11. Source

Free For All. Go to the Table of Contents. Vist the Gifcom.


Computer programmers love Star Wars. So it should be no surprise that practically every single member of the free source community has, at one time or another, rolled out the phrase, "Use the Source, Luke." It does a perfect job of capturing the mythical faith that the free source world places in the ability to access the source code to a program. As everyone points out, in the original version of Star Wars, the rebel troops used the plans, the Source, to the Death Star carried in R2D2 to look for weaknesses.


The free source realm has been pushing the parallels for some time now. When AT&T unveiled their round logo with an offset dimple, most free source people began to snicker. The company that began the free software revolution by pushing its intellectual property rights and annoying Richard Stallman had chosen a logo that looked just like the Death Star. Everyone said, "Imperialist minds think alike." Some even wondered and hoped that George Lucas would sue AT&T for some sort of look-and-feel, trademark infringement. Those who use the legal intimidation light saber should die by the legal intimidation light saber.


Of course, the free source folks knew that only their loose coalition of rebels spread out around the galaxy would be a strong match for the Empire. The Source was information, and information was power. The Source was also about freedom, one of the best and most consistent reservoirs of revolutionary inspiration around. The rebels might not have teams of lawyers in imperial star cruisers, but they hoped to use the Source to knit together a strong, effective, and more powerful resistance.


The myth of open access to free source code is a powerful one that has made true believers out of many in the community. The source code is a list of instructions for the computer written out in a programming lan guage that is understandable by humans. Once the compilers converted the source code into the string of bits known as the binary or object code, only computers (and some very talented humans) could understand the instructions. I've known several people who could read 8080 binary code by eye, but they're a bit different from the general population.


When companies tried to keep their hard work and research secret by locking up the source code, they built a barrier between the users and their developers. The programmers would work behind secret walls to write the source code. After compilers turned the Source into something that computers could read, the Source would be locked up again. The purchasers would only get the binary code because that's all the companies thought the consumers needed. The source code needed to be kept secret because someone might steal the ideas inside and create their own version.


Stallman saw this secrecy as a great crime. Computer users should be able to share the source code so they can share ways to make it better. This trade should lead to more information-trading in a great feedback loop. Some folks even used the word "bloom" to describe the explosion of interest and cross-feedback. They're using the word the way biologists use it to describe the way algae can just burst into existence, overwhelming a region of the ocean. Clever insights, brilliant bug fixes, and wonderful new features just appear out of nowhere as human curiosity is amplified by human generosity in a grand explosion of intellectual synergy. The only thing missing from the picture is a bunch of furry Ewoks dancing around a campfire.[^8]


[8]: Linux does have many marketing opportunities. Torvalds chose a penguin named Tux as the mascot, and several companies actually manufacture and sell stuffed penguins to the Linux realm. The BSD world has embraced a cute demon, a visual pun on the fact that BSD UNIX uses the word "daemon" to refer to some of the faceless background programs in the OS.