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Homer's Open Source Odyssey 2001: Classical Computing and a Brief History of Open Source

By Elliot McGucken

Today we are continuing along on the same open-source journey Homer set out upon three thousand years ago, when he shared the words of The Odyssey with an audience and enriched them with the knowledge of a classic's ineffable truths. The story was passed along from generation to generation as part of an oral tradition for a few hundred of years, before it was transcribed around 700 BC. The invention of the printing press and movable type by Gutenberg circa 1445 aided in the sharing of classical information, and suddenly the Bible, as well as works such as The Odyssey, found a far greater audience.

With the advent of the Internet the content and the audience have augmented vastly. And of even greater significance, with the new paradigms afforded by information technology, classical computing has joined the ranks of immortal art, science, and literature. In the past few years, we have played witness to a revolutionary era of humanity's cultural journey, wherein technology and ideas have merged in a brave new digital world, rendering knowledge as affordable as it is eternal.

Software is labor immortalized, as a programmer's algorithm, once written, may continue to function for eternity. Thus now, in addition to inheriting the cultural riches of our predecessors, we may also inherit the functionality of their programs. In a world where commerce is defined by the movement of information, that machinery--the hardware and software--which moves the information embodies work, and thus the innovations of one's predecessors will not only bestow aesthetic riches, but they shall also provide a wellspring of eternal labor. A hundred years from now Hamlet shall still be contemplating the correct course of action, and the Linux kernel, along with Apache, shall still be providing the fundamental labor which transports Hamlet all about the watery globe.

In software, language has becomes action. Never before has an individual commanded so much wealth, so many man-hours of innovation. In the past decade, those man-hours have increased geometrically, as the network has enabled the collaboration of thousands of the best and brightest programmers.

Whereas in Jefferson's day it took three days and a horse's labor to deliver a letter from Philadelphia to Washington, today one can instantaneously send a message to the far corners of the watery globe by utilizing the inherited wealth born of the millions of hours that millions of scientists have spent theorizing, millions of innovators have spent innovating, and millions of engineers have spent engineering--one can use this collective wealth for free. All one has to do is log on to the new paradigm of classical computing.

Over two-thousand-five-hundred years ago the Greeks developed an architecture which was passed along to the Romans via open-source methods. In 1675, about seventy years after Shakespeare penned Hamlet, Newton claimed he saw further because he "stood upon the shoulders of giants," and he invented calculus. A hundred years later a poet by the name of William Blake penned the verse wherein he saw the world in a grain of sand and found eternity within an hour. Since then, via the open source of modern physics, space has become time, time has become space, and Blake's grain of sand has become a silicon chip, which holds not only entire worlds, but also all of the art, music, and poetry ever known to humanity. And these vast open-source riches, from condensed matter physics, to the complete works of Shakespeare, are free to all. Thus it is that those who open books or log on are granted an inheritance as never before.

The very freedoms which are so fundamental to our everyday existence were passed down by a classical open-source method. The Declaration of Independence has inspired the likes of Ghandi and the students in Tiannamen Square, and the noble document's author, Thomas Jefferson, once stated stated that there was nothing new within its words, but that he had merely edited the better parts of history. Concerning the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson wrote:

Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion. All its authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, &c.

The classics represent the center and circumference of humanity's open-source movement. Like calculus, the transistor, the microprocessor, C, and Linux, they were created for little in the way of stock options, and shared not so much for fame and fortune, but because they had to be, because they worked and accomplished the task of helping us find words for our thoughts, music for our feelings, solutions for our technical hurdles, and meaning for our lives.

Not too long ago John Doerr of Kleiner Perkins said that the Internet age had fostered the greatest legal creation of wealth. Instead I would argue that it has afforded the greatest inheritance of wealth, for on the Internet we are standing upon the shoulders of giants with names like Shockley, Bohr, Faraday, Einstein, Jefferson, Dirac, Aristotle, Moses, Copernicus, Shakespeare, and Newton. And as Newton himself acknowledged that he had stood upon the shoulders of giants, so it is that today we are standing upon the shoulders of giants who stood upon the shoulders of giants.

Recorded culture is humanity's single greatest invention, and it is a tower built from the open source of the ages, with foundations thousands of years deep, reaching back to the dawn of civilization and language itself. Today we are standing upon the shoulders of countless innovators and educators: all the typesetters and teachers throughout the ages who kept the language alive and the aesthetic beacon lit, all the prophets and poets, all the inventors and innovators who built the first presses, who pioneered quantum mechanics, and who selflessly pushed forward the open-source technology, philosophy, and software of the Internet age. Venture Capital is a very recent innovation, and because individuals, rather than money, invent new technologies, VC has played little if any role in the development of the internet, as it was used primarily for seeding pyramid schemes wherein savvy MBAs could momentarily pretend they were high-tech entrepreneurs.

We are standing upon the shoulders of the Founding Fathers who humbly recognized our fundamental freedom in the face of mysteries greater than ourselves, who penned an open-source Constitution in homage to those higher laws which grant us our natural freedoms. An open-source Constitution which could be amended by the people, and which has been freely distributed about the globe, and adapted and adopted in country after country, in city after city, in heart after heart. An open-source Constitution in which they set in words the laws which today encourage innovators by allowing them to own their ideas via copyrights, patents, and trademarks.

