If you follow technology news, you might catch an article or two about the benefits of open-source software. A few cavalier individuals are even on a crusade to open-source all of the software in the world.
There is no such thing as a free lunch.
As with most modern technology, we have become too distracted by it to notice the burden imposed by open-source software. It is rather severe.
Do It Yourself ...
Back at the dawn of personal computing, you had two options: buy a commercial tool or write the software yourself. The latter choice was made possible by the ecosystem. Easy-to-program computers meant that many simple tasks could be solved programmatically with a bit of practice.
In a sense, this was the dawn of open-source software. Homemade programs could be swapped with neighbors on floppy disks, cassette tapes, or even BBSes. If your neighbor made a change or improvement, you might even get a disk back.
There is a period held with nostalgia. Each computer brand had its own flavor of BASIC, closely tied to the hardware capabilities of the machine. Neighborhoods had definitive camps: the Commodore folks couldn't swap software with the Atari people.
Fast forward 30 years, and the landscape has changed drastically.
Standardization has taken over. Software is ubiquitous, easy to find, and easy to download and install. Due to an entire ecosystem of free solutions, there is reduced incentive to purchase or create your own solution.
... Or Consume Tech
Open-source software has irrevocably shaped how we interact with our technology. We no longer want to pay for our software. This was the case long before the widespread availability of OSS. Microsoft used to make a significant amount of its money through the sales of new PCs rather than boxed software. People didn't want to spend on the disk, so advertising campaigns led us to purchase computers unnecessarily.
Isn't that a terrible exchange? Instead of consuming software with a relatively small carbon footprint, people were tricked into creating e-waste.
In many ways, OSS has furthered this problem. A significant number of OSS projects began out of necessity, financial constraints, or simply for fun. The objective was for a developer to solve a problem and share it with the world.
Because of standardization, this OSS solution runs on most any computer. But it may not run well on your computer, since many developers use higher-end machines. And this disconnect is the problem.
If you have written software, you know that optimization -- the process of refining your sofware so that it doesn't just work correctly, but works quickly or with less resources -- is usually an afterthought.
If the software was tied to a specific 80's computer, whose hardware is not upgradeable, there would be more emphasis on performance and less emphasis on functionality. Industry has taught us that our computers are “never fast enough,” and the landfills are showing the results.
I would argue that our planet has paid a heavy price for open-source software. Of course, this is all thoughtful speculation, since the dynamics of the situation make it impossible to establish cause-and-effect. One thing is clear: if optimization was a necessity for releasing OSS, we would not be upgrading endlessly for performance reasons.
Was open-source software inevitable? Was there a combination of commercial, economic, and personal interests that would lead us toward the path of the lowest bidder?
Who can say? Our collective beliefs have been shaped by industries that stand to profit immensely from deploying wave after wave of technological garbage on us.
Shift Sight conjectures that cheap and/or free software encourages technology consumption. Look no further than an app store if you need proof.
Computer science education has been irrevocably altered by the shift to OSS. Newcomers now learn skills that are largely disconnected from the machine's operation. In fact, this is the goal of many high-level programming languages.
From a neuroscience perspective, this goal has very human effects. By separating the software from the hardware and standardizing the hardware, the machine becomes less real. If you have had the pleasure of using a retro computer recently, you'll know what I mean: the retro computer has presence.
On their own, people are no longer encouraged to solve a problem but instead to download a solution. Students used to learn to write BASIC, closely coupled to the hardware, in a self-directed manner. Some instances of computer science education involve downloading an open-source module and picking it apart. This is equivalent to expecting to learn how to bake new recipes by studying existing ones: the skills do not translate directly.
Shift Sight does not presently support open-source software due to its perceived role in creating e-waste. Jade's firmware will remain a trade secret mostly to prevent low-cost, disposable knockoffs. Company directives will allow the founders to open-source the firmware should Shift Sight lose solvency. If the company should not survive, Jade will not share our fate.
See you next week!
Ty is a Founder of Shift Sight, LLC.