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Open-source extremism, and how the OSI can help

Open source runs the risk of being so insular in its ideology that it becomes irrelevant. The OSI can help by expanding its membership.

Matt Asay Contributing Writer
Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.
Matt Asay
3 min read

One of the profound failings of the open-source movement is how insular it has allowed its ideology to be. While the commercialization of open source has necessarily forced a new dialectic into open source (one with many different shades and permutations), it's amazing just how unyielding some opinions can be. While constancy is good, it can also be the "hobgoblin of mediocre minds" and reflects a somewhat stagnant discussion within the open-source development community.

It also reflects the theme of noted legal scholar Cass Sunstein's new book, Going to Extremes: How Like Minds United and Divide, part of which is excerpted in The Spectator ("To become an extremist, hang around with people you agree with").

The message is unnerving and suggests the importance of broadening the open-source tent:

When people find themselves in groups of like-minded types, they are especially likely to move to extremes....The most important reason for group polarisation, which is key to extremism in all its forms, involves the exchange of new information. Group polarisation often occurs because people are telling one another what they know, and what they know is skewed in a predictable direction. When they listen to each other, they move.

Suppose you are in a group of people whose members tend to think that Israel is the real aggressor in the Middle East conflict, that eating beef is unhealthy, or that same-sex unions are a good idea. In such a group, you will hear many arguments to that effect. Because of the initial distribution of views, you will hear relatively fewer opposing views. It is highly likely that you will have heard some, but not all, of the arguments that emerge from the discussion.

After you have heard all of what is said, you will probably shift further in the direction of thinking that Israel is the real aggressor, opposing eating beef, and favoring civil unions. And even if you do not shift--even if you are impervious to what others think--most group members will probably be affected.

Lest we think Sunstein is just picking on Harvard Law School graduates (I joke!), it's amazing to watch this same destructive group-think plague the open-source community, a portion of which is on display in the comments to any of my posts that discuss such horrifying ideas as "Open Core" (gasp!), Microsoft as a bona fide open-source player (yikes!), or, really, anything that fails to discuss knighthood and/or sainthood for Richard Stallman.

We've come a long way since the early days of the free-software movement. Eric Raymond, Tim O'Reilly, Michael Tiemann, Larry Augustin, and others broke that free-software mold with the coining of "open source" back in 1998, but far too many opinions seem stuck in a calcified past, largely because they spend a lot of time yelling down opposing views, rather than associating with them and listening to them.

Here's a specific policy request: while the Open Source Initiative has expanded its board, of which I was once a terribly unproductive part, the OSI has not expanded its ideological base. The OSI can help itself and the open-source community by enlarging the experience base of its board members.

This might include, for example, more business-minded open-source people. But it would also be helpful to include those in the open-source community that are deeply affected by open source, but may have very different views on what open source should mean, including representatives from Microsoft and Oracle, or simply developers who disagree with the current board's opinions.

I'm sure the current OSI board disagrees. It's not alone. OSI board aspirant Bruce Perens partly based his candidacy to be on the board on the premise that the OSI needs fewer vendors represented and definitely not Microsoft. I doubt Perens will agree with much of what I write here.

Even so, the OSI--and open source more broadly--would do well to incorporate the various, opposing biases that make for real debate...and better results. OSI President Michael Tiemann calls out others' bias without seeming to recognize just how helpful it would be to have that bias represented at the table.

Less group think, in other words, and more group debate. This is what open source needs. It would be wonderful to have it start at the top with the OSI.

Follow me on Twitter @mjasay.