In fact, the only place where the word "right" is mentioned in the Constitution is in relation to intellectual property:

The Congress shall have Power To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries;

But when more and more intellectual property is inherited rather than created, when more and more lawyers and hypesters are employed by corporations to convince judges and juries of the grandiose merits of some trifling innovation, is the true innovator benefiting?

As the contemporary innovator stands upon more and more giants, perhaps the patenting process devolves into a game of semantics, wherein some "innovators" attempt to claim credit for others' monuments by calling a rose by a different name. For instance, when Jeff Bezos patented "one-click shopping", he was in essence giving a new name to the cookie technology which is intrinsic to the browser, which maintains state and stores the identity of the user. Jeff Bezos had nothing to do with the development of that technology, yet he was still awarded the patent.

Patents are supposed to encourage innovation by protecting the inventor's rights to profit from their inventions, but it is hard to imagine how far along we'd be today if every aspect of the C language had been patented as it evolved, if every new subroutine or algorithm was handed to the lawyers before it was presented to other programmers, or if Tim Berners Lee had patented the fundamentals of the Internet. With hundreds of Internet companies penning patents and creating dubious boundaries, erecting fences on a wide open frontier which they did not discover nor create, it is more likely that lawyers will profit as opposed to innovation.

The realm of open source and "classical computing" may represent a hybrid paradigm, wherein programming is closer in essence to physics and mathematics than it is to inventing the world's first functional airplane, or the first light bulb. One cannot patent scientific laws nor mathematical concepts, and thus physics and mathematics have always been open-source endeavours.

In programming the fundamental algorithms are immutable ideals, and though they may be used as machines to ferry information about the globe, when one attempts to patent the machine, one is perhaps trying to take too much credit for the algorithms developed by others, or for immutable ideals which were always there. It seems that more and more innovations in contemporary information technology are dwarfed by the giants upon which they are based, for what sole inventor or invention can be greater than the open platform upon which it is invented, such as Linux and C++?

The GNU General Public License takes the "standing upon the shoulders of giants" aspect of software development into account, as it states:

Finally, any free program is threatened constantly by software patents. We wish to avoid the danger that redistributors of a free program will individually obtain patent licenses, in effect making the program proprietary. To prevent this, we have made it clear that any patent must be licensed for everyone's free use or not licensed at all.
If one builds upon code developed under the GNU License, the new code inherits the GNU Copyleft, thereby keeping the source open, and acknowledging the former giants of innovation and good will.

When the division between the legal mind and the innovating mind grows, as has been encouraged by the fact that only lawyers can practice law (except for the cases where one represents oneself), what can quickly happen is that the laws founded to encourage innovation begin to encourage lawyers at the innovator's expense, as it is difficult for the typical inventor to keep up with the ever-evolving game of legal semantics. Indeed, the men who penned the Constitution believed that the common man would be capable of comprehending the law--otherwise what good could laws be in a democratic republic? Perhaps innovators should be made to file and defend their own patents, or patent nothing at all, and lawyers should only be allowed to file patents for that which they themselves have invented. This would keep well-funded corporations from hiring legions of lawyers to file ambiguous patents with sweeping claims. For if the legal system can determine that Microsoft has a monopoly in the arena of the desktop operating system, then certainly that same legal system should recognize that lawyers have monopolized the legal system, taxing all innovation as the arbiters of others' copyrights, patents, and trademarks.

All the major innovations upon which the Internet is based were made before 1995, from TCP/IP to Sendmail, Apache, Perl, Mosaic, and Netscape. None of these innovations were patented. After 1995 we encountered the irony that although the Internet was built by individuals seeking truth and beauty in functionality, it was hyped by hundreds of corporations led by MBAs and "visonary" CEOs who had very little to do with true innovation, who registered thousands of trademarks and patented spurious technological innovations, and who ultimately created thousands of worthless companies which lost far more than they ever made, except for the insiders and the bankers.

And yet, it is a misconception that the open-source movement in general opposes intellectual property rights, although at times a few adherents or government bureaucrats seem to be drawn towards the open-source movement because they believe it supports a form of communism. Rather, most open-sourcers are opposed to the patenting of other's innovations and trying to pass them off as one's own in a game of legal semantics.

Benjamin Franklin, an open-sourcer who was certainly not a communist, turned down the opportunity to patent the Franklin Stove, "on the principle that 'as we enjoy great advantages from the inventions of others, we should be glad of an opportunity to serve others by any invention of ours; and this we should do freely and generously." But at the same time, he didn't believe that the government should fund the development of the Franklin stove, nor did he ever speak out against the rights which inventors should have to their own innovations, nor did he ever contend that the government should have the role of redistributing his Franklin stove. Open source is about the individual--it is about the innovator, the end-user, not about the administrators nor the hypesters, who so often seek to ride on the coattails of others' achievements, whether they reside in a corporate or government bureaucracy.

