Editor’s Note: In academia, growth occurs through sharing and interaction; in business growth is stimulated by competition and financial rewards. Knowledge belongs to the people, while business, in order to preserve its investment and profits, has patents and copyrights to protect its ideas and products. In some areas there is a productive relationship between business and academia. For example, business relies on academia to train its employees and managers. In return, publishers produce textbooks that, when adopted for a course, become the course curriculum. Unfortunately, the cost of textbooks has risen so that those who most in need can no longer afford them. The same is true of commonly used computer software, but there is an alternative that spans academia and industry. That is what this paper is about.
A Socio-Cultural Perspective on the
Free and Open Source Software Movement
Guohua Pan, Curtis J. Bonk
Canada and United States
This paper examines the history, leading figures, and sub-culture of the Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) movement from a socio-cultural perspective. It makes the argument that the evolution of FOSS movement is an interactional process between the socio-cultural environment and the ideas, negotiations, proposals, strategies, and overall leadership of leading figures of the FOSS movement. The openness and distributed nature of FOSS movement has already played a vital role in the current swell of knowledge sharing in both higher education and industry. As a social, political, and economic flattener of the 21st century, the FOSS movement may evolve into a powerful cultural artifact or tool that can help in efforts to break down walls of mistrust, resentment, or animosity among competing individuals or groups. It might also flatten the world of learning by providing freely available and widely accessed teaching and learning tools.
Keywords: open source, FOSS, sociocultural, constructivism.
A special report on open-source business appearing in the March 18, 2006 issue of the Economist argued that the open source model of software development "has moved far beyond its origins" and that "open-business practices have emerged as a mainstream way for collaboration" (The Economist, 2006, p. 73). Research on "free and open source software" (FOSS) development is now flourishing and across disciplines. A Google search of the word 'open source' on August 7, 2006 returned 1,690,000,000 web page hits covering science, engineering, bio-technology, business management, and humanities. A salient feature of free and open source software (FOSS) is its openness and distributed development of the software.
This FOSS feature of openness, or ‘gift’ culture, and distributed development arose from the interplay of standing norms and institutions (the academy), leading figures, and technical/hacker traditions. Knowledge sharing has long been a tradition at the institutions of higher learning. Graduate students and faculty share their discoveries at seminars and conferences, and publish their research findings at conference proceedings and peer-reviewed journals. It was noted that the majority of participants in FOSS projects, that is, those who contributed freely to FOSS projects, were from universities and research labs (Kelty, 2001).
Accommodated in the sharing culture at various institutions of higher learning, sub-cultures such as hacker culture were seeded and sustained that advocate craftsmanship of computing and that value free availability of information. This hacker culture nurtured prominent FOSS figures like Richard Stallman, Eric Raymond, Linuz Torvalds, and Martin Dougiamas, helped them to initiate their FOSS projects with a new mode of software development, and cultivated them into FOSS leaders.
The gift culture and distributed development orientation of the communities of FOSS users have enabled the creative and broad participation of people, including people from educational institutions, in the development of FOSS. While FOSS helps higher education institutions and organizations to address the dual challenges of utilizing resources that are financially sustainable and developing innovative products and software programs that are geared to the needs of users, it remains a key question as what special implications the openness and distributed development model of FOSS may hold for teaching and learning within institutions of higher learning.
In seeking to address the question, a literature review on social constructivism and learning was conducted. From a socio-cultural perspective, this paper then examines the socio-cultural environment in which some of the prominent FOSS leaders studied and worked, the hacker culture that grew out of the socio-cultural environment, the tools, artifacts, and language used in FOSS projects, some representative FOSS figures, and the interplay between them. Doing so, this paper is intended to contribute to ongoing research into the FOSS movement and teaching and learning.
Socio-cultural views on learning
Constructivist theory is largely based on the work of Dewey and psychologists such as Vygotsky, Piaget, and Bruner (Bereiter & Scadamalia, 1996; Kearsley, 2004; Mahoney, 2004). Under a constructivist epistemology, knowledge is constructed or generated by individuals in their learning pursuits and explorations. Knowledge construction is not static nor does it take place inside an individual’s head in isolation. Instead human thinking is distributed in society (Bonk & Cunningham, 1998); as Pea (1996) notes, the human mind does not work alone. Instead, all cognitive functions, according to Vygotsky (1978), originate in and must be explained as products of social interactions. From this perspective, knowledge construction is a process that takes place concurrently between an individual and the people around him. Long ago, John Dewey pointed out the importance of external influences on internal meaning constructions:
…we live from birth to death in a world of persons and things which is in large measure what it is because what has been done and transmitted from previous human activities. When this fact is ignored, experience is treated as if it were something which goes on exclusively inside an individual’s body and mind. It ought not to be necessary to say that experience does not occur in a vacuum. There are sources outside an individual which give rise to experience. (Dewey, 1938, p. 39)
From this perspective, knowledge is thus said to be both socially and individually constructed. Knowledge construction is a process by which individuals are integrated into a knowledge community, or a community of practice (Lave & Wenger, 1991). In effect, knowledge and reality are actively constructed by social relationships and interactions. Knowledge construction is a situated experience; it is a dynamic psychological process among individuals of their shared emotions, experiences, and representations when interacting with others and interpreting new ideas, perspectives, or situations on the basis of existing knowledge. It is contingent on convention, human perception, and social experiences. It must take into consideration the social, economic, legal, political, and cultural dimensions surrounding the learners and the learning process (Pfaffenberger, 1998).
