"Let's turn on the funk. I'm here tonight to talk with you about open-source." Cue dimming of the lights. A single spot alights the stage wherein a lonely mic, a barstool, and an over-dressed geek or an under-dressed poet approaches. A lonely cello (or is it a bass guitar?) waits, stage-left, the clicking clapping crowd dims, waits, a blue smoke curling 'round the luminescence casts the world into amber and cobalt. "There's been a lot of discussion about open-source in the past, but for some reason noone seems to discuss it much these days...
Now, I'm not going to tell you f/oss'll save your soul. Not gonna tell you f/oss'll make your millions. I'm not here to sell software. Not today. But I am going to talk about software —no, I'm not going to talk about software, I'm going to talk about ideology. It's not an ideology of community, not an ideology of coöperation; I'm not talking about f/oss here, but rather about a new world order f/oss is but the harbinger for.
You are not it the world of your forefathers and -mothers. Not in the world of the dot-com era. Not in the world to which you were born. You are a nomadic hunter first discovering that grain left to moulder in sodden fields bears fruit. You are an entrepreneur discovering that heated gasses expand and captured in a vessel can force a piston into motion. You are discovering that lightning can be stored in jars, can transmit sound to the stars, can teach sand to think. You are discovering that everything you know is wrong. The world has shifted and you've been left behind to collect the remnant shards of nostalgia.
And you are being told this is cause to rejoice.
In the early- and mid-1990s we were bombarded with the notion of "the Information Age". We were told that the Internet would change our lives, that we were building a global village. And yet the life we were left living remained so much like the lives we had always known. Disappointment sets in. We go and buy iPods to assuage the loss, check for appointments on our PDAs, play MMORPGs from our laptops over wifi in our local caffeine watering-holes, check for movie listings on our universal cellular communicators, and never once are we told that the Information Age is coming.
In the mid- and late-1990s we learned a chic new term that promised software free of charge, never knowing that the sugary pill we swallowed was attached to a fishing line that said "freedom: freedom means the power of speech, freedom means revolution". And as the first generation born entirely into a world where "computer" was a household term reached maturity, the compu-literati were swarmed with wave after wave of the young, the eager, the willing. The notion becomes a subculture, becomes a counterculture, becomes a career, becomes an assumption.
One of the interesting things about ideas is how they change. At first the notion seems frightening. We discuss it, discuss our fears. And after a time the notion is no longer frightful but becomes new and intriguing. And so we discuss it, discuss the novel and surprising. And then, of a sudden, everything stops. No discussion. Like the Information Age, like Free/Open-Source. If would be a mistake to think that the idea has fallen into disfavor, were that the case we would more than jubilantly discuss our disfavor. No, when the talking stops is when the idea is no longer new and frightening, no longer new and interesting, is when the idea has become commonplace, ubiquitous, when the idea is so pervasive that it is part of our tacit assumptions.
But when it comes to open-source that is only where we should begin. As I said earlier, the world has shifted. But noone's noticed. Our economic system is based on the notion of physical possessions, the problem is we no longer live in a physical world. One of the unspeakable changes the internet has wrought is to have destroyed our very notion of property, of work, of economics.
The whole of economy is based on the transfer of goods. Until recently goods could be easily quantified, easily transfered, easily monetized. I make a hammer. I sell you the hammer. You give me money. Now I have money, I do not have a hammer, you have a hammer. Fin. Finis. Finitio. The very concept of modern economics is predicated on the notion that my work is incorporated into a transferable good, and that once I give you this good in exchange for some other good (like money) I no longer posses the first good.
The problem is that in a world where computers are ubiquitous, where a majority of daily work is performed in software, where electronic storage has inundated every aspect of life, anything even remotely resembling a zero-sum game has been thrown out the window off the 87th storey. In the Information Age, countless goods can be replicated infinitely many times for zero cost. I do work. I sell you that work. Now I have money and I still have my work.
These days many of the purveyors of informational property are trying desperately to cling to this dated notion of the transfer of goods. The RIAA is yearning with every fiber of their being to believe they're still selling records; hopelessly begging to exist in a world where they traffick in plastic-coated metal discs. "Shareware" software vendors are pleading pitifully that reality be not so, whilst they develop ever more sophisticated means of well-timed software destruction. DRM scheme after DRM scheme throws itself into the maelstrom trying to lock away the future with ever-growing vehemence.
But they will not. And they can not. Every person, home, and automobile is ready, poised, and primed with ever-increasing storage capacity. Every day another company joins the fold, another coder joins the wave, another artist pre-releases on the web, another blogger serializes and syndicates the news free of charge. The Revolution is now. The Revolution will not be televised. The Revolution will not be beamed into your livingroom for viewing in high-definition. The Revolution will be uploaded from every coffeeshop and on every streetcorner. It will be described first-hand by Chinese laborers and Argentinean farmers. It will be cataloged, indexed, cross-referenced, hyperlinked, and fully searchable. Welcome to the Information Age.
