This work is subject to the Design Science License.
I originally wrote this paper whilst working at the University of Derby. It was first presented at a conference entitled To Catch the Bird of Heaven, which took place at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, in March 2000.
What has enabled this extraordinary connectivity between people is a special synthesis of electronic hardware and software. How has it come about? What have been the key milestones? What can we learn from the processes that have taken place? How will it affect our values?
This paper attempts to provide some answers to these questions by highlighting
the contribution of Open Source software to a global transformation.
This is a transformation not just of technology but, more importantly,
groundbreaking processes of on-line collaboration that have been
taking place for more than two decades - processes that suggest a higher
consciousness. Observations are made about processes of software
development that reveal many insights that can apply
far more widely. A few of these insights will be suggested through
some personal reflections in the context of interfaith co-operation.
These two initiatives reflect a growing sense of individual and collective responsibility in order to bring peace to the world. The interconnectedness of these two aspects is perhaps best encapsulated in the fourth Principle in the Declaration of a Global Ethic, a Transformation of Consciousness. In our present time, actions we take individually in our local context have implicitly echoes across the world and we cannot but be mindful of them. Some aspects in the growing collective awareness are easy to recognize, such as the millions of television viewers who receive news reports from the broadcast media. Even in the relative comfort of their armchairs at home, they are to some degree exposed every day to the hardships of war, famine, disease, and death. However, there are other signs of shared consciousness that may be identified and they are emerging in very different ways.
One of these is a movement for a kind of software development called Open Source. It is not new, but the extraordinary scale of its impact is just emerging into public awareness. Open Source can have many different views: at the most technical, it is concerned entirely with ways and means of producing software that satisfy particular requirements. Many of those involved in the process are termed hackers, i.e. computing, especially programming, enthusiasts who like solving problems. (There is no implication in this term of malevolent activity, for which the word cracker is more appropriate). At the other end there is the view from someone who may know nothing about programming, but is simply interested in the effects that this movement will have on society - which is the focus here.
These effects are profound: the Open Source pioneers have blazed the
trail for ways of intense collective collaborative work that transcend
all kinds of barriers and boundaries. Many lessons have already been
learnt from the experiences accumulated over decades and they are instructive
well beyond the discipline of software development. The following
sections will highlight some of these insights as it offers a brief glimpse
into the culture of Open Source developers, especially how the nature
of openness manifests on the Internet and how the Internet is encouraging
A wide range of services for communication and information operate across the Internet. Many of these revolve around the most popular and universal service of electronic mail (e-mail), which is a peer level means of communication that provides a direct way to keep in touch with others who are connected to the Net (or on-line). One of the most popular manifestations is the global bulletin board system, USENET, where people interact by creating and responding to a host of discussion threads that are relayed around the world. The responsiveness in such an environment is soon evident when making a contribution since in most cases, replies come within 24 hours.
Yet what has really captured people's imaginations is the World Wide Web (or simply Web). The Web came about as a solution to a problem in collaboration: the disparate groups of scientists and engineers working in particle physics at the CERN laboratories in Europe needed easy access to various kinds of information - software, experimental data, academic papers and general articles, etc. The computer scientist, Tim Berners-Lee, was contracted to provide a solution using a networked information system. His approach was to devise protocols and software that would enable researchers at CERN to freely explore between various kinds of files located on computers around the network.
Berners-Lee succeeded by combining several strands: hypermedia, which is a way of navigating through documents by associating (or linking) a section in one document with another document; a universal naming system (so that files on computers worldwide have common address formats) and the Internet protocols. Thus was created the World Wide Web. Common graphical user interfaces soon followed, which were called Web browsers. They enabled people to navigate from one document to another by using a mouse to point and click on the hyperlinks. One of the early such browsers was Mosaic ; more recent examples include Netscape Navigator and Microsoft Internet Explorer.
Berners-Lee monitored the use of the Web facilities he set up at CERN
and found the response to was growing exponentially, so he decided set
up a body to oversee its technical development so that developers could
reach some consensus on how the Web should operate. This led eventually
to the establishment of the World Wide Web Consortium, which develops open
standards, serving in particular to provide guidelines for the hypermedia
languages that link together the disparate computer files . He
has also continued to oversee the development of Web software (all Open
Source), including Amaya, which functions as a Web browser cum editor
- Berners-Lee has always intended the Web to facilitate contribution as
much as any other activity on-line . He has written
an interesting account of how everything came together in his book, Weaving
the Web .
