Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

As a Canadian entrepreneur operating in the US, I have become a huge fan of this country. Like any other observer of American society, I am fully aware of the problems that America faces. But, the problems, regardless how grave, do not change the fact that America is the most dynamic society today.


As a Canadian entrepreneur operating in the US, I have become a huge fan of this country. Like any other observer of American society, I am fully aware of the problems that America faces. But, the problems, regardless how grave, do not change the fact that America is the most dynamic society today.

After spending the last nine years trying to figure out why this is, I believe it boils down to one thing. It is not the American system of government or the educational system –I’m convinced that the British parliamentary system is more effective and my favorite educational system is the one in France. The one thing that sets America apart from the other western democracies is the average American’s belief in the value of personal freedom.

To Americans, freedom is not just one of many values that must be protected. It is the value. While Canadian politicians regularly get away with arguing that personal freedom must be balanced with other important social projects, Americans believe freedom should not be compromised for any reason. Their reaction to that Canadian pitch would be: “What social good could possibly compete with personal freedom?”

This passion for freedom explains why America is able to out-innovate all the rest of the world put together — in fields from the arts to steel-making to computers. Even operating systems begun in the dorm rooms of Helsinki end up being American products (okay, okay, I know that my friends at SuSE won’t buy that last one, but you see the point). Where am I going with this? Simply put, Americans understand that freedom and commercial success go hand in hand. Freedom gives consumers an infinite choice of products, services, and suppliers.

The most effective way to enhance freedom in an increasingly technology-dependent society is to ensure that the technology we depend on is transparent to its users. By “transparent” I mean that the inner workings of the technology are clearly visible. Open source is the best single example of the power and benefits of transparent technology, but in truth, open source is not a technology. Rather, it is a different way of approaching the development process. Educational programs, scientific research, public policy debate, and other fields can move forward by following the same model of collaboration that has been used so successfully in developing open source and free software.

Imagine a situation where secondary school students are provided with hardware and software that come with the source code, specifications, and all of the other information that was used in the creation of the system. Each student has the opportunity, and freedom, to look at the source code, learn from it, and change it. Because transparency encourages and cultivates the free exchange of information, it parallels the ideal learning environment, encouraging investigation, discussion, and ultimately, innovation. This produces agile students who are ready to embrace innovation.

Scientific research is another field that can benefit from transparency. Transparency creates a closer relationship between the way that research is done and the tools that are used to do it. The scientific community has historically supported a method by which hypotheses are tested, and then reproduced or refuted by others, which then lead to improvements, innovations, or dismissal. Scientific progress depends on knowledge being shared. It works best in an environment where sooner or later all knowledge becomes available to the innovators of the next generation. Progress depends on the freedom of our society’s citizens to innovate by standing on the shoulders of the giants who went before us, just as they stood on the shoulders of those before them.

Nowhere is there more evidence of the social benefits of transparency than in the future of health care research. If a scientist or company identifies the nucleotide sequence (these are the building blocks of DNA) responsible for Alzheimer’s disease and keeps that information secret, work towards a cure for the disease is hurt. However, if you apply the principles of transparent technology to medicine, scientists and others around the world can work together with full access to the information they need.

This is the goal of the Red Hat Center, which I co-founded in the fall of last year: To boost participation, encourage debate, and inspire innovation. We want to open the debate by helping out programs that are developed under the model of transparency. Beyond demonstrating the power of transparency, the Center’s support and promotion of pilot programs will attract additional funding, resources, and public involvement. The Center’s programs will promote transparency as a model and highlight the benefits of using transparent technology to address challenges in other fields.

The Center’s mission does not involve choosing sides in legal or regulatory battles over what is right or wrong in the future development of technologies. It will be a catalyst for public debate rather than a representative of any one side of a problem. The Red Hat Center does, however, want to make implicit the benefits of the extension of the open source model to meet the unique needs of society in other fields. To do so we will offer grants, facilitate partnerships, sponsor conferences and workshops, and maintain a Web site that is a resource for transparent technologies in action.

To achieve its mission, the Red Hat Center has chosen to focus on four primary initiatives. These initiatives provide the direction for the daily operations of the Center, as well as serving as a foundation for all grantmaking decisions:

* Increase public awareness of the value of transparent technology and its relationship to the traditional ideals of a free society.

* Support public policy that promotes and safeguards the concepts of free exchange, collaboration, and transparent technology.

* Support academic and educational programs that apply and expand the values of free exchange and transparent technology.

* Strengthen research efforts to broaden the application of open source principles in the fields of science, technology, social science, public policy, law, and the humanities.

Giving everyone the ability to understand and contribute to the evolution of open source beyond software development does not just enhance personal freedom. It ensures that we build better, more stable, and more useful technology. Thus proving once again that personal freedom is a necessary component of the economic success of our society.

Bob Young is Chairman of the Red Hat Center and of Red Hat Software. He can be reached at bob@rhcenter.org. For more on the Red Hat Center, see http://www.rhcenter.org.

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