for many. 1 “item” (i.e. an sql database) equals one supplier; and it’s hard to make them change their minds.

    I really hope that the passing of generations will broaden the views and understanding of decision making people; whether it’s a company or people deciding on directions for a wider audience.

  2. I don’t want to hurt your emotion, but…

    Business doesn’t run by emotion. I don’t consider Google & open source run on the same track, although they are spending a lot of money in the open source world for good(?) or bad. Business utilises every opportunities at hand, using public emotion or new philosophy or new trend or new personality, any thing saleable. Now-a-days, POLITICS, JOURNALISM & BUSINESS are on same track (exceptions break the rule obviously and there are some even today).

    Those very persons bullied (how innocent term!!) you in your childhood days are still alive and they are not going to change, may be even after their death.

    I would like to recall some old sayings,
    1. To change the world, be the change yourself first.
    2. Just do your job, don’t expect. (well, it’s very complex philosophy, I’m taking this from the Hindu scripture ShreeMadbhagabad Gita)

    Personaly, I believe, we the mortal beings, creature of this world can not change the world, we can make our life better, to make it more enjoyable to everybody.

    And Open source means “co-operation between human beings” for that purpose, for which one day human society this human civilization was formed. It’s upto us to protect our civilization. Human civilization started with stone tools, thus named Stone Age, now is the age of computer.

    Don’t expect some business man/woman will come forward and will take this responsibility without any other intension. They live in/on MONEY & POWER (how ridiculous!!), that’s the one thing they know more than anything else.

    Sorry for injecting some of my thought into your blog space… [|;-)

    1. I don’t actually think I said anything really contrary to that. Open source has become an enabler for technology far and wide. While Google develops a *lot* of closed-source software, the vast majority of it is built atop an open source foundation. Just because they haven’t adopted the open source philosophy themselves does not mean that their business hasn’t been made better by it. I think that the march of history will continue to show just how much advantage is had here.

      1. I’m also looking for better future.
        But so far Google is yet to win my heart (may be actually I don’t like their target to make computer such that it will tell me what to do next, after all Google is just a name behind which several good/evil head operate). By open source I mean FOSS, (as Linux was known before arival of Android).

        GNU, Linux, BSD all started spontaneously & voluntarily, even when there were no commercial backing. Gradually, several business men/women started showing interest in these, invested a lot, contributed a lot (indirectly). That is a good sign, but that doesn’t mean we are no where without any big commercial backing. We can survive till there is our community.

        May be I’m interpreting your writing wrongly! Who are your target reader? the community or entrepreneur?

      2. My target reader is the individual contributor at all levels. I want to encourage people to embrace open source because it offers us the opportunity to improve the state of the art for everyone. I used high-level examples to show how it has worked in the past and to indicate how it can continue to accelerate as we move towards the future.

      3. OK, I was mislead by the phrase “giant’s shoulders” and (in different context) reference of “i” less mobile world.

        In today’s (?human) world “giant” means News Corporation, Google, Walt Disney etc. They decide directly/indirectly what people will think what they will do, whether a child or grown up. In front of them Mr. Newton looks like a nucleus of an atom.

        Anyway, article like this time-to-time will keep up the spirit of our community.

      4. My intent with the “giant” metaphor was to represent the total base state of knowledge available for creating something new. That’s why I tied it to Newton, because the intent of his original statement was to show that he couldn’t have made the achievements he had without being able to call on the knowledge of the past.

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