Torvalds was not the first to make available a Unix-like operating system
for a PC, and indeed there were other products that looked initially to
be more promising. However, he was the first to release the source
code early on for any others to provide feedback in the manner of Open
Source. This turned out to be a touch of genius as Linux received
increasing amounts of attention and in due course evolved into a highly
respected system that is now running on millions of computers around the
world and is still growing in popularity. It has demonstrated
the extent of Open Source's penetration around the world.
Open Source software has been in much use in MultiFaithNet, a Web site that serves as a self access tool for learning and dialogue in religion and spirituality, based at the University of Derby . We have employed various technologies to provide edited, signposted and regularly updated global electronic resources from the vast and growing amount of material on the Internet relating to religious traditions, religious communities and interfaith dialogue. Until the end of 1998, the site was running on a shared machine that was using a number of proprietary technologies. It had almost ground to a halt and maintenance was difficult. So in January 1999, a new computer was purchased to act as a Web server and the only payment that was required was for the hardware: the operating system (Linux), Web server (Apache) , and scripting language (Perl)  were all Open Source. It has proved functional, fast, and reliable.
Among the many other Open Source services available, one that deserves
particular mention is an annotation package called CritSuite - it
enables anyone with a Web browser to annotate documents hosted at other
Web sites . This service thus facilitates co-operative tasks
such as developing draft documents, which is particularly beneficial for
those who are separated geographically by great distances. To illustrate
its utility, it is suggested that this paper be allowed to continue to
evolve in the manner of Open Source and that CritSuite be used for comments!
For a computer program to be used, it has either to be interpreted by another program or compiled into an executable (binary code instructions that a particular machine can readily understand and carry out). In either case, further development is largely dependent upon access to the original sources since binary code is immensely more difficult for humans to decipher. If you run a program that is Open Source and you find a bug (or programming error), then you are at liberty to alter the source code, recompile the program and carry on in the improved environment. The only requirement is that you are obliged to make your improvement freely available under the Open Source license agreement.
There are various levels of openness, depending upon the scope and nature of access to the software being developed, and the conditions of use. An example of software that is almost Open Source is an on-line database package called MySQL, which is Open Source except for the constraint that if it is used within a commercial environment, then a fee must be paid to the developers . Many intermediate agreements are possible, yet many companies have leaned to the other end, following a distinctly closed approach to software production: they have traditionally only made their software available in binary form and furthermore have imposed copyright to prevent others from changing the software without express permission. This approach has proved immensely profitable for some, but arguably led to an unquestioning and relentless upward spiral in complexity that has not come cheap for the customer.
The differences in the products themselves in terms of licensing are prominent, yet what marks out software more distinctly is the ongoing process of development: Open Source goes by the maxim, "release early and often." In this case, the initial program, not yet complete and perhaps containing several bugs, is released on the Net so that in theory it is open to inspection and modification by anyone who goes on-line. An individual or group oversees the main thrust of development, allowing feedback from anyone who wishes to download, test and debug (remove the bugs from) the sources. The developer(s) absorb the feedback, decide what are the best contributions and revise the program accordingly. An update is then posted on the Net and the whole cycle re-iterated. This process can continue indefinitely, though in practice certain stages are identified as stable releases, where the software can be deemed fit for general use and there may be a pause when it fulfils precisely the needs of all the users and satisfies the itches of the developers. A few years later, however, as technology moves on apace, additional requirements may emerge and the software developed further in the same way. The responsibilities and skills are thus heavily concerned with communication, co-ordination and discernment.
In contrast, the process of producing software released only as binary executables consists of a team of in-house experts who produce software in much more strongly regulated and controlled conditions. The development is centralised in closed surroundings and the software is only released when it is considered at least very near to a finished product. Further, once the software is released, it will only be changed occasionally and usually by those involved in the original development and under the same regulated conditions as before.
Many observations about the contrasting conditions have been recorded
in Eric Raymond's seminal work, 'The Cathedral and the Bazaar', where
the production of binary executables in a closed manner has thus been perceived
to be like the environment of a Cathedral, whereas Open Source software
has been likened to a bazaar, where anyone is free to come and go, picking
up and offering what they wish . This analogy evokes
much about the relative constraints and freedom, showing especially the
contrast between centralised and decentralised processes.