This construction of new knowledge takes place within an enculturation process where one might be apprenticed by an expert, coach, mentor, or more knowledgeable other. Beyond the immediate social environment is the wider context of cultural influences. According to Vygotsky (1978), the mental functioning of an individual is inherently situated in social interactional, cultural, institutional, and historical contexts. The existing institutional settings and cultural artifacts, therefore, have significant bearings on meanings created and expressed (Bonk & Kim, 1998). Socio-cultural settings shape the mind through the artifacts employed. While some in the psychological and educational literature prefer the term social artifact, for our purpose, we use term cultural artifact. A cultural artifact is an object that embodies the values and beliefs of its creators and users (e.g., a piece of software for concept mapping from the company Inspiration or an iPod from Apple Computer). In other words, what a creator (e.g., Apple Computer) thinks and believes is embodied in the cultural artifact (e.g., the iPod) that s/he creates while a user may accept or hold the values and beliefs of the cultural artifact through using it (e.g., to listen to music or record one’s own music).The mind interacts with the artifacts in order to make 'sense' of everyday reality. As Lave and Wenger (1991, p. 53) point out, communities of practice “are part of broader systems of relations in which they have meaning. These systems of relations arise out of and are reproduced and developed within social communities.”
From a socio-cultural point of view, knowledge is negotiated by two or more individuals through give-and-take, often in the format of discussion, debate, and interactive reasoning (Jonassen, 1999). Groups of individuals interact with each other and negotiate meaning out “a common ground of interest and understanding” in their work or study (Bonk & Cunningham, 1998, p. 31). This group or community of practice consists of individual members with shared interests, goals, and knowledge (Lave & Wenger, 1991). New meaning, ideas, and values generated or promoted must be accepted by the members of the community of practice before they are considered valid. Although each member has her or his own personal preferences, beliefs, and values, there is a set of important understandings that members of the community share in common.
These shared understandings consist of the norms, values, attitudes, beliefs, and paradigms of that community (Bonk, Wisher, & Nigrelli, 2004). Such principles underlie the culture of this community of practice. The culture, albeit implicit, is grounded in the same experience that the members of this community of practice share and a concomitant knowledge as how they should be able to perform (Cole, 1996; Fisher, 2005; Mahoney, 2004). The more that the members of the community of practice think the same way and understand the reality from a common basis, the more they will trust members to perform in the same way that they would (Cole, 1996; Fisher, 2005; Viseu, 1999).
Admittedly, one of the most troubling concerns about constructivism is its lack of empirical findings: “[constructivist] theory and conjecture far outstrip empirical findings” (Driscoll, 2000, p. 395). For those operating from a socio-cultural or social constructivist orientation or perspective, a social group, or a community of practice, becomes relevant when the artifact at hand has some meaning to that community (David 2003). “A ‘problem’ is a ‘problem’ only inasmuch as there is a social group [community of practice] that perceives it as such” (Pinch & Bijker, 1987, p. 30).
In the next section we review the environment in which free and open source movement was born and grew, including unique and insightful perspectives on this new and still emerging field from the actual leaders of the free and open source movement. In addition, we attempt to link this movement in the field of computer science to the recent heightened interest in and growing acceptance of socio-cultural theory and social constructivism within the fields of education and psychology.
Social-cultural environment and leaders of free and open source movement
The free software movement preceded open source software movement. The creation of Free Software Foundation (FSF) in 1985 marked the beginning of free software movement. In addition, the foundation of the Open Source Initiative (OSI) in 1998 proclaimed the beginning of open source software movement. A spirit of sharing of both source code and software development was the central thesis in the free software movement and is manifested in the electronic artifacts of FSF. At the Free Software Foundation Web site, for example, FSF defines the connotation of the word “free” in “free software” as the freedom for software users “to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software” (Free Software Foundation, 2006). Of those six verbs, the first three, that is, ‘to run, copy, and distribute’ encourage individuals to use (freely), or in other words to use the product (free software) and share it with others. The other three verbs, that is, ‘to study, change, and improve’ may be interpreted as actually inviting users to share their ideas and perhaps their skills as well of improving the software.
This belief in knowledge sharing and distributed development not only permits but also encourages interested software users to become involved with the continuing development of the free and open source software (FOSS). Such involvement includes disseminating the inner workings of computing and cultivating a community of FOSS users who may become knowledge disseminators. This spirit of sharing is further witnessed in FSF’s (1991) clarification of GNU/GPL that “…the GNU General Public License is intended to guarantee your freedom to share and exchange free software.
