FOSS, Philosophy & Politics - What's the Connection?

My son, Matthew, perhaps by virtue of the environment he grew up in, has been a computer buff all his life (although he would strongly resist the geek characterization). In high school, he was top 5  in the island in CAPE IT, started his own Web company and had grand visions of becoming the next MIcrosoft. Having gone to a Liberal Arts college for his 1st Degree, he is now in his final year and has switched his major to Political Philosophy, much to his Mother's great distress. After getting over my initial consternation (Politics is not a viable career, I insisted!). We discussed the linkages more rationally...

The application of Computing in Business (some folks call it MIS) is continually evolving as a discipline. As an Industry, we've now learned after many years of failed IT Projects (17% success rate according to the Standish Report), that critical success factors are more about Organizational Context, Culture and People rather than the technology itself. Perhaps we could refer to these collectively as the "Politics" of the Organization.

The Open Source phenomenon has rattled the very foundations of the commercial software industry.. And while Open-Source has spawned some fascinating technologies.. it Is fundamentally more about the Philosophy of Collaboration and Community than about technology itself. Eric Raymond ( in the 1999 classic, The Cathedral and the Bazaar: Musings on Linux and Open Source by an Accidental Revolutionary) describes the dramatic philosophical differences between the free and voluntary Bazaar model associated with Open Source vs the rigidly structured and closed Cathedral model associated with the proprietary software development paradigm. Management Guru, Gary Hamel recently ranked by Wall Street Journal as the world's most influential business thinker, writes: "The success of the open source software movement is the single most dramatic example of how an opt-in engagement model can mobilize human effort on a grand scale…"

So Open Source is really a philosophy that runs counter to conventional commercial and political culture and intuition. So maybe the Philosophy thing is not such a bad choice after all.. But Matthew is into political philosophy.. After all Politics is one of the 5 branches of classical Philosophy.. You would never have guessed that there is anything classical or philosophical about the way we practice politics here in Jamaica.. Nevertheless, he's specifically interested in the writings of regional literary giants such as Marcus Garvey, Michael Manley, Che Guevera and Franz Fanon along with the  perspective of prominent pan-african figures sure as Julius Nyerere and Kwame Nkrumah, and is studying the political concepts of South-South cooperation in an effort to understand the linkages, nuances and similarities between those cooperative efforts and the underlying philosophy of the Open Source movement.

For instance what do Cuba, Venezuela and Brazil have in common.. Aside from the obvious long-standing pursuit of political and economic independence, they have all adopted legislature mandating the adoption of the Open Source Software and have launched national initiatives to build their own Linux distributions and other FOSS initiatives.

Perhaps the best political illustration was Obama's groundbreaking 2008 Presidential campaign that built a powerful synergy between grass-roots politics and grass-roots technology that confounded the legacy, Cathedral-like establishment poliitics of the McCain Republican campaign. Incidentally, Obama's campaign website, was built using the OpenSource stack, LAMP with PHP while McCain's was run using MS Windows and .NET. Coincidence? Perhaps the best technology did win after all.

So maybe Matthew is unto something here... Maybe there is an umbilical cord linking FOSS, Philosophy and Politics, and ultimately sustainable Economic Development and Independence.. I just hope he can find a job when he's done.

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