Open Sources and the Open Society:
An Essay in Politics and Technology

Kelly A. Parker, Ph.D.

Department of Philosophy
Grand Valley State University
Allendale, Michigan 49401 [USA]

Extended Abstract

Topic: Antecedents and implications of the Open Source/Free Software development and distribution movement

The essay explores the potentially far-reaching social and political significance of the Open Source/Free Software (OS/FS) movement. This rapidly developing movement promotes two core values associated with the classical philosophical liberalism of John Stuart Mill and John Locke: autonomy of opinion and action, and equal access to opportunity for individual and societal growth.

The legacy of classical liberalism includes four models of public participation that are central to modern ``open societies'':1 open deliberation and participation in governance, open access to education, open reasoning in science, and open competition in business. Historically speaking, these four prior forms of open social process were necessary conditions for the emergence of the OS/FS movement. The essay begins with an examination of these four models, highlighting insights that may help us to better understand the emergence of the OS/FS movement.

The exploration of these models of open process prepares the way for the second part of the essay, which considers the implications of the OS/FS movement for contemporary society. The focus is on potential advantages of OS/FS for the further development of open societies, specifically in the areas of democratic process, education, science, and business. Some of the identified advantages are clearly of a ``practical'' nature; others are on their face more ``philosophical'' or ``theoretical.'' The latter have less to do with producing immediate and tangible benefits (e.g., more stable, secure, customizable, and inexpensive software) than with creating conditions necessary to ensure the openness of key social processes (e.g., software compiled from publicly available source code cannot in principle be designed to execute ``hidden'' routines that would be generally unacceptable to the public). A distinction is identified between circumstances where OS/FS as such provides desirable benefits, and circumstances where OS/FS is merely one among several possible ways to provide a desired alternative to proprietary software.

The third section of the essay addresses two kinds of objection to the OS/FS movement. The first kind of objection arises from the perception that the OS/FS movement is inherently hostile or contradictory to proprietary or ``closed'' software development and distribution. This view is sometimes advanced via somewhat tangential arguments concerning 1) the undisputed ethical legitimacy of profiting from proprietary software, 2) the established legal right to copyright, patent or otherwise protect intellectual property, and 3) the importance of the profit motive as an incentive to innovate and to improve software products. It is shown that although the methods and ideals of the OS/FS movement indeed conflict with some basic principles of the proprietary model, the coexistence of the two models in the broader society and its markets involves no inherent contradiction. The second (and more serious) kind of objection to OS/FS arises from the view that the proprietary model of development and distribution can fulfill public needs more efficiently and practically than the OS/FS approach. The strongest arguments for this view concern the practical advantages of increased standardization. It is often argued that standardization and interoperability are more easily accomplished under the proprietary model. While this may indeed be the case in some situations, I argue that these practical advantages are not the only goods that ought to be considered in deciding which development and distribution model to support. In an open society that relies on computing to carry forth many of its fundamental social processes, OS/FS is in many cases a desirable or even necessary alternative to proprietary software.

I conclude that the OS/FS movement promises to increase the level of public participation in the governmental, educational, scientific, and business processes that create, control, and deliver certain fundamentally important social goods. It is thus in the interest of open societies to actively support its development along the lines here indicated.


1 The distinction between ``open'' and ``closed'' societies is from K. R. Popper (1966) The open society and its enemies. Vol. 1: The spell of Plato, fifth ed. (Princeton: Princeton University Press).

Copyright © 2000 Kelly A. Parker. Verbatim copying and distribution of this entire document is permitted in any medium, provided this notice is preserved.