Likewise, the spirit of sharing is advocated in the open source movement. Recently, OSI (2006) announced that the basic idea behind open source is that “programmers can read, and modify the source code for a piece of software” and that the programmers and users are entitled to “improve, adapt, and fix bugs” of the software and “redistribute” part or all of it. This belief in freedom of sharing within communities of the FOSS movement can be traced to the environment under which leaders of the FOSS communities studied and worked; in effect, traced to the institutions of higher learning and everyday environments where most of the FOSS movement leaders studied and worked when they initiated their FOSS projects.
Though not always explicitly stated or enthusiastically supported, sharing knowledge and culture is a deep-rooted tradition among the institutions of higher learning (Rhodes, 1999). Scholars are “stewards entrusted” by the public “with resources to feed and nurture the world of ideas and innovation” through researching, teaching, and publishing those ideas (Hilton, 2005, p. 73). Faculty share their discoveries, new theories, research results, and new methods in academic publications such as peer-reviewed journals, professional conference proceedings, and, increasingly, electronic journals, personal blogs, and personal homepages and Websites. Sharing enables a member of a community to let others know what she is doing and whether what she is doing is worthwhile, and vice versa.
The Johns Hopkins University, the first research university in the United States, was a leader in promoting the academic freedom of sharing and the norms of ‘open science’ (Feldman & Desrochers, 2003; Merton, 1979). When Hopkins’ scientists discovered restriction enzymes, one of the bases of the biotechnology industry, the university put the discovery in the public domain for sharing, which might have actually sped up science and the leading role American industry played in this field (Brody, 1999). Without a doubt, when sharing information, including new discoveries made on the basis of existing work, those in academia can more promptly discuss and debate different inventions, ideas, and trends. At the same time, students are encouraged to participate in the discussions and contribute their perceptions of the subjects under study. This sharing culture helps to nurture the curious and innovative minds of the millions studying and working at academic institutions, including Richard Stallman, Linuz Torvalds, and Martin Dougiamas, each of whom is discussed below.
Richard Stallman, the leader of free software movement and the founder of FSF, had worked at MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Lab (AI Lab) for over 10 years when he resigned from the AI Lab in 1984. The sharing culture and freedom of inquiry at MIT, and at the AI Lab in particular, cultivated his firm belief in free software, leading to his founding of the FSF in 1985, his development of GNU (“Gnu’s Not Unix”), and his tireless promotion of free software. Stallman “recognized that his personality was unyielding to the give-and-take of common human interaction” (Levy, 1984, p. 422). Stallman’s staunch belief in sharing is evidenced in an early manifesto:
The Free Software Foundation is dedicated to eliminating restrictions on copying, redistribution, understanding and modification of software. …
When it is released, everyone will be permitted to copy it and distribute it to others; in addition, it will be distributed with source code, so you will be able to learn about operating systems by reading it, to port it to your own machine, to improve it, and to exchange the changes with others.”
(GNU Bulletin, 1987)
The academic freedom of sharing at MIT not only helped to shape Stallman’s belief in free software but also allowed him to put such beliefs in action. When he worked at the AI Lab, Stallman wrote his best known FOSS work “the first extensible EMACS text editor – the extensible, customizable, self-documenting real-time display editor.” In addition, he helped develop a few other programs for the later GNU/GPL operating system such as the first free software operating system, although he may have been doing something not in his job description (Stallman, 2006). As cited in Levy (1984, p. 422), Stallman’s free distribution of EMACS brought to life a vision of sharing which he expected many others to follow as seen in the following quote: “that they give back all extensions they made, so as to help EMACS improve. … As I shared, it was their duty to share; to work with each other rather than against each other.”
Linuz Torvalds, the developer of initial Linux kernel and owner of the Linux trade mark, is another leader of FOSS movement. A kernel consists of the core code of the operating system which is responsible for providing secure access to the machine's hardware and to various computer processes. Torvalds himself is a beneficiary of the open and sharing culture of institutions of higher learning. For example, Torvalds acknowledges that while working at the University of Helsinki, the university knew and supported his work on Linux although “doing Linux wasn’t part of his job description” (FM, 1998). And it was in this sharing culture and academic environment that the well-known and sometimes inflammable Usenet discussion between Torvalds and Dr. Andrew Tanenbaum took place (see quote below). Dr. Tanenbaum was and still is a respected computer science professor at Vrije University in the Netherlands and author of Minix:
MINIX is a microkernel-based system. The file system and memory management are separate processes, running outside the kernel. The I/O drivers are also separate processes (in the kernel, but only because the brain-dead nature of the Intel CPUs makes that difficult to do otherwise). LINUX is a monolithic style system. This is a giant step back into the 1970s. That is like taking an existing, working C program and rewriting it in BASIC. To me, writing a monolithic system in 1991 is a truly poor idea.
MINIX is a microkernel-based system. [deleted, but Not so that you miss the point] LINUX is a monolithic style system. If this was the only criterion for the "goodness" of a kernel, you'd be right. What you don't mention is that minix doesn't do the micro-kernel thing very well, and has problems with real multitasking (in the kernel). If I had made an OS that had problems with a multithreading filesystem, I wouldn't be so fast to condemn others: in fact, I'd do my damndest to make others forget about the fiasco.
