2020 Apr - An Argument For Open Source - A Form of Democracy

Hardware and Software are two indistries where the benefits of open source have been very influential Image source:, 2017, "OpenSuCo: Advancing Open Source Supercomputing at ISC"

I can understand when someone likens the insistence of using free open-source software (FOSS) to the reasoning of a hippie- rejection of mainstream, an over-reaction to news articles, and desire to live a "simpler" life by imposing silly restrictions on themselves. From my experience, most people who dismiss FOSS projects have this perception.

So what's good about open-source?

Concern about over-arching control is not exclusive to the software industry. It applies anywhere, but it can be hard to see, because the problem is at its worst when a controlling party's project has become hugely popular and successful, which may seem like a good thing.

When a party has total control over a project, it's impossible for that party to NOT make a bad decision (in the eyes of users) because they can't always act in the user's best interest. No matter how kind the party is, if this group wants to be the party that controls a project, and be known for it, self-preservation naturally takes priority. This is why distributed control (community development) or just transparent access to inner workings (no matter the media: source code, project plans, private companies, government) is crucial- it allows the public to be on the same level as the project's working group. Even if outsiders don't even contribute, the internal work can be audited, and the public can decide for themselves if the party is being fair. If the controlling party ever turns on it's users, the option of another party taking over is always present. When outsiders can see everything going on in a project, it truly holds the decision-makers accountable. The "controlling" party or working group of a fully transparent project is never totally in control. It's democracy.

Unfortunately, in reality, FOSS software is not always better than proprietary (in terms of usability), but the important thing is: it doesn't have to be that way. Generally, for new projects, the more resources invested into a project, the better it will be, and then popularity follows. However, the inverse theory is also true, perhaps especially for FOSS projects: the more popular it becomes, the more effort is invested into it to improve it. More people work on a project and donate to it when it becomes popular.

This is the reason why people who understand the values of democracy push for FOSS software. Not because it's better inherently, as the hippie would say, (although many times, it actually is) but because it will become better with more users.

Now, before you dismiss this all as a "Nirvana fallacy", open-source is not all ideals- of course there's concrete advantages, because the process of always acting in users' best interests: it works. Projects that don't need to ensure a profit are uniquely positioned to do amazing things. In the software industry, this results in

  • better compatibility (no need to lock-in formats)
  • generally less bloat/unwanted features
  • new projects stemming from existing ones much faster
  • ease for anyone to learn how it works and offer support to users
  • easy to audit and verify flaws
  • never need a business model at all
  • and of course: the price to download is free

All those are just trends though. One thing that IS inherently better about open-source, is that it's socially responsible. And I think that makes it worth it.


I was inspired to write this when I was browsing a map of post offices that used a Google map, and it was so obvious that Google cherry-picked businesses to show as advertising, making the map misleading, and look terrible. The post office didn't have control of their own map- because really, it wasn't their map at all.

Updated 2020 May 12