Open Source Economies: An Emergent Solution?


 

Open source efforts on the Internet have coupled talent from all over the world in a distributed fashion to produce some of most successful software designs.

The advantages to this approach are numerous; anyone with the talent who has access to the Internet can openly contribute to these projects.  Credentials and entrenched hierarchies are thrown away, as are the need to be connected by geography.  Perhaps the greatest advantage in this method of collaboration is the open evolution and sharing of ideas as opposed to protecting and hoarding them. Ideas are then allowed to flow and evolve in the distributed network based on their merit, not a sales pitch, greatly reducing development costs and opening pathways to new innovations. Some are predicting that open source or peer-to-peer distributed methods may be the shape of our next economy.[1]

The potential advantages are great.  For starters, an open source economy could reverse two of the biggest fundamental flaws of capitalism in its current form.  Firstly we could do away with the idea of infinite growth in a finite world.  It may not be obvious how an open source economy would do this, but look at where much of our consumption comes from, companies that must continually push new products in order to survive.  Take a big automaker, ideally they would have evolved highly efficient, durable, low emission vehicles from the start, but they would not survive as an entity this way, so they intentionally design and market things we don't want or  need to stay alive.  The open source way would be an online collaboration to evolve designs that would exceed even the best an automaker has to offer.  There would then be a drastic shift in the job structures, a few people would work at full time open source engineering and car design, the bulk of the auto industry would then be a distributed manufacturing base that produces and services cars on a relatively local scale.  If this sounds unrealistic, just consider that before the 1920s there were literally hundreds of automobile manufacturers scattered throughout the country producing unique autos, but without the benefit of well-developed sciences and online collaboration. The second fundamental flaw of our mode of capitalism has been intellectual property and closed information corporations. Innovation and idea evolution is relatively low cost and is in our human nature to be of extremely high abundance.  So ironically, our form of economy is fully out of synch with our reality. It assumes we have infinite physical resources and limited ideas; the truth is we have a finite world and unlimited ideas.  Our new economy needs to reconcile to these basic truths.

Of course the next step for this new open source economy to emerge is to extend the efforts from software into the realm of physical production. This is happening as open source ipods, cars and the like are beginning to emerge.  However, given the magnitude of the current credit crunch and the likelihood of a conventional economic meltdown within the next couple of years, the question becomes what should the new peer-to-peer economy devote its efforts to?

For starters, the burning of a cubic mile per year of dinosaur blood and prehistoric plants for our industrial revolution has unleashed millions of years of solar energy, and within a mere two centuries the lifeblood of our current form of industrialism is running out, leaving our economies and more importantly our ecosystems in a perilous balance. So it seems high time that we put our best efforts forward to transitioning to a sustainable post-industrial life.

This is where a project like Open Source Ecology (OSE) comes in. Here is the vision….

Imagine villages with strong durable buildings made from compressed earth bricks (CEB) and sustainably harvested local timber, with year-round greenhouses all produced on site or nearby with simple local know how (sawmill, CEB, bioplastics from local trees), with all facility energy produced by a solar steam engine, or sustainably harvested biomass, where people drive hybrid cars with car bodies (bioplastics) made from local weeds, with critical motors and metal structures (aluminum) extracted from on-site clay, which are fueled by alcohol produced on-site, on a wireless network linked to the greater world.  Each human in this post-industrial village has a basic skill or knowledge set; each human also has their own unique skills that they offer.  The technologies of this village are limited only by their desire to pursue what is right and relevant as they all have their basic human needs met.  Should they desire, even home made processors and electronics from silicon are not out of reach, and that's just a sampling of the technology base, food, energy, and housing sufficiency. There are no poor among us because we are all farmer scientists.

Perhaps this seems very far off, but it is in the works both online at OSE wiki and in physical reality at Marcin Jakubowski's factor-e farm.  I took the opportunity last weekend to go and visit the UW Madison PhD physicist grad and see his farm and ideas in action.  In a very eventful weekend we churned out record paces for his compressed earth brick machine, made trusses for his new shop, created a new rototiller and discussed and made plans for future open source strategies.  Unlike other physicist grads,[JB1]  Marcin is one man who seems intent not to have his name associated with the word theoretical; his work and life are a deep and radical experiment in action.

Marcin's accomplishments from meager funding are impressive.  He has designed and run his own open source tractor, complete with a host of evolving implements and accessories, a CEB press, home brew solar panels, and he has a host of core technologies under development.  Of course these are all open source and free for anybody to use or participate in. 

The near term vision of OSE revolves around developing a core group of technologies. The idea is to evolve and develop the absolute lowest cost, best sustainable solutions for home building, home energy, and necessary support technologies to begin a path toward higher degrees of autonomy. The goal is no less than liberating ourselves from the abusive portion of our current economy.  OSE claims to be a leanest quickest way to produce these goods by nature of its open source structure, and it aims to prove it.  Next March the revised and highest performing CEB press will be in production, along with a functional model of a solar steam engine set, and open source fabrication lab components, to name but a few of the product outputs from OSE engineering.  For those not so familiar with machining, the open source fabrication efforts will translate into a rapid ability to replicate this technology.

OSE-Core group technologies.

 

In a little longer term, a new economy will be born from the completion of the global village construction set. There will be immediate production and fabrication jobs producing these technologies, and as OSE participants acquire land, farming jobs and economies will emerge. A new infrastructure will evolve from the ground up based on peer-to-peer online governing, an open democracy. 

So if any of this interests you, check out the OSE wiki further, offer suggestions, comments, and support if so inclined.  See also the Factor E Farm blog. 

If you're thrilled like me, arrange to visit Marcin at his farm, but be forewarned he teaches by doing, which means work. This is, to my knowledge, the only open source project like it.  Regardless, keep your eye on emerging physical peer-to-peer economies; they may just be our best hope for true sustainable economies and democracies.

Tangential Readings:

http://www.jeffvail.net/2007/01/what-is-rhizome.html Jeff Vail, an energy intelligent analyst for the government proposes to call the emergent distributed networks rhizomes and discusses his motivation for why they may arise in the future, what they may look like and how they may function. 

http://globalguerrillas.typepad.com/ John Robb, discusses the threats distributed networks pose to centralized hierarchies and the need for "resilient communities" to evolve.


[1]
http://www.ctheory.net/articles.aspx?id=499 Micheal Bauwins has studied distributed networks extensively and proposes the emergence of a peer-to-peer structure that will form the third historical economy.  The first being feudalism, then capitalism and now peer-to-peer which is discussed on the p2p blog http://blog.p2pfoundation.net/