Minix is one of the earliest free Unix-like operating systems. Torvalds was a computer science student at the University of Helsinki when the fairly public debate took place. Although they still maintain their respective viewpoints to this day, Tanenbaum’s account of their interchanges during an interview with Ken Brown (Tanenbaum, 2004) shows that there is no animosity between Torvalds and Tanenbaum.
A third leader in this field is Martin Dougiamas, who is the creator and original developer of Moodle. Moodle is the first open source learning management system that claims to use a social constructivist orientation. Dougiamas created Moodle while working as a WebCT administrator at Curtin University of Technology in Australia. Dougiamas (1998) acknowledges the influence of socio-cultural factors on people’s thinking and believes that cultural factors affect, in various forms of activity, what and how people think. The academic environment at Curtin University and his disenchantment with the closed system of WebCT certainly helped to shape his social constructivist orientation for the Moodle system as well as his open source learning management system initiative.
From AI Lab at MIT, to University of Helsinki in Finland, to Curtin University in Australia, Stallman, Torvalds, and Dougiamas either studied or worked at their respective institutions; naturally, such institutions were part of a wider community with their cultural practice and social norms. The practice and norms were embodied in the actions and activities that the members of the communities engaged in. As members of their respective communities participating in various activities and utilizing many resources and tools, Torvalds and Dougiamas interacted with their peers, accepted the values of the community, observed the norms, and were able to grow from peripheral members of their communities into experts and initiate their FOSS projects in the process. They were apprenticed into this community undoubtedly through countless e-mail exchanges by experts within that community who answered their initial questions and concerns (e.g., the e-mail exchanges noted earlier between Torvalds and Tanenbaum). As members of the FOSS movement, they also benefited from code enhancements, advice, and suggestions from more knowledgeable peers who continue to refine Linux and Moodle. Unlike a flesh and blood community, they can be influenced by anyone on the planet who has a brilliant idea for refining their code and access to the Internet. As Wertsch (1991) notes, mental functioning and the tools and artifacts humans create are situated in existing social, cultural, and institutional contents. Unlike Torvalds and Dougiamas, Stallman, on the other hand, was an expert at the center of the community when he began the FOSS movement (i.e., he was not unknown). Still, he had many years at the AI Lab at MIT where he likely was influenced by many other people.
In the next section, we analyze hacker culture and its impact on FOSS.
Hacker culture and its impact on FOSS movement
To a large extent, hacker culture has the greatest influence on free software movement and subsequent open source movement. Hacker culture is a loose term covering a networked collection of subcultures (Raymond, 1992). The hacker culture in this case is a voluntary subculture that originated from MIT’s computer culture in late 1950’s. The original hacker culture was one of craftsmanship. Logically, computer professionals (hackers) wanted to be responsible for a project from start to finish, beginning with identifying the problem with the client, to writing the code, to operating the machine (computer). The core value of hacker culture is the belief of knowledge sharing – the freedom of exploring computer programming secrets and sharing them with others, free “access to computers – and anything which might teach you something about the way (the) world works – should be unlimited and total” (Levy, 1984, p. 27). Hacker culture values the free availability of information rather than exclusive right and that “the possession by one of information need not deprive another.” (Wark, 2004, p. 15).
It was the fertile soil of sharing culture at institutions of higher learning that bred hacker culture. MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (AI Lab), together with Carnegie Mellon University, Stanford University, and the University of California, Berkeley, were the well-known hotbeds of early hacker culture (for more information, see David, 2003; Johnson, 2001; Levy, 1984; Pfaffenberger, 2000; Steel, 1992; Weber, 2004). As a major center for computer software development, the AI Lab at MIT had a culture that valued “openness, sharing, and collaboration.” Additionally, the advanced concepts such as networking, file sharing between machines and terminal-independent I/O were pioneered there, while hackers at AI Lab were developing Incompatible Timesharing System (ITS) for the lab’s DEC PDP-6 and PDP-10 computers (Hannemyr, 1999; Weber, 2004, p. 46).
Richard Stallman (RMS) was one of the hackers working at AI Lab. For RMS, software was a “manifestation of human creativity and expression… and represented a key artifact of a community … to solve problems together for the common good.” (Weber, 2004, p. 47) It was during his work at the AI Lab when RMS and his hacker colleagues expressed their desire for and actually exercised “open systems, integrated solutions and distributed resources” (Hannemyr, 1999). They preferred working in an intimate and interactive way such that they could share what they were working on or caring about, including reviewing and re-using each other’s source code (Hannemyr, 1999). However, the introduction of a scientific management method to computer software development changed the way hackers worked and the way computer software was developed and used.
A scientific management method of software development was introduced to the computing community by corporate management in mid-1960s to improve computer programming efficiency through standardization and specialization of work, with the hope of replicating the success of Ford automobile manufacturing and other industrial activities. Broken away from the traditional craftsman way of computing, the hackers were now stratified into a hierarchical one based on their status and seniority - analyst, programmers, coders, testers, maintainers, computer console operators, computer room technicians, key punch operators, tape jockeys, and stock room attendants (Hannemyr, 1999; Levy, 1984). Separated from each other and from computers, the hackers experienced greatly reduced social interaction with their peers thereby reducing the open and free exchange of ideas, and, ironically, limiting or curtailing their access to computers.
