Dirt and grass are beautiful. Rocks, twigs, and bugs, too. Sometimes this world recognizes only majestic cathedrals, all too happy to look past the essence of life.

This is a corollary to something I’ve been struggling to articulate lately. Open source has made it; and because it has made it, people want to make it big. This is fine. I don’t have a problem with big companies, big projects, big money, and the rest.

Where I get uneasy is when people cultivate the sense that the fundamental distinction of free software is just access to source code, or the even simpler view of having no licensing cost.

No, this isn’t what really gets me.

What really gets me is when we propagate the notion that open source software is just the next piece of some empire-building puzzle – that the value lies chiefly in the different market pressures that open access and licensing can add to the corporate toolkit.

Sure, these techniques can level out markets or even carve out new ones. Sure, there are areas of innovation that require very large investments, particularly where new hardware or regulations are involved (shaking up the mobile industry, for example). Sure, big companies can deliver on a social mission.

But it’s harmful to assume that “open” is just the newest armor for the same old machine, on its same old world domination path.

We miss the point when we forget that access has always been a key component of open source software and communities.

When I say access, I mean the access of the hobbyist or student or small shop to the tools of creation. Through projects that have essentially no “business model”, millions of amateurs (only in the sense that they do something else for a living) are able to create software, art, and more, all with tools that paid professionals use. The most mature case is that of programming tools (languages, compilers, servers, IDEs, etc.) where the freely available tools are the exclusive kit of many pros.

The impact this has had is enormous. If you have the itch, you can build things. Free tools aren’t a secret anymore. And they hold their own with the commercial tools.

But to get to my point…

It’s perfectly alright to be a hobbyist. It’s perfectly alright to make and share software that doesn’t aim to dominate some market – or even ever be polished.

So much of our technology world runs on dirt and grass – the stuff on the ground level. The driver that reads your keyboard, the TCP/IP stack in a dozen routers between me and you, the library that talks to your IM service.

The open varieties of these and many more are beautiful. They don’t have to be big or marketable to be important and interesting.

It’s far too easy to get caught up in the gears when we talk about who’s going to buy up the next open source database or who’s the most delectable open source target in the groupware or telephony arenas.

One of my most cherished aspects of open software is that there is room; room for everyone, room for multiple projects that do the same thing, room for innovation, room for profit, room for hobby, room for learning. The creative energy is not bound by customers, design training, or anything else if you don’t want. You don’t have to aspire to beating anyone. This doesn’t mean you can’t be a fine craftsman, either, but that the field is open in all directions.

When we talk only of building skyward, we hurt the sense of wonder that is tinkering and the camaraderie that is hacking together in the bazaar. We forget that we have limitless space outward – where there’s a lot of beautiful dirt and grass to play on. -NB

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12 January 2010