Public blockchains are defining a new era in free/libre, open-source software development.
Did you know there is a difference between “free software” and “open-source software”? Turns out that just like in the case of public and private blockchains, when it comes to producing “free” or “open” software (think of “free speech,” not “free beer”)(1), there are camps who each support differing philosophies. The worldview “fork” in this case is caused by the definition of a fundamental concept and many will argue basic human right – freedom.
How much do you value freedom?
Throughout my humble 31 years of existence I have come to the realization that in the course of their lives, people are constantly performing balancing acts. Everything that you do in life tips the scales one way or another. You balance your diet, your investments and even social interactions. What some don’t seem to realize however, is that there is a “higher-level” balance that is affected by all those other minor balancing acts. That relates to one’s level of freedom.
If posed with the question, the average person will most probably reply that he values his freedom. However, a look at their choices will quickly refute that statement. Choosing freedom over convenience is hard. That is exactly where they get you (us). Profits and even the very existence of large corporations and government institutions all rely on your passivity.
Choice of software determines your level of freedom
What’s curious is that some people fail to realize that convenient software applications used on a daily basis are affecting this “freedom balance” significantly and negatively. The idea that software has to be powerful and reliable comes from the supposition that software is designed to serve its users. If it is both powerful and reliable, that means it serves them better. (1) Makes sense, right? Once again, that is where they get you. According to the philosophy of “free” software advocates:
What if powerful software does not respect its users’ freedom but is still convenient to use? The usual suspects here are Microsoft, Apple, Google, Facebook and all other tech behemoths that develop and rely on proprietary software. Building on top of open protocols like the internet, they have created and control global networks that are becoming essential prerequisites for social inclusion and interaction in the developed and developing world. We are all members of a club whose owners enjoy an immense amount of power, influence and control. The existence of your carefully crafted social avatar and your detailed digital footprint is in the hands of a few individuals.
Do not fool yourselves. We are not free.
Not having to choose freedom over convenience
How did we get here? Why did open protocols get defeated by proprietary software? Part of the answer is efficiency and lack of fragmentation. It is much easier to create and improve a product if you own and control the software and hardware that it runs on.
The second part of the answer refers to the first one –the more efficient you are, the more you grow and the more investments you attract. This causes an avalanche, causing you to grow even more, creating powerful network effects. In this respect, software and social systems are very much alike – concentration (centralization) leads to higher productivity through better coordination of efforts. The waging of war is an excellent example of why centralization is attractive. Violent conflicts, especially prolonged ones, require very high-level of organization. That was simply unattainable in a decentralized way.
Nations impose standards on the way of life for the sake of greater efficiency.
When it comes to the evolution of human societies, choosing freedom usually meant death. The state of technology today is an interpretation of that logic. You will not die if you do not use powerful, proprietary software, but you will most probably suffer socially and financially. The amount of suffering will increase with every consecutive generation. So what can we do about it? Satoshi Nakamoto hinted at a solution.
Developers are enslaving us, developers will set us free
The idea of freedom in software development is best described by the General Public License (GPL), written by Richard Stallman of the Free Software Foundation (2). It is the philosophy of a group of people that have unique attitudes, ambitions, values and at the same time are technically proficient. It is the original “sharing economy” in which any modifications to a certain code must be made accessible to the community, improving the overall usefulness of the software. A better future for all is available as an imagined outcome of writing free code.(2) According to Richard Stallman:
Free/Libre Open-Source Software (F/LOSS) is cited as the modern example of productivity outside the frame of conventional intellectual property, and seen to work against the concentration of cultural, artistic and technical materials in large corporations. (2)
Although the concept of F/LOSS unites the philosophies of “free” and “open” software, those are believed to be different and even contradictory. It is considered that “open-source” is less “free” than “free software”. I will not get into the details of that debate, since it is not the focus of this piece (3). For the purposes of this essay, it is only important to understand that similar sounding ideas or concepts actually define “freedom” differently.
That is very much the case of “public” and “private” blockchain technology. Public blockchains provide equal access to all. Their software is open-source and free to modify and they are naturally non-discriminatory. Private blockchains however are created for the use of a specific entity and are typically closed-source. In this case again, the primary reason for the emergence of private blockchains is efficiency through having full control.
So it is the same game, right? We have a “free” version and a more advanced “paid” one. Not quite.
With blockchain technology, the proponents of free software have a significant advantage over their antecedents. That is the ability to generate funds and create network effects much quicker than previously possible. This is especially true in the case of open-source, public blockchain projects.
They are a new breed, whose skills and values will be instrumental in the destruction of the enslaving status quo.
So how will they succeed? By creating powerful, decentralized platforms for open, public use that will rival proprietary solutions in terms of usability and convenience.
Blockchain technology will be strongly beneficial to the F/LOSS philosophy. It presents an immensely powerful tool in defense of freedom and will push the ideology and values of “free” software advocates deeper into the mainstream.
A word on tokens
Cryptocurrency with value in the real world is a revolution. F/LOSS developers today can generate meaningful funding not from institutional, professional investors or governments, but from the global cryptocurrency community.
In exchange for their support, users get pieces of the project and could be rewarded for their early participation/involvement in it. The tokens supporters receive are then tradable peer-to-peer on a blockchain, are exclusive property of their owners and could be exchanged for other cryptocurrencies at exchanges. This changes the rules of the game for free software development.
- Tokens provide a way not only to define a protocol, but to fund the operating expenses required to host it as a service. (4)
- Tokens provide a model for creating shared computing resources (including databases, compute, and file storage) while keeping the control of those resources decentralized (and without requiring an organization to maintain them). (4)
- Token networks align the incentives of network participants to work together toward a common goal – the growth of the network and the appreciation of the token [thus greatly improving efficiency]. (4)
Not all token networks will deliver the software they promise. Many or even the majority of them will fail. However, some of the platforms these token networks will create will provide socially beneficial alternatives to proprietary solutions. Blockchain technology will have its “Googles” and “Facebooks” and they will change the world we live in. Again.
A call to the architects of tomorrow
At æternity we believe that scalable, public blockchain networks will disrupt the dominions of proprietary technology. We are confident that powerful, decentralized, trustless platforms will become the foundations of a new, more equal global society.
We want to build a public blockchain for scale. Developing and implementing state channels (with smart contracts), decentralized oracles, and governance through prediction markets. We believe that in blockchain technology today, “off-chain” looks like the only answer to global scalability.
If you share our vision, the vision of æternity, join us.
We will help you realize your ideas.
Interested in æternity? Get in touch:
(1) Stallman, Richard. Why Open Source misses the point of Free Software. GNU Operating System Website. Free Software Foundation. Accessed on 07.07.2017. URL
(2) Leach, James. Freedom Imagined: Morality and Aesthetics in Open Source Software Design. University of Aberdeen, Intel Corp, & University of Cambridge. Ethnos, vol. 74:1, Feb. 2009 (pp. 51–71). URL
(4) Dixon, Chris. Crypto Tokens: A Breakthrough in Open Network Design. Medium. Jun 1, 2017. URL
Special thanks to Nick James and Dan Verowski for proof-reading.