Though it does not get much press, one of the great social and technological innovations of the last 30 years has been open source software. To about 90% of the population, this remains a mystery. Are the people producing open source code communists?
The truth, of course, is that open source software is just another example of the invisible college. Whenever some occupation requires advanced knowledge, its practitioners tend to network and freely exchange. This is often done under the radar.
This is not to say that people won’t withhold information or be fiercely competitive. But rather that, on the whole, people will tend to share freely with their guild. It is not altruism: this collaboration is key to long-term success as individuals. In science, we have formalized this process: to exist as a scientist is to share your results regularly in the form of papers.
Well before there was anything known as open source, programmers would share with other programmers. At some point, the likes of Bill Gates asserted their copyright over code which prevented the free exchange of code… but not the free exchange of ideas: if you can get a Microsoft engineer in a bar, and you are an established programmer, he will typically share internal ideas with you. In fact, as long as it cannot be traced to them by their employer, most programmers will freely share with other programmers, even if they are from competing companies. In this sense, open source code is just the visible part of the invisible college of programmers.
Recently, many successful businesses are just based on a collection of open source tools put together quickly. And it is exactly why I started this post by saying that open source is a great innovation. In effect, no other community of practitioners has established such a rich invisible college. This makes programmers some of the most effective employees from a cost-value ratio point of view.
Hence, despite a sluggish recovery, software engineers enjoy a 2% unemployment rate and some of the best salaries an engineer can get. And I suspect that open source code and the free exchange of ideas among programmers has a lot to do with these good results.
Of course, programmers who are not participating in this invisible college risk being left in the dust. If you work in isolation, never sharing… you will have a harder time leveraging the strength of the community.
Further reading: Alexia Gaudeul, Open Source Licensing in Mixed Markets, or Why Open Source Software Does Not Succeed, 2008. Eric S. Raymond, The Social Context of Open-Source Software (chapter from the Cathedral and the Bazaar).