Up until the introduction of this scientific management method within the computing field, the intersubjectivity or temporarily shared collective reality (Bonk & Kim, 1998) that RMS and his hacker colleagues likely experienced depended on a craftsman or craftsman-apprentice way of computing. It was their shared social space (Schrage, 1990) for inventing new ideas and testing them against other great minds. Constructing social meanings, including the procedures and norms of computing, therefore, involves intersubjectivity or shared meanings being exchanged among members of that space or community setting. Any personal meanings shaped through these experiences are affected by the intersubjectivity of the community to which the people belong (Rogoff, 1990). When the scientific management method was introduced and implemented, it naturally ignited resistance from hackers since the scientific management method was not built on the intersubjectivity that the hackers had experienced in terms of software development; it was not part of their community norms or expectations. It was at about this time that the ARPANET arrived to help rejuvenate the hacker culture.
ARPANET, the experimental beginning of the Internet, was a small research experiment funded by Advanced Research Project Agency (ARPA) under the US Department of Defense in 1968. ARPANET was initially built to connect computers at ARPA’s major research centers and scientific laboratories for researchers to share resources, including computer programs, research results, and electronic mail to specific individuals as well as to massive mailing lists which could also be used for socialization. As a completely new communication architecture, ARPANET was a network of many local networks through which messages were created at any local network and routed through the main network, then left to find their own way to their destination (Hafner & Lyton, 1996; Hannemyr, 1999; Weber, 2004). The ARPANET automatically routed messages around in case a local network or some local networks broke down or were blocked for one reason or another. Importantly, anyone from a local network could add new services to ARPANET and make the new services available to all those connected to the ARPANET. The network was thus distributed (i.e., no network was at the center or no computer or no place at the center); consequently, there was no authority that could control all actions or create or maintain any type of lock-step hierachical factory production model. Almost concurrently with the evolution of ARPANET, the Unix operating system emerged that helped to advance the hacker culture.
Unix is a computer operating system built in 1969 by Ken Thompson, Dennis Ritchie, and Ossanna McIlroy, then three Bell Labs researchers. Written in C language, Unix is a portable, multi-tasking, and multi-user in a time-sharing configuration. Unix allows computer professionals, including the hackers working at MIT, to move chunks of working code from machine to machine and project to project. It is analogous to a toolbox of small and simple modules that can be combined or recombined to create more useful or complex functions (Weber, 2004). Since its inception, various versions of Unix have been built for different purposes or applications. As the quote below indicates, the philosophy behind Unix was the “nuclei of communities” and “fellowship” that would “resonate all through Unix’s subsequent history” (Raymond, 2004, p. 31):
What we wanted to preserve was not just a good environment in which to do programming, but a system around which a fellowship could form.
We knew from experience that the essence of communal computing, as supplied by remote-access, time-shared machines, is not just to type programs into a terminal instead of a keypunch, but to encourage close communication.
(Ritchie, 1984, p.1577)
At the time when Unix was built, most users of operating systems were still computer operators/hackers working at research centers. The distributed architecture of the ARPANET, and the access to computer power and creativity through computing with Unix helped to nurture the unorthodox hacker culture of decentralization, sharing, and open standards. When Transfer Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP/IP) networking was integrated into Unix in 1983, computer connectivity was substantially increased, which, in turn, expanded the user base of the ARPANET. It was believed that the integration of TCP/IP networking into Unix lay the foundation of the Internet today. TCP/IP is a set of rules for communication among computers on the Internet.
As noted earlier, mental functions are shaped by the tools and artifacts in our socio-cultural settings (Cole, 1996, p. 333, Wertsch, 1991). Here such tools included Unix, TCP/IP, and common programming languages and procedures. The meanings that computer professionals, and, in particular, hackers, conveyed was linked to the resources within their socio-cultural environment. From socio-cultural perspective, we see that there were specific tools (i.e., computers, pens, pencils, etc., used for communication among hackers), artifacts (i.e., ITS, ARPANET, Unix, etc., created by the hacker culture) and a social environment (i.e., Bell Labs, Carnegie Mellon, MIT, Stanford, UC Berkeley, etc. where most hackers worked) that nurtured the hacker culture and belief in free software. In addition, there was also a language component or shared lingo that was essential to the evolution of the hacker culture. Like the rest of Americans, hackers at American institutions and organizations used English for communication and exchange of ideas. Moreover, the hackers also communicated with each other using some special vocabulary that would identify them as the members of the hacker community. As hackers became increasingly conscious of their culture, they started to collect the frequently used slang terms and put them into printing, first the ‘Jargon File’ (also known as ‘AIWORD.RF[UP,DOC]’) by Raphael Finkel from Stanford University in 1975, then ‘The Hacker’s Dictionary’ by Guy Steele of Carnegie Mellon University in 1983, and ‘The New Hacker’s Dictionary’ by Eric Raymond in 1992.
