Clay Shirky: Can Open Source Be Traced To The 17th-Century? New media expert Clay Shirky explains how the ideas behind open source have been used for centuries: from the Enlightenment to the digital era.

Can Open Source Be Traced To The 17th-Century?

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OK, so when I hear this term open-source, I'm thinking about what Tim Berners-Lee was just describing - like the '90s and the web, but this goes way back, right?

CLAY SHIRKY: Well, so this is one of the things that often happens with any new pattern. It's almost never a completely new effect. It's some old, small pattern now writ large and fast.

RAZ: This is Clay Shirky. He studies how we interact online, and the idea behind open-source - it didn't actually start in the tech world. It dates back to the 17th century in England.

SHIRKY: In the early history of the printing press, you start getting magazines and newspapers, and you start getting people really thinking of print as a way that a group can communicate with each other.

RAZ: Clay picks up the rest of the story from the Ted stage.


SHIRKY: This is the cover of Philosophical Transactions, the first scientific journal ever published in English in the middle of the 1600s. And it was created by a group of people who'd been calling themselves the invisible college - a group of natural philosophers who only later would call themselves scientists. And they wanted to improve the way natural philosophers argued with each other. And they needed to do two things for this. They needed openness. They needed to create a norm which said, when you do an experiment, you have to publish not just your claims but how you did the experiment. If you don't tell us how you did it, we won't trust you. But the other thing they needed was speed. They had to quickly synchronize what other natural philosophers knew, otherwise you couldn't get the right kind of argument going. The printing press was clearly the right medium for this, but the book was the wrong tool. It was too slow. And so they invented the scientific journal as a way of synchronizing the argument across the community of natural scientists.

RAZ: Now this was a huge shift because here's how things worked before. In the 1600s, if you wanted to be, say, an alchemist, which is an early chemist, you couldn't just pick up a book and figure out how. You had to find an actual alchemist and convince him to take you on as his apprentice.

SHIRKY: And you would basically learn only what that alchemist already knew.

RAZ: And they were really secretive, right? I mean, people were not sharing information and results and data.

SHIRKY: Right. So the alchemists were not only not sharing data like maybe they forgot. They were very explicitly not sharing data as a cultural norm.

RAZ: So why did these guys stop working like this?

SHIRKY: They decided to stop because they weren't making much progress. They thought they would make more progress by talking to each other, and as the cost of printing and the press fell, suddenly there was this other model where you could say, you know, we could share things with people dozens or hundreds of miles away, and all of a sudden everybody would know the same thing at the same time. And so they switched the cultural norms to say we're all in this together, and we will all together make more progress than if we had just hidden our results.

RAZ: Wow. So I mean they basically, you know, invented open-source.

SHIRKY: Yeah. So they were one of the first groups to say, we have this new medium. Anybody can join, and there is no center. And we're changing what we're doing because of it.

RAZ: Which brings us back to the web and how open-source moved from natural philosophy to the world of technology. So remember that in the early '90s, Tim Berners-Lee was inventing the World Wide Web using an open-source model, and at that time, he was an outlier in the tech world. Most major advances in tech weren't coming from some big, collaborative process without a central authority. They were coming from the top down, and a big reason why is because of programming. And programming is complicated. Here's more from Clay's Ted talk.


SHIRKY: Programming is a three-way relationship between a programmer, some source code and the computer it's meant to run on. But computers are such famously inflexible interpreters of instructions that it's extraordinarily difficult to write out a set of instructions that the computer knows how to execute. And that's if one person is writing it. Once you get more than one person writing it, it's very easy for any two programmers to overwrite each other's work if they're working on the same file or to send incompatible instructions that simply causes the computer to choke, and this problem grows larger the more programmers are involved. To a first approximation, the problem of managing a large software project is the problem of keeping this social chaos at bay. Now, for decades there has been a canonical solution to this problem which is to use something called a version control system. And a version control system does what it says on the tin. It provides a canonical copy of the software on a server somewhere. The only programmers who can change it are people who've specifically been given permission to access it, and they're only allowed to access the subsection of it that they have permission to change. And when people draw diagrams of version control systems, they look like org charts, and you don't have to squint very hard to see the political ramifications of a system like this. This is feudalism - one owner, many workers. Now, that's fine for the commercial software industry. It really is Microsoft's Office. It's Adobe's Photoshop. The corporation owns the software. The programmers come and go. But there was one programmer who decided that this wasn't the way to work.

