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Science and the New Renaissance

The Open Source development model of today has its roots in the academic computer science of a decade or more ago. What makes Open Source dramatically more successful today, however, is the rapid dissemination of information made possible by the Internet. When Watson and Crick discovered the double helix, they could reasonably expect the information to travel from Cambridge to Cal Tech in a matter of days, or weeks at most. Today the transmission of such information is effectively instantaneous. Open Source has been born into a digital renaissance made possible by the Internet, just as modern science was made possible during the Renaissance by the invention of the printing press.

The Middle Ages lacked an affordable information infrastructure. Written works had to be copied by hand at great expense, and hence the information had to have an immediate value attached to it. Trade records, banking transactions, diplomatic correspondence; this information was concise enough and carried enough immediate value to be transmitted. The speculative writings of alchemists, priests, and philosophers -- the men who would later be called scientists -- took a much lower priority, and hence the information was disseminated much more slowly. The printing press changed all this by dramatically lowering the barriers to entry in the information infrastructure. Scholars who had previously worked in isolation could, for the first time, establish a sense of community with other scholars all over Europe. But this exercise in community building required an absolute commitment to the open sharing of information.

What was born out of this community was the notion of academic freedom, and ultimately the process we now call the Scientific Method. None of this would have been possible without the need to form community, and the open sharing of information has, for centuries, been the cement that has held the scientific community together.

Imagine for a moment if Newton had withheld his laws of motion, and instead gone into business as a defense contractor to artillerists following the 30 Years War. ``No, I won't tell you how I know about parabolic trajectories, but I'll calibrate your guns for a fee.'' The very idea, of course, sounds absurd. Not only did science not evolve this way, but it could not have evolved this way. If that had been the mindset of those scientifically inclined, their very secrecy would have kept science from developing and evolving at all.

The Internet is the printing press of the digital age. Once again, the barriers to entry for the information infrastructure have been dramatically lowered. No longer does source code need to be distributed on paper tape as with the original version of Unix, or floppy disks, as in the early days of DOS, or even on CD-ROM. Any ftp or web server can now serve as a distribution point that is cheap and effectively instantaneous.

While this renaissance holds great promise, we must not forget the centuries old scientific heritage on which the Open Source development model is based. Computer science and the computer industry do exist in an uneasy alliance today. There is pressure from industry giants like Microsoft to keep new developments proprietary for the sake of short-term financial gain. But as more and more of the development work in computer science has its origins in industry rather than academia, industry must take care to nourish computer science through the open sharing of ideas -- namely, the Open Source development model. The computer industry must do this not out of any altruistic motives to serve a greater cause, but for the most basic pragmatic reasons: enlightened self-interest.

First of all, it would be shortsighted of those in the computer industry to believe that monetary reward is the primary concern of Open Source's best programmers. To involve these people in industry, their priorities must be respected. These people are involved in a reputation game, and history has shown that scientific success outlives financial success. We remember a few of the great industrialists of the last hundred years: Carnegie, Rockefeller. We remember a great many more of the scientists and inventors from the last hundred years: Einstein, Edison ... Pauling. When the history of this time is written a hundred years from now, people will perhaps remember the name of Bill Gates, but few other computer industrialists. They are much more likely to remember names like Richard Stallman and Linus Torvalds.

Second, and more important, industry needs the innovation science can provide. Open Source can develop and debug new software with the speed and creativity of science. The computer industry needs the next generation of ideas that will come from Open Source development.

Consider the example of Linux once again. Linux is a project that was conceived some five years after Microsoft began development of Windows NT. Microsoft has spent tens of thousands of man-hours and millions of dollars on the development of Windows NT. Yet today Linux is considered a competitive alternative to NT as a PC-based server system, an alternative that major middleware and backend software is being ported to by Oracle, IBM, and other major providers of enterprise software. The Open Source development model has produced a piece of software that would otherwise require the might and resources of someone like Microsoft to create.

To sustain the digital renaissance we need Open Source development. Open Source development drives progress not just in computer science, but in the computer industry as well.

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Last updated: 1999-08-06