However, it perhaps does not convey the high level of quality control that
is observed to take place in Open Source development.
The book is not without its critics, particularly concerning the sociological
analysis and interpretations - see e.g. Bezroukov , but there is little
doubt that it has brought Open Source to a much wider audience.
The sections below draw substantially on Raymond's work, concentrating
on the lessons learnt from his own experiences.
"The hacker culture and its successes pose by example some fundamental questions about human motivation... also, arguably, ... prefigures some profound changes in the way humans will relate to and reshape their economic surroundings. " [18, p. 2]
As a prelude to his main discussion, Raymond provides an introduction to the life and times of programmers in 'A Brief History of Hackerdom,' painting a picture that indicates a strong sense of community. It is mentioned how the high level of networking involved in Open Source developed this sense of community, which was never achieved in proprietary systems such as the operating systems MS-DOS and MacOS, even though the numbers involved in these two systems were greater [18, p.21]. This is worth noting since it is reasonable to assume that the interests of programmers would be similar between groups. If so, then this indicates that common interests alone may not suffice to build community, but require in addition favourable conditions that support communication and exchange.
In the central paper, The Cathedral and the Bazaar, Raymond provides a number of what he terms lessons, nineteen in all, learnt through his experience and observations from a large experiment he carried out deliberately to test the Open Source model. For example:
Lesson 2. GOOD PROGRAMMERS KNOW WHAT TO WRITE. GREAT ONES KNOW WHAT TO REWRITE (AND REUSE)Although the learning process may consist of re-inventing the wheel (of which the classic example is learning to code 'Hello World'), once a certain level of expertise is attained, a much more efficient approach is to select one or more programs that provide a more advanced starting point. This kind of approach is encouraged by the ready availability of software on the Internet.
This can be instructive to those engaged in conflict resolution, where a sense of progression in understanding often escapes the situation. In terms of interfaith activity, it may be observed that in the international scene, there have been many efforts to promote co-operation, but a fair proportion of them seem unaware of similar initiatives and so there is a lot of unnecessary duplication with the result that some efforts do not reach as deeply into a situation as may have been possible with proper co-ordination. There are dozens of international organisations whose aims and objectives are borne out of similar bright visions, yet the embodiment of these visions is sometimes quite ignorant of what others have done and are striving to do.
In contrast, developers who work on-line are generally very much aware
of the software available as it is accessible in various ways - through
archives, directories and searchable indices. News of further
developments are very quickly known through the closeness of networks such
as USENET and discussion lists. As the Internet becomes more
widely available - at least to organisations, if not to individuals - it
may be appropriate for interfaith organisations to avail themselves of
these facilities and use them to gain awareness through networking.
Much of the challenge to programmers lies in solving problems - such as where the current program is inadequate or error-prone. A very interesting conjecture is made that in a closed setting with just a few - even expert - eyes, problems will loom large, whilst in the open setting, many hands make light work and even apparently difficult problems will appear trivial to at least someone [Lesson 8, p.41]. Similarly, it is observed that involving many people in probing the system can uncover ways forward that a small group may overlook. The rapid development of Linux, which allows anyone to contribute to solving problems, is now recognised for its superior dependability and so is a testament to this assertion in the context of software.
This raises the issue of participation in efforts to solve particularly large scale crises on this planet. Whilst interfaith gatherings of religious leaders may provide sound counsel, for practical problems at least, a much wider representation could provide important solutions. Physical gatherings on a large scale present many difficulties on top of physical obstacles and barriers, of which the on-line equivalents are relatively free. It may be worth considering then whether or not it would be beneficial if the Internet could be used to involve much greater numbers to work together at creating solutions. An observation from the programming perspective is that a requirement a priori is that a network culture be well established - which implies education and training. Some such cultures are beginning to form in terms of mailing lists and other on-line communities, but they are quite fragmented and disparate, and few have yet to achieve critical mass or the level of involvement that characterises successful open source projects.
Raymond identifies "intense involvement" as the key to scaling up initiatives and observes that Torvalds nurtured the developer base to great effect. Reflecting in the sphere of interfaith activity, it is evident that many youth have the capacity and inclination to get involved with energy and application - for instance, organisations such as the Interfaith Youth Corps have worked in deprived areas of inner cities . Such initiatives often emerge against a backdrop of indifference and acceptance of a status quo. This may indicate that it is the young who have the potential to achieve critical mass to resolve issues that currently may seem insurmountable.
