Most open source creators hope for their work to be used widely and for it to have staying power. But in reality, open source software is a poem-filled bottle thrown into the turbulent ocean of code: the odds that anyone will find it, read it, and then make it their own, adding to its beauty and making it more powerful, is vanishingly small. Too often, open source projects are more like message-wrapped rocks tossed into the sea; they sink without a trace. But if that message is indeed found, pored over with care, and adapted to one’s personal and special needs, then something wonderful can happen: its text has staying power.
Perhaps the comparison most apt to open source then is not rocks or bottles or anything ocean-related, but to the stories that we tell as societies. And perhaps the clearest example is that of ancient myths.
The mythology of the Ancient Greeks infused their society, from their rituals to their entertainment. But there were no single canonical versions of these stories. Instead, these stories were told and retold over time, with continuous borrowing and adaptation. Early in Gods and Mortals, the classics scholar Sarah Iles Johnston examines this in more detail, providing lots of examples of this, and concluding that “[i]t was in this spirit of both tradition and constant innovation that the Greeks told the same myths for more than a millennium.” These Ancient Greeks were full-on remixing their civilizational public domain.
Over time though, each ever-retold story was sanded into a gem of a tale that could last all those years, not necessarily because the written text was preserved—to be found in a clay pot in some desert cave millennia hence, or etched into a rock so it could not be forgotten—but because there was a community devoted to its recounting.
This balance between tradition and innovation is found in other ancient traditions. I’ve written previously about this process within Judaism and how it is conducive to long-term thinking, but there are many parallels here as well between Jewish texts, Greek mythology, and open source code.
In Jewish law, the stories, debates, and decisions are continuously added to and modified over time. And before the Talmud was codified, there was even a strong tradition of oral transmission. But whether written down or not, as long as ancient stories and texts and laws were passed down from generation to generation, modified, remarked upon, debated and discussed, they became living texts.
Open source can have similar features. The novelist Neal Stephenson drew some parallels between the Epic of Gilgamesh and Unix in his book-length essay In the Beginning…Was the Command Line:
Unix, by contrast, is not so much a product as it is a painstakingly compiled oral history of the hacker subculture. It is our Gilgamesh epic. What made old epics like Gilgamesh so powerful and so long-lived was that they were living bodies of narrative that many people knew by heart, and told over and over again--making their own personal embellishments whenever it struck their fancy. The bad embellishments were shouted down, the good ones picked up by others, polished, improved, and, over time, incorporated into the story. Likewise, Unix is known, loved, and understood by so many hackers that it can be re-created from scratch whenever someone needs it.
And the writer and programmer James Somers wrote this about open source more recently:
In 1976, the programmer Richard Stallman created a text-editing program called Emacs that is still wildly popular among software developers today. I use it not just for programming but for writing: because it’s open-source, I’ve been able to modify it to help me manage notes for my articles. I adapted code that someone had adapted from someone else, who had adapted it from someone else—a chain of tinkering going all the way back to Stallman.
But this needn’t be always true when it comes to code. Code requires a community of users, maintainers, and contributors, in order to be a truly living thing. Without this, it will wither away, perhaps to be rediscovered by some computational archaeologist. But it will be no more than a program preserved in amber.
In Working in Public, Nadia Asparouhova describes these two conditions as either active or static states, with something like Emacs or Linux in the former category and the source code for Apollo 11’s guidance computer in the latter category. One has a living breathing community, and the other is able to be read and looked at and examined, but is there more for posterity than for anything else.
Of course, moving from a static to an active state incurs costs, such as the need for maintenance and interoperability, but those are the tradeoffs of a living text. Only when a text is alive can it be part of a conversation of ideas and stories. This is why there is such a lively discussion around ensuring that creative works can become part of the public domain; otherwise they are the province of a single individual or corporation (or even worse, are just locked up but no one is using them). People want to play with Mickey Mouse in new ways, or expose the works of Jane Austen to zombies, or have superheroes that can interact across corporate owners.
The process of modification and change in ancient mythology is almost a sort of fancy fan fiction, but with the possibility of sanction and imprimatur from the broader society. And so too does it go with open source software.
The power of recombination and retelling can be vital for living text, from story to source code. ■
Thanks to Nadia Asparouhova for feedback on this essay.
The Enchanted Systems Roundup
Here are some links worth checking out that touch on the complex systems of our world (both built and natural):
🝤 Life Evolves. Can Attempts to Create ‘Artificial Life’ Evolve, Too? “Do efforts to create life—by cooking up imitations in computers, robots and molecules—point toward a universal definition of biology?”
🜸 Emergent autonomous scientific research capabilities of large language models: As per this wonderful summary, “An Opentrons lab robot was programmed by a GPT-4 autonomous agent.”
🝳 The End of Computer Magazines in America: “With Maximum PC and MacLife’s abandonment of print, the dead-tree era of computer journalism is officially over. It lasted almost half a century—and was quite a run.” Pairs with this essay of mine.
🝖 The Unpredictable Abilities Emerging From Large AI Models: “Large language models like ChatGPT are now big enough that they’ve started to display startling, unpredictable behaviors.”
🜹 Unix: A History and a Memoir by Brian Kernighan: A delightful exploration of the development of Unix, from someone who was there at the beginning.
🝊 Towards Large-Scale Simulations of Open-Ended Evolution in Continuous Cellular Automata: “Using a continuous cellular automata called Lenia as the base system, we built large-scale evolutionary simulations using parallel computing framework JAX, in order to achieve the goal of never-ending evolution of self-organizing patterns.”
🜚 GPT4 should be part of your toolkit: “A calculator for words” and much more.
🝤 AI Is a Waste of Time: “To see AI as play, or as a distraction, or as a waste of time is not to say that AI will be entirely unproductive or benign. It’s to imagine, rather, that the AI-inflected future contains more texture than mere utopia or dystopia.”
Until next time.
Here is also a thought-provoking talk that explores the oral tradition for the software engineering process itself.
Coincidentally, I also stumbled across this book lying on a table at the B&N this afternoon. It examines the history of government secrecy: what gets classified, why, and how it impoverishes our culture.
This is really interesting. I've been watching a lot of paranormal documentaries recently. One of the best was Seth Breedlove's ON THE TRAIL OF THE LAKE MICHIGAN MOTHMAN, which featured several interviews with a folklorist, who studies oral traditions of all sorts, and who made keen observations about how audience attention shapes stories (consciously or not).