There is a scene in the hit science-fiction television series “The Expanse” in which a leader of “The Belt”—that is, the asteroid belt which is a stand-in for our current-day “developing” countries—remarks about an attitude typical of Earthers, inhabitants of the now unified Earth. It will come as no surprise to you that 500 years into the future Earthers are still systematically exploiting people and resources far from their home. The Belter leader says: “Earthers cannot look upon a thing but wonder who it belongs to.”
We who are Earthers today needn’t wait 500 years to experience the consequences of this outlook. It is on display every day and has now become so ubiquitous that it wastes precious natural resources while it crushes badly needed innovation and genuine consumer choice in practically every area of commerce. There is an alternative. But, more on that later.
Of course, there is the obvious tendency of modern humans to look at a forest and see not trees, but board-feet of lumber. Or to look at a beautiful Appalachian mountain range and assess how to decapitate it by using mountaintop removal in order to get at the coal underneath. Or to see a flowing spring and think of all the groundwater that can be pumped to fill six-packs of bottled water.
But the thinking doesn’t stop there and doesn’t apply only to tangible property. Science fiction author and journalist Cory Doctorow takes aim here at Lexmark, the printer manufacturer, and the ink racket it is perpetrating on its customers. The racket is emblematic of the lengths to which corporations will go to victimize their customers. In this case ink that works in more than one printer is governed by digital rights management that prevents it from going into a printer it was not labeled for.
Lexmark lost a case involving printer ink many years ago, a case that turned on whether 55 bytes of code could be considered a copyrighted work. The judge said no. But today, with thousands of lines of code in practically every office device—some of it designed to thwart choice and ingenuity among customers—will the next judge decide the same thing?
The knowledge that is found in the minds of those who work for corporations including the ones who work for Lexmark has now become a coveted possession of our corporate overlords. Non-disclosure and confidentiality agreements are standard practice. Naturally, companies don’t like the idea of people walking off with the knowledge they’ve gained and using it to help the competition. But doesn’t that knowledge rightly belong to the company, you say, especially if it is proprietary?
Let us ponder whether that model of thinking about expertise and so-called trade secrets serves us well or whether other models provide a better result for society as a whole. After all, the corporation was conceived as a form of organization that could more efficiently and effectively serve the needs of people in society. It was not conceived to merely serve the needs of its owners or even its employees.
Let’s take the model in medical practice as a contrasting example. When a doctor discovers a way to better prevent disease or to speed a patient’s recovery, he or she seeks to share that information, often through an article in a medical journal. It is anathema in the medical profession to keep secret life-saving medical practices that could help a vulnerable world cope better with its daily health challenges.
In general, it is the world of academic science including medicine which generalizes this practice of sharing important findings. (Unfortunately, this has become less frequent as academics turn to protecting their discoveries with patents or at least their employers do.)
I find myself thinking once again of what I refer to as the Linux Model. By this I mean the decentralized, seemingly chaotic and disorganized system by which the Linux computer operating system proliferates its versions and applications. On the surface, this system, which is built around the free and open source Linux kernel, seems like merely a hobbyist’s pastime.
There are hundreds, if not thousands, of versions of the Linux operating system. And yet, for all this effort, Linux enjoys around a 2 percent share of the desktop and laptop market. How can so much effort lead to so little in the way of results? Compare, for example, the Microsoft Windows operating system which commands somewhere in the neighborhood of an 80 percent share of the desktop and laptop market. These particular numbers, however, do not tell the whole story as we shall see.
What distinguishes the Linux Model is that the knowledge generated by it cannot be dammed up and appropriated by one or a few people. Almost all the knowledge that comprises this model circulates freely and is “owned” by no one. When development groups—sometimes informal associations of developers worldwide, sometimes developers formally supported by corporate money—when these groups have an irreconcilable split over the direction of their projects, the dissident group often breaks off—and this is the key piece—and takes with it all of the knowledge, expertise and code from that project and starts down its own path. That’s right. The dissidents can and do take it all and create what is often called a “fork” from the previous distribution.
Some dissident groups create strong competitors. Others dissipate into inaction. But no intellectual property rights prevent them from succeeding.
Oh, did I forget to mention the most important thing from a user’s point of view? The vast majority of Linux distributions are available for free and are supported free of charge. The bills are generally paid through donations, both individual and corporate.
So, does any economic activity of any significance result from all this effort? The answer is a resounding yes. Some of the largest computer consultancies advise corporations and others on their Linux installations. Some of those consultancies have their own copyrighted enterprise versions of the Linux system (though these versions tend to be cheaper than those of their competitors, and yes, it’s possible and perfectly all right to make money in the Linux community). And those in the enterprise market generally support a consumer version of their system that is free.
But that’s not all. A large number of the world’s major online retailers depend on Linux to run their e-commerce sites. Why? Because it is far more secure (not subject to computer viruses) and far more stable, that is, it can run for very long periods without crashing or freezing. I remember one IT specialist telling me he had run a Linux server where he worked continuously for five years with without a crash.
Still, is there really hope for Linux among average users? Well, most people are surprised to know that Linux is already the leading operating system in use in the world today. That’s because the Android operating system found on billions of cellphones is a derivative of Linux. In that market the freely available product from the chaotic world of Linux is the market leader.
What I’m getting at is that the Linux Model—which on its face seems impossibly badly organized and managed—is, in fact, a highly tuned collaborative system that continuously innovates and spreads knowledge. Out of that collaborative system not only have come many useful platforms for commerce and scientific research—did I mentioned that Linux is popular in the scientific community—but also a modern hybrid model of individual initiative and creativity combined with community effort and charitable giving that is linked to economic benefit in ways that are both explicit and hidden. This model is much more attuned to the needs emerging from the rapid and tumultuous social and economic transformation taking place across the world.
And, as we’ve seen, the world of operating systems isn’t the only place that this revolution in how we innovate and share our innovations is taking place. But it is leading the way in the area of commerce where old systems which hoard knowledge and skills have no future. And, it is one that is surprisingly good at allowing people to customize products and services to their particular circumstances and needs.
I am reminded once again of the television series “The Expanse.” The same character mentioned at the outset of this piece goes on to repeat a “Belter” saying that is emblematic of the difference between the outlook of Belters and Earthers. In the Belt they say: “The more you share, the more your bowl will be plentiful.”
The Linux Model shows the truth of this slogan as do the methods of sharing knowledge and practices in medicine and science in general. That model demonstrates that freely sharing knowledge rather than hoarding it is the path forward for innovation and for more widely sharing the benefits of that innovation.
P.S. I hasten to add that this model can serve us well in addressing the most pressing environmental and social challenges of our day. But that is a topic for a future article. Full disclosure: I am a long-time Linux user who has absolutely nothing to sell you other than my high degree of satisfaction with participating in the Linux community and using its products.
Image: Logo of Knoppix Linux (Vitruvian penguin). Creator: Rugby47 (2007). Via Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Knoppix_logo.svg