Is free and open code a form of infrastructure? How about the humans who write it?

I was looking at what my friend Stephen Lewis wrote in HakPakSak a few days ago — specifically "...newspapers’ roles as public trusts and cornerstones of our informational infrastructure — i.e. sources of solid information and independent commentary essential to informed citizenry, democratic government, effective public policy, and well-functioning economies".. What this brought up for me is the notion that human beings are themselves infrastructural; especially when they are constuctive contributors to the structure we call civilization.

Here in the free software and open source (FOSS) worlds, we're used to making, and employing, building materials that are products of human mentation. There are dependencies here, and the primary ones are on the human beings who write code. And patch it. And rewrite it. And continue to improve it, making it more and more useful.

In responding to an earlier piece of mine, Alex Flether writes about what he calls "inter-lockin" — a kind of positive lock-in among constructive yet constantly changing parts. What he's doing there is exploring the market mechanics of open source development. These mechanics are hard to understand from a pure dollars-and-cents perspective. Several years ago a high-ranking executive at IBM told me it took a number of years to discover that the company couldn't tell its Linux kernel hackers what to do; and that if anything it was the other way around. Again, dependencies.

But what does the code itself depend on? What are the first sources of open code's enormous "because effects"?

I think this is a subject we need to bear in mind as we come to debate matters as wide ranging as media ownership (newspapers, for example) and health care, over the next few years (during and beyond the next major election cycle). In his piece on newspapers, Steve Lewis writes, "Bottom-line and marketing-oriented decisions eviscerate the staffing, resources, and integrity that make newspapers what they are at their best." That same kind of thinking would never allow free and open source code to be written in the first place. Oddly, many companies today, especially large ones, look toward FOSS as a way to cheap out — to replace costly stuff with cost-free stuff. They don't get what free and open code is really about, and how it works, and why you need to value (and support) its sources. This lack of understanding is very similar to that of newspaper owners who cut costs by junking their most valuable sources — which are not the advertisers.

The success of FOSS requires that we start looking at the sources of sources: human beings, doing constructive work. What kind of public policies might grow on the realization that the sources that matter most are the people who comprise as well as build civilization? What kind of businesses? What kind of civic and public institutions?

There's a bottom here — a foundation. But you can't necessarily see it from the bottom line of a company's balance sheet.


Doc Searls is the Editor in Chief of Linux Journal


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I always considered that the

Spawn's picture

I always considered that the open code - is a step forward in civilisation development. Therefore I agree with the author of article.

Come on my site:

Yes, people are

Anonymous's picture

Yes, people are infrastructure! ! !

S. Lewis

Motorhomes's picture

I tend to agree with what Stephen Lewis wrote. Very insightful.

Be careful with this

David Ormand's picture

Newspapers are not infrastructure. They are frangible - a newspaper company is "easy" to set up, and one company can replace another which has lost its effectiveness and vision, or New Media forms (blogosphere) can replace newspapers. Rather, information flow is essential to free societies, whatever the means. "Health care" is also not infrastructure; doctors and their clinics come and go, organizations set up hospitals to meet a need. It isn't until the government decides something is infrastructure - and controls it - that it becomes "infrastructure". Like the telephone network, or gas/water/electric services in cities like Tucson, or "public" transit. The Internet is intrastructure in a sense like the telephone network, even though the backbones are largely company-financed and the protocols are free rather than centrally mandated. Do we want the Internet coopted by national governments, or the UN? Do we want the government to control (in any way at all) how Open Source is developed, and what gets developed, and by whom?

Users who script

Stomfi's picture

Although you talk about coding, it is IT professionals who perform this service.

The users also create their own special purpose building blocks through the use of scripting applications. We all know the reason it is difficult for some commercial enterprises to migrate to Open Office that their user scripted macros don't work without a lot of fiddling, and maybe the original writers have left the company.

Beside OO macros, Linux supplies us with the ubiquitous shell, that wonderful tool used back in the last century by the clerks at Bell Labs to do their own information processing, which will be used again by a new breed of power users as Linux becomes one of the user's desktop tools of choice.

For these non coder mentalists, all that they require to complete their happiness is a scripted GUI builder to window their shells.
Once education starts, just imagine the explosion of independent ideas in your civilization.


Indiana Bob's picture

I was really digging your point about humans ARE infrastruture.

I look forward to your future thoughts on inter-lockin'. I think that is the best feature of open source code. The way that linux plays nice with apache that plays nice with php, perl, python. Of course apache plays nice with tomcat which plays nice with linux and java. The phpBB plays nice with all of them. So does phpmyadmin and mysql.

This is an embarrassingly small list, but quite significant. With technologies like AJAX, we are poised for a completely new software landscape.

I may be defining inter-lockin wrong. so debug that if you wish.

But I really enjoyed your thoughts on the journalism metaphor. I consider open source to be a people powered movement, like the blogesphere (both right and left), and journalism, or at least what journalism should be. People-powered medicine has found cures for disease. People-powered engineering has built the brick and mortar institutions we have come to depend on. People-powered collective action defines democracy.

Look forward to hearing more, thanks



beda's picture

Yes, people are infrastructure! ! !