From socio-cultural perspective, Jargon File, The Hacker’s Dictionary, and The New Hacker’s Dictionary, like ARPANET, Unix operating system, played the role of mediating between the hackers personal meanings of the activities and words and culturally established hacker meanings of the activities and words of the wider society, i.e., the hacker’s society (Cobb, 1994). It was a unique language and vocabulary which mediated their actions; those who did not comprehend this language or were unable to use it, were less equipped to become full members of the hacker community. In effect, these dictionaries and jargon files provide a sense of scaffolding for novices to participate in such a community and help apprentice them into it.
Thus far, we have discussed the effects of tools, artifacts, computer languages, and social environments, among other factors, on the evolution of the hacker culture. In the next section, we discuss the values and beliefs of FOSS movement.
“Even after other attributes are accounted for, cultural traditions powerfully influence performance and the ability to embrace new initiatives.” (Feldman & Desrochers, 2003, p. 108) In effect, it was the fertile soil of the sharing culture at institutions of higher learning that seeded and nurtured the hacker culture. And it was the evolution of hacker culture that in turn bred and helped blossom the FOSS movement. In particular, the beliefs and values of hacker culture are embodied in the artifacts of FOSS movement. One such artifact is an open letter titled ‘free- Unix’ that RMS published on the Usenet newsgroup net.unix-wizards on September 27, 1983. That single event could be interpreted as the start of the FOSS movement:
Starting this Thanksgiving I am going to write a complete Unix-compatible software system called GNU (for Gnu's Not Unix), and give it away free to everyone who can use it. Contributions of time, money, programs and equipment are greatly needed.
In this electronic artifact, RMS appealed to the members of his hacker community for sharing their resource in developing the GNU and explained that he was going to share, or in his words “give it away,” the program with other people who like it (Stallman, 1983). RMS (1985) further explained in the GNU Manifesto why he must write GNU:
I consider that the golden rule requires that if I like a program I must share it with other people who like it. Software sellers want to divide the users and conquer them, making each user agree not to share with others. I refuse to break solidarity with other users in this way. I cannot in good conscience sign a nondisclosure agreement or a software license agreement. For years I worked within the Artificial Intelligence Lab to resist such tendencies and other inhospitalities, but eventually they had gone too far:
I could not remain in an institution where such things are done for me against my will. So that I can continue to use computers without dishonor, I have decided to put together a sufficient body of free software so that I will be able to get along without any software that is not free. I have resigned from the AI lab to deny MIT any legal excuse to prevent me from giving GNU away.
In 1985, RMS drafted some of his hacker colleagues and created the Free Software Foundation (FSF), “The first software-sharing community”. The purpose of FSF was to develop and distribute software under the General Public License (GPL), or “copyleft,” that protected the right to share using Copyright. Stallman later refined and elaborated on his vision of GNU/GPL software as consisting of four essential freedoms:
The freedom to run the program as you wish.
The freedom to study the source code and change it to do what you wish.
The freedom to make copies and distribute them to others.
The freedom to publish modified versions. (Biancuzzi, 2005)
As is manifested in the four essential freedoms, the culture of sharing dominated RMS’s vision of GNU/GPL software. He granted users the right to share the free software at their own volition. Furthermore, he also granted the users the right to share the free software with other people by giving them “the freedom to make copies and distribute them to others.” While giving them the freedom to share the free software, Stallman also viewed the users as potential developers and invited them to share their knowledge, skills and expertise of the software with him and with people at large by asking them to modify the source code and share the modified versions with others.
The formation of FSF and the publication of GNU Manifesto was a turning point in the history of FOSS movement in that it unified hackers under a new community – the FOSS community of practice with a uniting principle of sharing, thereby transitioning the relatively insular hacker culture into a mass movement. The hackers suddenly obtained a collective identity and a set of values and normative and principled beliefs that constituted the FOSS culture to guide their everyday practices. The FOSS culture thus provided a value-based rationale for contributing to GNU/GPL project. It was with this FOSS community and its culture that GNU/GPL projects such as a compiler and EMACS were started and completed. As has been witnessed, the FOSS community and FOSS culture were able to gather thousands of people of similar values and beliefs across the world to work on GNU/GPL projects such as Linux.
As is popularly known, Linux is a FOSS project initiated by Linus Torvalds, then a hacker studying at University of Helsinki. As mentioned earlier, Torvalds’ cultural orientation toward knowledge and code sharing was evidenced in his Usenet discussion with Tanenbaum in 1992. Before that discussion, Torvalds had manifested his immersion in the sharing culture when he posted a message on the Usenet of Minix newsgroup, reaching out his community members for information sharing:
Torvalds’s call to the community (“I'd like to know what features most people want”) showed that he, like most other members of this newsgroup community, took for granted a hacker culture of cooperation and knowledge sharing. This culture of cooperation and knowledge sharing is exercised throughout the development process of Linux, with hackers from all over the world sharing their skills and knowledge to make Linux function at the highest level possible. It was his belief in knowledge sharing and freedom of software that led to Torvalds’ decision to release Linux under GNU/GPL, a decision that ensured the incorporation of future modifications into the main development branch (Moody, 2001). Torvalds felt it a natural decision for him to release Linux system under the GNU/GPL as it had been a common practice within the community he wanted to be part of. This community is “a reasonably strong academic and open” community within the USENET community, and, in fact, in the general UNIX world (FM, 1998).