Regarding the ownership of intellectual property via copyrights, Mark Twain once addressed the United States Congress with:

I am aware that copyright must have a limit, because that is required by the Constitution of the United States, which sets aside the earlier Constitution, which we call the decalogue. The decalogue says you shall not take away from any man his profit. I don't like to be obliged to use the harsh term. What the decalogue really says is, "Thou shalt not steal," but I am trying to use more polite language.
Twain goes on to offer a good defense of the protection of "ideas which did not exist before" as property:
I put a supposititious case, a dozen Englishmen who travel through South Africa and camp out, and eleven of them see nothing at all; they are mentally blind. But there is one in the party who knows what this harbor means and what the lay of the land means. To him it means that some day a railway will go through here, and there on that harbor a great city will spring up.

That is his idea. And he has another idea, which is to go and trade his last bottle of Scotch whiskey and his last horse-blanket to the principal chief of that region and buy a piece of land the size of Pennsylvania. That was the value of an idea that the day would come when the Cape to Cairo Railway would be built.

Every improvement that is put upon the real estate is the result of an idea in somebody's head. The skyscraper is another idea; the railroad is another; the telephone and all those things are merely symbols which represent ideas. An andiron, a wash-tub, is the result of an idea that did not exist before.

So if, as that gentleman said, a book does consist solely of ideas, that is the best argument in the world that it is property, and should not be under any limitation at all.

Although Twain would like to keep his intellectual property in this case, while Franklin aims to give his away, they both seem to agree that intellectual property is property, and that individuals should have the right to choose what they do with it. And as patents and copyrights have limits, eventually the source of all intellectual property becomes open.

The Wright brothers' names are still on the fundamental patents which describe the design of the navigational systems on all modern airplanes. Such fundamental patents as this help inspire the innovators in their life times, allowing them to reap the benefits of what they develop, and too, when they expire, the open knowledge, which one can improvise upon without the fear of a lawsuit, allows for further innovations. To determine the "right" duration of a patent or a copyright will always be a difficult task, and perhaps modern technological innovations, most of which are based on yesteryear's far greater monuments of innovation, should be granted patents with a shorter duration.

Another common misconception is that Red Hat Linux and Microsoft are at opposite ends of the open-source spectrum, but they are in fact very similar. Both operating systems developed by the publicly-traded companies were mostly written in the open source of the C computing language (the language itself is an open specification), both were built upon the open-source science and technology found within the silicon chip, and both benefit from intellectual property rights to their respective trademarks, copyrights, and patents. Both use the open source of the English language, and both openly share volumes of useful information on their web sites. Microsoft chooses to keep more of their coding proprietary, thus guaranteeing better pay for their programmers, while Red Hat opens the source, thereby allowing anyone to contribute, but lowering the direct monetary compensation of those who do.

Also, Microsoft has offered a far better return for the common investor and worker, not just for the insiders. Perhaps there is not as much money to be made out of a global network of open-source programmers as Red Hat and other public linux companies once trumpeted. Perhaps the true wealth of the open-source movement is inherited by the webmasters who utilize the code, by the entrepreneurs who download the open-source tools and applications to power entire portals of their own creation. Like the free market, it seems that in the long run the Internet favors the rugged individual, the renaissance man, over the bureaucracy led by the administrator and hypester.

For certain user-friendly applications, such as office suites and other software used by non-programmers, Microsoft has the upper hand, as paying programmers to write word-processing applications and office suites makes sense. The majority of hard-core programmers probably don't care about font colors and integration with PowerPoint and spreadsheets quite as much as they care about streamlining Apache or enhancing Linux security.

But when it comes to servers, the open-source paradigm provides a superior system, as the more technically-inclined--the ones who actually build and configure the servers--are allowed to get under the hood and enhance the performance. Whereas a typical author or MBA would probably never want to hack away at PowerPoint or Microsoft Word to get cooler fonts, those who have built and configured their own servers don't mind spending a few sleepless nights to add functionality. And by sharing their accomplishments on the Internet, they may receive that priceless respect from fellow gurus, and benefit themselves while benefiting others, as the improvements that they bestow upon their fellow programmers may in turn be improved upon, while the bugs may be fixed by any one of thousands of experts.

There is a beauty in efficiency and functionality, and the programmer's aesthetic is very similar to Einstein's, who once said, "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not more so." There is room for both Microsoft and Linux, and as Eric Raymond pointed out in a recent Wall Street Journal article, there is little need for the government to interfere--Linux will continue to spread throughout the server market, as it contains all the inherent advantages of open source.

If history has demonstrated anything, it is that truth, beauty, and freedom are the favored traditions, and thus classical computing, born upon the ancient open-source paradigm, shall prosper throughout the rest of eternity.

Elliot McGucken

As a Ph.D. physicist and the CEO of "The World's Classical Portal" at I rely on everything open source, from forums, to shopping carts, to linux, apache, php, perl, and the condensed matter physics which affords the silicon computer chip. I first encountered Linux in 1994, when I used it to run VLSI design software on my home PC.

Copyright © 2001, Elliot McGucken.
Copying license
Published in Issue 70 of Linux Gazette, September 2001

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