He goes on to claim that the response is driven by satisfaction of ego and attempts to justify this through lengthy discussion that dismisses programmer's altruism as just another form of ego. This is conjectural in nature and not everyone's view. The importance of peer review had already been identified thirty years ago in Psychology of Computer Programming, by Gerald M Weinberg . In this very well respected work, he talks about egoless programming and offers a different perspective in the following definition:
Egoless programming occurs when a technical peer group uses frequent and often peer reviews to find defects in software under development. The objective is for everyoneWhatever the motive, ego-based or not, progress in the software from peer review is evident in the result and is now being applied on a global scale. Perhaps the contribution of the developers may be likened to punya, the Buddhist concept of merit? This process operates at even the smallest levels: so it provides a positive and constructive view that may be applied to other kinds of developmental work. For instance, it can encourage those already engaged in interfaith and persuade others to participate subject to their means.
to find defects, including the author, not to prove the work product has no defects. People exchange work products to review, with the expectation that as authors, they will produce errors, and as reviewers, they will find errors. Everyone ends up learning from their own mistakes and other people's mistakes. That's why it's called egoless programming. My ego is not tied to my "perfect" or "imperfect" work product. My ego is only tied to my attempts to do the best job I know how, and to learn from my mistakes, not the initial result of my work.
It is also observed that once a product reaches a certain level of maturity (with the most glaring bugs ironed out), then the developer base reduces in size. It appears to happen very naturally.
Lesson 11. THE NEXT BEST THING TO HAVING GOOD IDEAS IS RECOGNIZING GOOD IDEAS FROM YOUR USERS. SOMETIMES THE LATTER IS BETTER. [18, p.48]Raymond's observation about being truthful and actually self deprecating have a ring of truth as they are simply and freely expressed. He re-inforces this statement later on and says:
I think it is not critical that the co-ordinator be able to originate designs of exceptional brilliance, but it is absolutely critical that the co-ordinator be able to recognize good design ideas from others. [18, p.58]This is in contrast to the sophisticated attitudes to ideas and intellectual property that surround many kinds of software other than Open Source. In other settings, establishing and guarding copyright and intellectual property can consume immense resources, especially for large institutions.
Raymond also observes that if one is too clever then, from his own experience,
future developments can falter. Attempts to build in functionality
that is not central to the purpose of the program may lead to hindrances
later on. It is a valuable lesson that may well apply in various
kinds of ongoing dialogue - if the core issues are not addressed, then
there will be greater problems ahead.
Some of the programming experiences appear to endorse practices that already exist in interfaith:
I think that the cutting edge of Open Source software will belong to people who start from individual vision and brilliance, then amplify it through the effective construction of voluntary communities of interest. [18, p.66]This fits in well with experiences of interfaith activity at many levels: organisations have often been founded through the extraordinary insight and efforts of one person, but their value has generally arisen through the people who subsequently join. Much of the work is often achieved by volunteers, even at the international level, where important centres or organisations may have only one or two official full time workers. Once again, these indicate the importance of participation and co-ordination - the process of sharing.
In the Open Source Community it is common for contributions to understanding problems to come from both sides and together provide a better solution. For instance, Michael Widenius, a developer of MySQL describes how he met with a developer of a programming language called PHP  to work out a simpler solution for their integrated use :
Widenius is glad to be a part of helping the PHP team make PHP more compatible with MySQL. The first time Widenius met a PHP developer was when he saw Rasmus Lerdorf speak at an open-source conference. When Lerdorf explained how persistent connections were handled, "I thought it was unnecessary to open a new connection for each user," said Widenius, so I asked him "If I added some changes to MySQL would it help?" When the answer was yes, Widenius modified MySQL and the problem was solved on both ends.The articles goes on to describe many interesting attributes of the successful company, and shows gratitude for the work that was already been established as Open Source:
"...We've always used emacs and GCC and also lots of small GNU tools." Using these tools made Widenius and Axmark feel that they should give back to the community.
With core software available free of charge, and hardware costs reducing, the savings can switch from technology controlled by a few to customised services and support, which should be of more benefit to people. There is no longer the need to pursue a wild and expensive goose chase to keep up with the latest hardware and software. In the past few years, the Internet has thus established itself as a popular medium, enabling wider access, with the potential for diverse communities to share their values and help solve the Earth's problems. However, the technology still imposes barriers to its use. As Berners-Lee remarks, we have yet to reach the stage here we can switch on a computer and use it straight away. Nevertheless, the Internet in its current form can readily promote the transcendence of barriers - physical and non-physical.
