Posted on Apr 9th 2009

By: Guest columnist & historian Gregory Munoz

The following is a fictitious story/analogy about Open Source in the present and future. Tongue is firmly planted in-cheek, but the discussion is a valid one, as you'll see...

New Colorado Daily Mirror

Open Source Software – Another Lost Civilization?

July 15, 2832 :: Nepo Ecruos, Colorado – For years now, researchers have been hunting for information about lost 21st century cultures. Now, after finally solving the mystery of what happened to 'America Online,' it appears another enigma has been discovered by local socio-archeology organization MostDigs.

Recent findings indicate a technologically advanced, agrarian society existed in the Colorado Valley hundreds of years ago, and has been since affectionately dubbed, “New Millennium Utopia.”

Beneath the sands of the Red Rock Desert, geologists from MostDigs unearthed what appears to be the documented remains of the once-thriving 'fair use' agriculture-based culture.

“The unparalleled detail of these records show that what is now a barren landscape was once a lush and thriving agriculture-based ecosystem,” said Chief Archeologist and leading Anthropologist Dr. Kevin Shankman. “But the true mystery is how it seems to have appeared and thrived so quickly, and then, just as suddenly, vanished.”

Shankman notes three key turning points that hint at the origins and sudden, ultimate demise of this Utopian society:

1) Origins. The owner of what was once the largest field in the valley enacting an 'Agrarian Nepo Public License,' (ANPL) that allowed the town's citizenry the freedom to plant crops in his fields and to consume whatever they needed from their own plots based on some simple conditions:

    a) The New Millennium Utopians wishing to benefit from his kindness must first sign the Agrarian Nepo Public License, which allows for use and distribution of crops at the owner's discretion.
    b) The field owner himself decided what crops would be planted during any given season.
    c) Any participant in this program would have access to consume all crops from other plot owners on his land free of charge.

“From what we have been able to tell by studying the carbon laser dating, this societal origination took place roughly 800 years ago in the 1990s,” said Shankman. “While this set of social guidelines seems foreign to us today, it was even more unusual to suggest a communal system in what was, at the time, an apparently capitalistic society.”

2) Growth. Further records indicate that the land owner, shortly after the enactment of the license, struck a deal with an external distributor for taking care of the logistics and operation costs (including seeds, fertilizers, equipment, etc.) of the micro-fields in exchange for allowing the distributer to sell or barter excess production in the open market. Soon, all excess food was delivered to the distributor in exchange for how easy he made the field work.

3) External Expansion. After a few successful years, a new social movement emerged that was centered on empowering people to control their own agrarian fate. Equipped with the education they learned from working on the communal micro-fields and protected by Agrarian Nepo Public License, the Town folk branched out and begun working on the crop of their choice, in essence becoming actual farmers.

“More and more distributors with deep pockets moved freely in and out of the valley to help manage the surplus and to bring much needed supplies and outside expertise,” said Shankman.

This broadening of the ecosystem was a pivotal moment, according to Dr. Shankman. “Since the licenses required that the field owner had the final say in the crops that were planted, the surrounding communities began to pay local field workers to 'lobby' the landowner based off of their own market interests. It appears the distributors became involved in the lobbying efforts too. This is perhaps not surprising, considering the society's capitalistic origins.”

During this transition, according to Shankman, is where the records begin to become more vague. But one aspect seems clear: the society seemed mostly healthy until one major event brought everything to a standstill: It suddenly stopped raining.

Supporting this environmental-disaster theory, MostDigs recently discovered an almanac that precedes the time of the supposed drought that predicts a hard period of no rainfall. It stated the rain was most likely to end during first decade of the 21st century, which correlates with the timing of the end of the discovered records. What was once a lush, thriving paradise apparently became barren land nearly overnight – and there may have been warning that was not heeded.

Researchers postulate a number of explanations for the sudden climate and corresponding societal change.

“Water is the lifeblood of all societies. So, it would stand to reason that a lasting drought could cripple this agrarian community and ultimately contribute to the end of its influence in the area. However, contradicting that theory, the landscape shows an abundance of water in lakes and rivers at a reasonable distance from the community,” said Shankman.

He continued, “Little to no effort was apparently made to build any irrigation systems, or aqueducts despite the almanac's prediction of a prolonged drought or this demonstrated availability of water nearby.”

Other researchers reason that the governing system under the ANPL had too little influence in the type of large scale effort needed to direct the building of such an irrigation system. After all, farmers could do whatever they wanted and whenever they wanted; ultimately guided by self-interest.

Dr. Shankman, points out that divergence of opinion as to what direction to take to solve the water crisis would have likely polarized all actions despite the community's will or best interests.

Shankman, however, believes the drought was the catalyst and not the cause; the drought expedited what was already in the making.

“A likely sequence of events would indicate an initial disagreement over what crops to grow in each plot and an ensuing rebellion categorized by self-interested actions. For example, one citizen grew corn for three years. He grew tired of growing corn, or he had to trade half of his crop for a bag of apples. He then wanted to grow apples ... you see the proverbial snow ball beginning to form,' Shankman said. “Then, with the removal of the rainfall, I believe the society simply collapsed in a chaotic mess due to starvation and lack of common direction.”

This descending view is shared by Anthropolist and Cultural Behavior expert Dr. Amos Browning of Elay University: “Social history research shows that humans most often measure their personal value through complex social comparisons. Everyone likes to be recognized and to receive credit for what is produced, particularly if we take pride in our work,” Browning states. “Historically,we don't fair well under 'compulsory' sharing conditions, especially without receiving proper credit for our contribution. The key word is 'proper,' since everyone's personal and societal expectations are different.

As the scholarly debate continues, Dr. Shankman and his team are working busily to uncover more clues about the fate of the Utopian society. While the true series of events may never be known, we may be able to draw some contemporary lessons for our own culture, as noted by Dr. Browning: “The freedom to self-improve and pursue self-interest is an inherently attractive prospect across human cultures. The true challenge comes when a large community of self-motivating people has their desires conflict and compromise is required to move forward. When outside forces are also at work, in this case environmental, the very resiliency of cultural ideals is at stake.”

So what does any of this have to do with Open Source Software (OSS)?

The industry, while thriving using just about any metric, is in the middle of a perfect storm. The combination of a worldwide economic downturn, consistency of human emotions, cornerstone industries retreating into core business, people losing jobs and focusing on survival, as well as the meltdown of global venture capital beg a sincere question; will anthropologists look back hundreds of years from today on OSS as a blip on the screen or a seminal transition into something greater than free software?

This fictitious story is an attempt to diffuse what is normally a very emotionally charged discussion about who is right and who is wrong. There are many parallels between this fictitious society and today's OSS efforts. For example, Business Week recently published a piece on the end of Open Source as a business model and seeing it as a means to an end rather than an end unto itself.

This type of discuss demonstrates that there is a trend: companies are focusing on traditional tactical core business and less on strategic OSS efforts. Venture capital is all but dry, leaving many promising OSS projects out on a limb. Chris Anderson, in his article “The Economics of Giving It Away,” points to some key concerns about contemporary OSS that apply here. It may very well not be as “gloom and doom” as this story might suggest, but it does, in today’s day and age, require a thoughtful dialog.

We would love to hear your thoughtful opinions on this topic. This is a dialog, not a diatribe. Talk to us.