Taoism of open source - By Chen Nan Yang

Posted by ProjectC 
By Chen Nan Yang
September 29, 2007

2,500 years ago, the Chinese philosopher Confucius asked Lao-tzu, the founder of Taoism, "What is Tao?" Lao-tzu opened his mouth but said nothing. Confucius left with a smile, but his students were puzzled. Confucius explained, "Lao-tzu has passed us the Tao. In his mouth, there are no teeth but only a tongue. The hard ones (teeth) died, but the soft one (the tongue) lives; the soft power is stronger than the hard power. That's the Tao!"

Open source is such a soft power. "Soft power is like water," Lao-tzu explained in his book, Tao Te Ching. A single water drop is powerless, but numerous water drops are torrential. Likewise, a single open source participant counts for little, but numerous participants make the open source community strong. Traditional software, on the other hand, is a hard power, like teeth. One big tooth can be strong (take Microsoft, for example), but teeth fall out as time goes by.

Soft power remains weaker than hard

Currently, traditional software remains more important in the software industry. According to Taoism, the reason may be time. Open source is still a new industry and needs to let more "water drops" in. Many good open source projects don't have enough supporters yet. For example, the 3-D rendering software YafRay had a difficult year in 2006 because "original developers did not have more time to collaborate actively in the YafRay development" (see "YafRay Next Generation"). Factors such as lack of development tools and piracy impede developers from getting into the open source industry.

According to a Taoism precept, continual water drops drill through a stone, while hard teeth break in front of the stone. If the water drops aren't enough to form a torrent, they may need more time to drill through the stone. Likewise, in the open source world, YafRay almost ended in 2006, but Mathias Wein (another big "water drop") stepped forward to continue YafRay development. YafRay 0.0.9 was released. If a good open source project has enough participants, it will work like a waterfall overturning rocks. If it doesn't have enough participants, it will continue on and finally drill through the "stone."

Making soft power stronger than hard power

The strength of open source comes from its numerous participants. However, two problems currently break this strength. The first is that some projects have open source code but aren't open to new participants. For example, GNOME never asks users to send patches when they have problems. Understandably, the overwhelming number of contributors might destroy the GNOME software. However, GNOME might consider managing the "tiny streams" better rather than refusing them.

The second problem is a lack of support and developer tools. Fortunately, this situation is changing. For example, AMD just announced a major strategic change in open source graphic processors support.

If the open source community can be humbler and lower its "water level" to welcome any tiny stream, it will gain enough strength to overcome the "hard power" of the traditional software industry.

In addition to humbleness, Taoism says that soft power can overcome hard power through the "natural way." Because open source software features open code, more programmers are able to view the code, create new functionality, and fix bugs. This follows the same natural way that science has developed over time. For example, people shared the "open source" of black powder from China in the 1860s, so Americans could improve it and use it to build the railroads connecting east and west coasts.

Taoist spirit for open source participants

Chuang-tzu, the greatest Taoist after Lao-tzu, once refused to hold a post as a minister in the government. He said to his king, "Do you see the sacred turtle in your temple? People put it on the altar and feted it with fruit, flowers, and meals. But finally, it lost its soul and had only a shell left. I would rather live in my natural way and walk in the mud happily than be a sacred and rich shell."

In "The GNU Operating System and the Free Software Movement", Richard Stallman explained why he didn't go to the temple of closed source software. He said, "The easy choice was to join the proprietary software world, signing nondisclosure agreements and promising not to help my fellow hacker.... I could have made money this way, and perhaps amused myself writing code. But I knew that at the end of my career, I would look back on years of building walls to divide people, and feel I had spent my life making the world a worse place."

This is the spirit of open source that I like.

Chen Nan Yang used to draw cartoons and illustrations for China's Teenage Magazine, The Guangzhou Daily, The Beijing News, and The Global Times.