Consider this: in just a few short years, the open-source encyclopedia Wikipedia has made closed-source encyclopedias obsolete — both the hard-bound kind and the CD-ROM or commercial online kind. Goodbye World Book and Brittanica.
Sure, these companies still exist, but their customer base is rapidly shrinking as more and more people would rather go with Wikipedia — it’s free, it’s easy to use, and it’s much, much more up-to-date.
This is but one example of how the concept of open source has changed our lives already. Over the next 10 years or so, we’ll be seeing many more examples, and the effects could change just about every aspect of our lives.
The open-source concept was popularized through GNU and the GPL, and it has spread ever since, in an increasingly rapid manner. The open-source OS, Linux, has been growing in users exponentially over the last few years, and while it still has a ways to go before it can challenge Microsoft or Apple, it has become a viable and even desirable alternative for many.
Open-source alternatives have been growing in number and breadth: from office software to financial software to web and desktop utilities to games, just about any software you can think of has an open-source alternative. And in many cases, the open-source version is better.
Now consider this: the open-source concept doesn’t have to just apply to software. It can apply to anything in life, any area where information is currently in the hands of few instead of many, any area where a few people control the production and distribution and improvement of a product or service or entity.
Now, the following examples are going to sound idealistic, and they are, but they are possibilities that could turn into probabilities in the next few year, or the next 10-20 years. Only time will tell, but it’s worth thinking about.
- Schools. Currently, knowledge and the teaching of that knowledge is in the hands of a few, from elementary to high schools to higher education. But why do we need to go through the public or private school system, and why does Harvard and Stanford and MIT control the education of our professionals and academics? Homeschooling, for example, is a growing movement that allows parents to regain control of their child’s education, to move away from an authoritarian setting of mind control and towards one of learning, of questioning, of critical thinking — and that’s really what education should be. Please understand that I’m not blaming the teachers — they are good people with good intentions, but they are bound by the school system, which is really controlled by our government. The open-source concept can be applied to higher education: imagine an online school for programmers or accountants or businesspeople, where the real professionals decide the curriculum and teach the classes and give out the certificates. If this alternative grows in acceptance (and this will take a long time to happen), there is no reason why a Harvard business degree would be better than an open-source one, which would also be much less expensive.
- Government. Our governments are controlled by a relatively small number of people (the politicians and technocrats), who control many aspects of our lives, from taxes and government spending to regulation of the Internet and commerce. But imagine that open-source alternatives for these functions, perhaps one at a time, are created and grow in acceptance. This may be difficult to imagine, but the example of schools given above are just one way this could happen. Email is another example of how a government function can be co-opted, as the postal system is less necessary than before — fewer people use the postal system to write letters, and the days of getting bills in the mail may soon be a thing of the past. Perhaps not every government function can be co-opted (although it’s possible), but if enough government services become obsolete because of better alternatives, the justification of taxes becomes weaker. Open-source helping of the poor, instead of government welfare. Open-source medical help, instead of the government’s public health system. There are many possibilities.
- Corporations. This will sound idealistic, but consider that the power of corporations is their ability to control knowledge, and the manufacture and distribution of products and services. If their knowledge becomes free through alternatives — think corporate media vs. blogs — then the corporations are no longer needed. Even manufacturing could become decentralized if the patents on the product become open-sourced.
- Entertainment. The music, movie, television, book, and magazine industries are currently closed-source — with production and distribution of these entertainment sources controlled by a relative few. Only a small number of people release albums or movies or books, though there are many other talented people out there. Approval for contracts of these things are controlled by a small number of people. There are a limited number of channels through which they can be distributed. But consider an open-source alternative, where people collaborate on music and release it to the public through the Internet. It’s already happening on the Internet with the book and magazine industries, as people can distribute free e-books or write blogs or collaborate on cookbooks and how-to manuals. There’s no reason such collaboration and free distribution couldn’t happen with other entertainment, even if the production is a bit more difficult or expensive.
- Money. This will seem like a stretch, but what is money? It’s a closed-source system that says that in exchange for giving me your product or service, I will give you a voucher that you can use elsewhere to get products or services (or however you want to use your voucher). An open-source alternative could be created, and as long as people trust the system, there’s no reason it has to be controlled by governments and couldn’t be used worldwide.
- Internet. Most products or services on the Internet right now are closed-sourced, including Google and Microsoft and Yahoo. That will likely change as people start developing open-source alternatives to these products and services. There are already a few out there, from open-source email and search to the wiki alternatives of online dictionaries, Internet directories, and so on.