The Linux kernel was believed to fit Stallman’s GNU/GPL operating system like a hand to a glove (Moody, 2001). The development process and the release of the Linux system under GNU/GPL has proven crucial to the later proliferation of the Linux system, and more significantly, it signaled the birth of a new software development model, the model of open source. As noted below, Eric Raymond is closely associated with this open source development model.
Eric Raymond was involved in hacker culture as early as 1976 (Eric Raymond, personal communication, January 31, 2006). Raymond was fascinated by the success of GNU/GPL and published an essay entitled “The Cathedral and the Bazaar” to anatomize “a successful open-source project, fetchmail, that was run as a deliberate test of the surprising theories about software engineering suggested by the history of Linux” (Raymond, 1997). The Cathedral and the Bazaar is commonly regarded as the de facto manifesto of open source movement. In this essay, Raymond postulated a new model of software development that he called the “Bazaar model” to distinguish it from the traditional “Cathedral model” of software development. In the cathedral model, the software development process is centralized in a system where there is relatively strong control over who can submit patches to the code and how such patches are integrated, as well as a rigorous plan for code releases. Under this model, the source code is available with each software release, but code developed between releases is restricted to an exclusive group of developers (Abel, 2005; Johnson, 2005; Pan & Bonk, 2006; Robels, 2004; Weber, 2005; Wheeler, 2004).
In contrast to the cathedral model, the development of software under the Bazaar model is that of a gift culture and distributed development. Raymond (1997) notes that, in effect, the source code of the prototype software is open and freely available to users who are potential co-developers, even though the source code may have limited functionalities. Open source code to users is like a free gift to people. However, this gift culture is not a one way function. Rather, it functions in a give-and-take fashion that creates an obligation for people to give back when a gift is given; of course, the values and beliefs of the giver may also be passed on to the recipients. It thus binds people together. As Weber (2004, p.149) notes, “the artifact being gifted is not just a functional widget but carries with it some of the giver.” In this approach, the software is released whenever significant changes are made such that the product evolves in an incremental way, enabling users to modify and debug it. The rationale is that “Given enough eyeballs all bugs are shallow” (Raymond, 1997). This gift culture and distributed development is further manifested in the Open Source Initiative’s (2006) introduction to the idea of open source: “When programmers can read, redistribute, and modify the source code for a piece of software, the software evolves. People improve it, people adapt it, people fix bugs.”
Such social interaction and knowledge sharing actions are highly linked to the socio-cultural movement. As noted earlier, human development is a function of action within social settings whose values embody the settings’ cultural histories (Cole, 1996; Smagorinsky, 2001; Wertsch, 1991). “Every human being has her or his subjectivity and mental life altered through the process of seizing meanings and resources from some socio-cultural environment and using them” (Cole, 1996, p. 117). The evolution of FOSS movement, of the FOSS culture in particular, shows that the beliefs and values of FOSS movement leaders were inherently situated in a social interactional, cultural, institutional, and historical context. As such, the values and beliefs of these leaders impacted the artifacts created as well as the tools and language(s) used (Bonk & Kim, 1998; Cole & Wertsch, 1996; Vygotsky, 1978). As Raymond acknowledges, the “theoretical work on open source came directly from my long-term observation of the hacker culture in action” and “the open-source movement and the hacker culture are no longer distinguishable …” (Eric Raymond, personal communication, January 31, 2006).
Table 1 below is a sequential display of significant tools, artifacts, languages, and social environments in the evolution of FOSS movement. It was developed based on our reading of the literature as well as interviews and discussions with major figures in the field.