RAZ: Who that programmer was and his impact on you, me and the rest of the world in a moment. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to the TED RADIO HOUR from NPR.


RAZ: It's the TED RADIO HOUR from NPR. I'm Guy Raz, and on the show today, ideas about open-source. And just before the break, we were hearing from Clay Shirky about the early days of the open-source movement and one programmer in particular. His name is Linus Torvalds, and at age 22, Linus decided to create a truly open-source operating system, which he called Linux.


SHIRKY: Open-source software - the core promise of the open-source license is that everybody should have access to all the source code all the time. But, of course, this creates the very threat of chaos you have to forestall in order to get anything working. So most open-source projects just held their noses and adopted the feudal management systems. But Torvalds said, no, I'm not going to do that. His point of view on this was very clear. When you adopt a tool, you also adopt the management philosophy embedded in that tool, and he wasn't going to adopt anything that didn't work the way the Linux community worked. This is a tremendously complicated process. This is a tremendously complicated program, and yet, Torvalds ran this, not with automated tools, but out of his email box. People would literally mail him changes that they had agreed on, and he would merge them by hand.

Linus was the first person to consciously use the entire world as his potential talent pool. Because by that point - this is the early 1990s - pretty much anyone who had the technical skills needed to contribute to an operating system was also online.

RAZ: Yeah, so put this into context. I mean, how big of a deal was this?

SHIRKY: So what is really extraordinary about Linux - you know, people think of it as a kind of geek operating system for some desktops and laptops. But what people don't realize is it's the background operating system of every Kindle and Nook in existence. It's the background operating system of every Android phone in existence and almost the entirety of what we call the cloud. Linux has been the thing that enabled those subsequent tools and services to be built.

RAZ: And that happened because he basically said, hey, this is what I'm doing. Do you want to check it out? Here's everything that I'm doing. Nothing's a secret.

SHIRKY: It's the nothing's-a-secret part because at every moment - and there are - you know, you see this pattern over and over again. When Wi-Fi router manufacturers said we're going to need an operating system to run on this thing, they could write their own and own it. Nobody could copy it, and they wouldn't have to release the source code. But Linux was just sitting there, and it was free. So they adopt it, and routers become a tool that people can write new things on top of. When the people making the Kindle said, you know, we could write a brand-new operating system to run e-books, and it won't work well until the third version, or we - Linux is just sitting there, and it's free. And at every moment it does just enough of what people have wanted it to do that it was worth it to grab it and extend it rather than writing something from scratch.

RAZ: When something is open-source, is the result always better?

SHIRKY: No. Oh, my God, no. I mean, we know many cases where the results are almost never better - you know, the famous example of open-source novels - the disastrous wiki op-ed that the LA Times tried. But then there are also trade-offs where you have to say this product is better in one way, but worse in another way. So anyone who's used an Android phone and an iPhone is looking at a phone that has been developed on more open-source and more closed-source models. Apple - famously obsessively secretive, famously obsessive about the design of the icons and the uniformity of the behavior of the phone. The pleasure of that phone is quite extraordinary. Android is just a little clunkier. It's more inconsistent. But, number one, Android phones are much cheaper, which means that it is Android and not the iPhone that's bringing the smartphone revolution to the masses, right? It is Android that is responsible for a billion people having access to some sort of smartphone right now. So if your choice is no smartphone at all or an Android, then the open-source world has really made your life considerably better. So the key thing, I think, to understand is where open-source works, it tends to spread - not because it's always perfect, but because it's never so bad that you wouldn't get an advantage from picking it up. Again, this is why Linux got picked up for so many things, not that it was ever perfect for e-books or the cloud or Android phones or any of the rest of it, but because it was cheap enough and good enough that it gave people a boost if they adopted it.

RAZ: Clay Shirky writes and teaches about the Internet and society. You can watch all of his talks at

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