In this way Open Source software is providing the impetus where we may focus more on how we use technology for the betterment of society, rather than on technology per se. It has been noticed that people's decisions to purchase PC's are starting to revolve more around services - such as access to travel agents and on-line book and media stores, such as Amazon.com . It is an encouraging sign that computer technology is indeed becoming genuinely useful. At the same time, this is an important juncture as many of the very large organisations are seeking to manipulate this medium, which is arguably posing a threat to its potential to offer a medium of transformation. Market forces are pushing hard without questioning underlying values, whose deeper consideration is necessary for uplifting in the social sphere.
In this way the consideration of ethics, as has been offered in the Global Ethic and Call to Our Guiding Institutions, is much needed in starting to examine values and their potential expression and growth through the medium of the Internet. This is likely to be more productive than highlighting particular issues - albeit important ones - which have often been the focus of attention of broadcast media. It requires some orientation, so it is useful to start with values that have already been identified by those who have on-line experience. Some of these have been gathered by Duncan Langford in his paper on Internet ethics, in which he concludes with a discussion that lists five points reflecting the views of those who responded to the author's research . These points allow partitioning into two: rights and responsibilities as follows:
For those who have just a passing acquaintance with the Internet, global responsibility may appear to have been generally in the hands of a few institutions, but amongst academics with some technical know-how, global responsibility has been in the hands of individuals for almost 30 years. There is a sense of maturity in the messages above in terms of the role of individuals within the overall context. Many reflections can be made on these in religious contexts such as missionary work, where it is suggested that a suitable approach is one conducted in humility and respectful of other views.
Indeed, the recognition of the value of individuals in localised settings and their importance for the global setting is emerging even among very large institutions. For instance in September 1999, James Wolfensohn, President of the World Bank, wrote very clearly about the need to respect the local determination to solve economic problems . The importance of local contexts, as expressed in the term grassroots, is emerging everywhere: there may be evidence that the Hundredth Monkey effect is taking place around the planet .
Open Source Internet technology is already encouraged by the United
Nations to support development of IT infrastructure as evidenced by the
UN's Sustainable Development Networking Programme , which offers
support to those who deploy this technology. One of the technical
consultants to MultiFaithNet reports that in Ecuador, most of the
network infrastructure uses PC's that run Linux. This is testament
to the benefit that the operating system offers to financially impoverished
nations. It is also offers a way to reduce corruption: in a recent
visit to Thailand, the author noted that standard binary-only software
packages were inevitably priced at levels comparable with the rest of the
world, which is a relatively huge cost. At the same time, illegal
copies of the software is commonly sold in large quantities, even in large
shopping malls. In this situation, Open Source offers a natural and
As with Teilhard de Chardin, Raymond appeals to arguments in anthropology, though their purposes are very much different. However, he acknowledges and highlights the "gift culture", identifying it as fundamental to Open Source and contrasting it with the conditional nature of "exchange economics", which are distinguishable by their associations with abundance and scarcity respectively. The case of MySQL cited above illustrates that generosity actually creates abundance. Generosity is a principle of most religions, but if ever further evidence were required about its efficacy, then there is ample evidence in Open Source.
In this way, there is indicated one principle to start with, by which
we may conduct ourselves on-line. Other perspectives on the Net show
that altruism, albeit sometimes crude and naively put, is there beneath
the surface. For instance, taking a recent view of on-line business,
David Siegel, emphasises a great deal the empowerment of the individual
person (customer) through people networks . Although the overall
objective appears to remain crudely materialistic in the form of high salaries
and luxury motor cars, the Afterword [32, p.309] talks about partnering
with others to help bring everyone into the on-line world, "whether they
live in rural China or in a village in Kenya." Even in the hardnosed
world of e-business, there is a growing recognition of connectedness with
others via the Internet. It is in any case important to raise awareness
of the need for values as it is highly likely that the Internet will be
pushed deeper into all continents.
"The new electronic interdependence recreates the world in the image of a global village." Hans Küng (Eng. trans. by Leonard Swidler), Declaration towards a Global Ethic, Council for a Parliament of the World Religions, Chicago, 1993