But perhaps I sell economics short. Perhaps econ, with even the carpet yanked from beneath, can manage yet to steer a path 'tween the twin perils of Sikorskic bedlam and corporate autocracy. For though this new quantum leap in human culture obliterates prior notions of property and ownership, surely in the whole of human endeavor must we have dealt with its ilk afore. And so we have. Already we've seen the first glimmers of its resurrection.
In classical times both the church and royalty provided patronage for the Arts. And even to this day something like a system of patronage survives in academia. During the Renaissance even the bulk of scientists were supported by patronage. But what does it mean to be a patron? Surely there is more of a system than just to paying someone to exist? A friend of mine described it most eloquently when he said, "there's something I want brought into existence, once it exists anyone can use it, but until then noone can, I'll pay you so that anyone can use it." Patronage is the system of sustaining those with ability that they may realize our dreams and open new horizons that we may dream anew.
As any purveyor of f/oss realizes, there's another revenue stream aside from the creation of software. Programs can be written only once, but they can be supported forever. There will always be the need to ask someone with more experience how to do something. And we should learn from them that we need not pester them with the same request again, but always will there be the need for assistance, to say nothing of mentorship and tutelage. By freely creating and distributing software not only do we get to reap the benefits of peer review to make that software more robust, but we also grow the size of the user base thereby increasing the size of that support stream (even if many developers give support for no charge).
But there are far more varieties of informational property than just software. Software is, truth be told, the smallest variety of IP. All too often what is important to us is not the coded mechanism itself but rather the data, the content within that framework. And yet even that content can be disseminated freely under either a system of patronage (being paid to create the most comprehensive free encyclopedia that all may reap the benefits of knowledge), or under a system of support (being paid to research the infinitude of human knowledge and distill it into a short list of the most appropriate references).
And there are still more varieties than software and knowledge, there is afterall the very origin of the system of patronage: the Arts. It is in the Arts that we will decide the fate of the Information Age. The open-source movement exists and will quite likely continue to exist as long as hackers remain, though f/oss may continue to compete with other models depending on which way the cards fall. But whether we decide to embrace the infinite-sum game of creation or decide to continue the desperate attempts to stifle it beneath layers of bureaucracy will no doubt follow suit with where we decide to place artists in the new world order.
It should be noted that when I refer to "artists" I am referring to all practitioners of the Arts be they painters, musicians, or film directors. Given the current mode of thinking derived from the industrial age and the notion of physical transferable goods, there is a terrible problem with piracy. Copying mp3s, copying dvds, copying anything we can get our hands on. This issue has been taken to court under a number of different guises and the casualties have been new technologies (such as the burgeoning outlawing of peer-to-peer networks), arbitrary adolescents of the new era, and the artists themselves. About the only victors, if victors can said to be had, are the corporate enterprises that leech off the basic human drive to create and consume art.
But if information can be copied freely, then the current corporate econostructure cannot survive. Which means there are two real options: prevent the copying, or change the system. In addition to being intellectually irresponsible, there's no way to legitimately censure the copying of artistic media without also censuring the copying of programatic/contentual media. Which means that if duplicating recordings of music and movies is prevented, so to will be the duplication of all information.
The second option, though the obvious one, the one demanded in meek voices by the populace at large, is the harder road and a road that will be fought by those sitting in their high thrones supported on the backs of the every-artist for they are the ones with the most to loose. But the path is not difficult only because of capitalistic greed. The path is also difficult because it is the path into the unknown, the breaking of inertia, the embracing of that seductive call of the new era.
How can we create a new system that supports artists that they might ply their trade if they can be paid but once for each work? For many artists the performance of their art is as enticing as the art itself. Musicians, thespians, live poets, orators. All these, though their works may be recorded and owned by all, can still reperform their pieces and these still draw crowds. Though we have all the records still we want to see the band live, though we have video recordings of Broadway musicals still we pay to see them in flesh.
The question is whether this can be enough. And the question is what about other artists who do not perform, painters, photographers, and their kind. Though even with these there can be a kind of performance: gallery showings u.s.w. But also these artists seem less affected. The art can be captured in digital media but there is still the prestige of the original. Surely as technology advances the poorer quality of physical duplicates produced from digital representations will fade and so the quality of the representation will not be the issue. But still we have digital artists like those for webcomics. And yet they frequently can sell physical copies of their works and additional nick-knacks like shirts and such.
So it is obvious even already that there lies hope in the production of art for art's sake, that even with an infinitude of digital copies one might still make a living on that trade. But all of the examples are but skirting the issue. The issue is not whether money can be made despite free reproduction, the issue is whether artists can be supported in their trade despite free reproduction. And to that there is no easy answer. Always artists have lived in destitution choosing (or being chosen?) to express their dreams rather than to live lives of comfort. The least we can do is to cultivate a societal institution of appreciation. To give back to the lovers, the dreamers, a thanks so they may live and suffer to reach for the stars, that we might ever look upon them and dream.
 It should be noted that the notion of "piracy" only applies because of the given notion of "property" and the economic trade thereof. Were we to look upon art not as a good to be bought and sold on the common marketplace, but rather as something estimable in and of itself, something which is of its inherent nature desirous and good to possess and observe, then the actions would not be "piracy" but rather a sharing of something sacred and thus an admirable action.