Evolution of tools, artifacts, languages, and social environments in FOSS
Scientific experimental facilities, pen, pencil, journals
Open science, sharing
John Hopkins University, universities, research centers
User-programmer written software
Computer professionals as craftsmen
Research centers, universities
Compatible Time-Sharing System (CTSS), Multiplexed Information and Computing Service (Multics)
Computer professionals as craftsmen
Carnegie Mellon, MIT, Stanford, UC Berkeley, Bell Lab
Network, network communication
Research institutions under US DoD
Nuclei of communities, fellowship, time sharing
Bell Labs, Carnegie Mellon, MIT, Stanford, UC Berkeley
Computer, book, ARPANET
The Hacker’s Dictionary
Collection of frequently used slang terms
Hacker community at Carnegie Mellon, MIT, Stanford, UC Berkeley
Raphael Finkel, Guy Steele
Computer, ARPANET, Usenet
Sharing, free as freedom, not free beer; open source code, free distribution and redistribution
Community of Free Software Foundation, computer software users, hacker community
Computer, ARPANET, Usenet,
Free distribution and redistribution of source code, software
Community of Free Software Foundation, computer software users, hacker community
Computer, Usenet, Internet
Open source, distributed development, distribution and redistribution of source code
Community of Free and open Software movement, free and open source software users, hacker community
Computer, Usenet, Internet, book
New Hacker’s Dictionary
Collection of frequently used slang terms
Community of free and open course software, free and open source software users, hacker community
Computer, Usenet, Internet, journal
The cathedral and bazaar
Free and open source code, gift culture/economy. distributed development
Community of free and open software movement, free and open source software users, hacker community
Computer, Usenet, Internet
Open Source Initiative
Open source software, business friendly, less ideological
Open Source Initiative
community, free and open source software users, hacker community
community source development
Free and open source community, free and open source software users, hackers, community of core schools
Indiana University, Michigan University
A major worry of the FOSS development model relates to the quality of a FOSS project because the project is open to abuse since anyone can download source code, work on it, and redistribute the “finished” product. This quality issue became obvious when people created entries freely in Wikipedia that were biased and inaccurate (The Economist, 2006, p. 74). Equally problematic, the open source product is often left unattended or forgotten once the original developer decides to no longer fund it and offloads this product as open source for the world community (e.g., the e-education course management system (CMS) from Jones Knowledge, Inc.; see Kraan, 2002). For example, on March 28, 2006, there were 116,682 registered open source projects on SourceForge.net, an online hub for open-source software projects. Only six of them, however, were listed as highly active during the previous week, while three out of those six were asking for donations. Clearly, there is continued uncertainty as to whether an open source project will ultimately lead to success or failure (Bezroukov, 1999; Robles, 2004; Room 17, 1999).
This paper reviewed the evolution of free and open source (FOSS) movement. From a socio-cultural viewpoint, knowledge construction is situated in an interactional, cultural, institutional, and historical context. The evolution of FOSS movement is an interactional process between the socio-cultural environment and the ideas, negotiations, proposals, strategies, and overall leadership of leading figures of the FOSS movement. This socio-cultural environment is first and foremost the institutions involved in it since inception, namely, universities and research centers and the accompanying culture where the leading figures of the FOSS movement studied and worked. It was out of this interaction between the early hackers and the academic culture of open science and knowledge sharing at learning and research institutions that the hacker culture emerged and grew, with a strong belief in the openness and distributed nature of software development.
Not surprisingly, the FOSS movement inherited the values and beliefs of the prevailing hacker culture. The resulting FOSS heritage is manifested in the artifacts created, the tools used for artifact creation, and the language used for communication under the FOSS movement. As the field continues to evolve in the coming decades, socio-cultural perspectives and methodologies might play a significant role in understanding the underpinnings of its evolution as well as the factors that shape communities of knowledge and idea sharing.
As detailed in this paper, the FOSS movement has already played a vital role in the current swell of knowledge sharing in higher education and industry. Perhaps it will evolve into a powerful cultural artifact or tool that can help in efforts to break down walls or pockets of mistrust as well as resistance to communicate with those one has never met. It might also help eliminate the pervasive politics of secrecy within higher education and associated organizational chart hierarchies or chains of command in the name of power since the power is now in anyone's hands with access to the Internet, the willingness to try free and open software, and a creative idea on how to use it. Perhaps it already has.
FOSS is a social, political, economic flattener of the 21st century (Friedman, 2005), but, more importantly, it flattens the world of learning by providing teaching and learning tools that previously were out of reach of the majority of the citizens of this planet. As this becomes increasingly obvious, each of us will likely be involved in it in one way or another. It might be necessary for us to consider the kind of meaningful contributions we can each make to the FOSS movement and intellectually begin to touch other human beings on this planet with our ideas, wisdom, and social supports as well as with our free software developments.
The authors would like to specifically thank Dr. David Mappin and Dr. Gabriella Coleman for their comments and criticisms during the writing of this paper, and also thank those who were interviewed for this paper.
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About the Authors
Guohua Pan is an instructional designer with Instructional Media and Design, Grant MacEwan College. Prior to his employment with MacEwan College, Guohua was an instructional designer at Lakeland College in Vermilion, Alberta, for two-and-a-half years. While completing his PhD studies at the University of Alberta, Guohua was a teaching assistant and a research assistant. Originally from Chengdu, China, Guohua taught at a college there before coming to Canada in 1995 to pursue graduate studies. He earned his MEd from the University of Lethbridge and his PhD from the University of Alberta. Guohua is interested in learning theories, technology-based instructional environment, multimedia development, and open-source learning management systems.
Curtis Bonk is Professor of Instructional Systems Technology in the School of Education at Indiana University and adjunct in the School of Informatics. Dr. Bonk is also a Senior Research Fellow with the DOD's Advanced Distributed Learning Lab. He has received the CyberStar Award from the Indiana Information Technology Association, Most Outstanding Achievement Award from the U.S. Distance Learning Association, and Most Innovative Teaching in a Distance Education Program from the State of Indiana. Dr. Bonk is in high demand as a conference keynote speaker and workshop presenter. He is President of CourseShare and SurveyShare