The Three Waves of Open (Source, Transacting, Data)

Open Source – GNU – Copy-left

In the mid 1980s, a computer scientist at MIT became frustrated, outraged at his inability to make needed modifications to software code that ran on machines at MIT.  The code came from vendors, often the vendors of the machines, and it was locked down – a big blob – “object code.”  Requests to fix problems were often ignored, as were requests for new features.  The team that could make those changes was small, remote and subordinate to the overall objectives of the vendor.
Richard Stallman took umbrage and searched for a solution.  He created the “free” software movement, the “copy-left” license and a great deal of GNU software to begin an incremental revolution.  His objective was both massive and modest.  Massive in that he sought a complete transformation in how software was made and distributed.  Modest in that he eliminated himself as a bottleneck – anyone could carry the project forward.
The key to this was a legal idea, what came to be known as “copy-left.” Instead of the author renouncing their copyright claims – the authors asserted copyright, allowed unlimited use, except that anyone who published improvements or derivations was also required to add them to the stone soup.  This prevented “embrace and extend” strategies that could re-privatize open software by racing ahead and capturing a customer base for a derivation that would eclipse the open one.
Note that in the case of software, “source” was an established idea; the innovation was in the “open” part, the copy-left license.
In the early 1990s, a student in Finland created the base for Linux, which extended the GNU ecosystem, and accelerated the revolution.  Like all revolutions, this one did not follow a path that could be predicted at the beginning. It meandered, but as it did, it drew in very powerful interests.  Open source became the way for a group of actors, even “selfish” ones in the economic sense, to counter a threat of monopoly.  Open source became a kind of hands-on, market-based anti-monopoly mechanism.  It also drew in many of the best coders because it helped their career paths – they could do their work and develop their careers independent of a vendor/employer.  This was important for academics, and then for nearly everyone with ambitions and ideas.  GNU continues, and the revolution has reached into the web, AI, mobile phones – nearly all corners of software.  (This wonderful talk by Eben Moglen from late 2018 takes the story deeper and wider.)
It is important to notice that the forms of licensing that prevailed included versions that were less strict, less comprehensive and “greedy” (in the regex sense) than the original GNU copy-left.  A sweet-spot turned out to be a somewhat diluted copy-left, along the lines of the MIT license.  This idea of dilution, a bit of “water in the wine” is one of the themes of this post.

Payments, Transacting, Blockchains

Despite the pervasive use of open source in computing, it largely failed to penetrate into transacting.  Banks, merchants and others largely ran software that was proprietary, they had systems that were incompatible, they often ran old software patched together into idiosyncratic systems.   These systems were often profoundly “complex,” they mixed the history and “state” of the organization with its tools and logic into inseparable tangles.
Blockchain erupted onto the scene with bitcoin and is having an “open” effect with respect to payments and transacting.  Blockchain was at first a protest, then a hobbyist thing, then a movement, an inspiration for rethinking the possibilities of collaboration, consensus, payment, even government.  It spawned ambitious efforts to right some pervasive inefficiencies and wrongs.  It made things seem possible that had previously seemed impossible.  It also became the scene of wild speculation, including fraud and other disasters.  But through all this, it has been like the open source manifesto, applied to transacting.
Transacting is inherently something that one does with others, and the others do with other others, and so on.  A solution that allows a person to transact with others in their circle must allow transacting with everyone.  Blockchain demonstrates that the barriers to such a system are fundamentally a lack of open source software standards.
We suggest that the most important part of blockchain may be the impetus to create open source transaction functionality (smart contracts) and open source legal templates, together sometimes called “Ricardian Contracts.”  The crypto-money and public database aspects may turn out to be the strong version, crucial to the development of the community, but ultimately not the majority path.  The big problem in transacting may turn out to be the lack of standards, not the existence of intermediaries.  The problems of “trust” may be easier to resolve by legal means – as was the problem of software capture.

My Data, VRM, GDPR

Shared software for transacting can greatly reduce the cost of being an intermediary, but massive aggregations of data still provide an advantage to a large player.  A movement of “my data,” sometimes pushed to “self-sovereign” data and identity developed.  The dangers that this community noticed early on are now widely recognized, by individuals concerned with their privacy and by whole nations concerned with their economic and political autonomy.
The self-sovereign movement gave rise to many innovations, but it may be the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation that hits the sweet spot, that dilution that preserves the essence and reduces barriers.  The GDPR is presented as a privacy regulation, but the fundamental proposition is that information about people needs to be well-managed, in the interest of the people it concerns.  This means ultimately that people will be able to decide where the information is stored and how it is used.  They can ask for a complete, usable copy, and take it elsewhere, to another fiduciary.  This is impossible unless the information is organized based on standards, that is to say, on open source, common taxonomies.  This provides an alternative path for digital transformation, one based on local management of data, open source software, data minimization and data fiduciaries.

Open Together

The “open” movement is slowly pulling all of transacting and data management into its dynamic.  Open source is largely accomplished – and the fundamental technology is git.  Transacting is on its way, based on shared functionality and shared templates.  Data is also on its way, based on standardized methods for organizing and accessing data.