The following is an update of the opening chapter for a book about the Collaborative Product Design method I developed. It is meant to be ‘thought provoking’. Feedback is very much welcomed…
Open source is broken. Or, more precisely, it’s partially broken. It works for solving problems developers have, but it doesn’t generally work so well for fixing problems that (so-called) users have.
The part that works is where the famous ‘itch to scratch’ model comes into play. If you’re a developer and you have a problem which could be fixed with some new code, then you’re in a good position to solve it. This model has been thought to work because the developer has the coding skills to create software, so they are in a good position to solve software problems. But I’d like to suggest that while writing code is a necessary condition for creating software, it is not the critical reason this model works. The critical reason is that in these cases the developer is the user. Hence the developer understands the problem in depth since it’s their problem.
This is where open source excels. This is why we have such a proliferation of open source ‘under the hood’ libraries and tools for developers. In fact, it’s nearly impossible to be a developer these days and not use open source tools and libraries other developers have made. The itch to scratch model has worked for developers solving the problems they and, consequently, other developers, have.
But outside of developers solving their own problems, open source has largely failed. There are few convincing ‘user facing’ open source solutions that can beat out their proprietary rivals on approach, utility, and usability. This is because we have incorrectly concluded that the ability to develop software is the same as the ability to solve any problem that involves software. But understanding the problem, developing an approach to the solution, and developing software, are different skills. Open Source culture has not, by and large, recognised this and we have instead conflated these three conditions into one – the ability to develop software. To move on, we need to recognise the non sequiteur inherent in the logic of open source culture and develop models to address it.
The strength in open source is in people fixing their own problems (itching their own scratch). It works because these people bring insights into the problem that no one else has. Consequently, they come up with great solutions. The strength is not developers solving problems, but people solving their own problems. That is why developers do a great job fixing developer problems. The model fails when we extrapolate the developer solving developer problems model and assume that those who can create software can solve any problems where software may be required. We have conflated writing software with solving problems that require software and we miss the point, the fundamental strength, of open source. Open Source succeeds not because of code, but because of people solving their own problems.
This may sound counter intuitive. Open Source’s success is not because of code? But it’s not that difficult to understand. Simply put, software is a means to an end. We have focused too much on the means (developing software) and forgotten that it is not what we are doing. We are actually trying to solve a problem for someone, somewhere. Software, open or closed, is no good if it doesn’t solve that problem. It is completely useless. Open source’s primary goal is to solve problems, not create code, even though software is the dominant means to get there.
Not understanding this has lead Open Source down any number of non-productive wormholes and has lead to a technocentric culture that doesn’t understand its own strengths and limitations. We have been myopic in our approach to problems, seeing all problems as merely issues developers have not yet solved. It has led to terrible cultural issues for open source, including the over-reliance on ‘technical thinking’, the dominant power being held by white men who know how to code, the understanding that software freedom is merely a licensing issue, and a lack of understanding of wider issues of empowerment, the belief that developer tools (such as git) are good for any problem, if only we knew how to use them, the requirement in open source projects that all those involved should use the tool in the developer’s stack, the lack of role diversity in open source projects and the power imbalance that accompanies this, the use of the term ‘non-coders’ to name all skilled people that are not developers, the absence of patience for the ‘user,’ and the distillation of the user (the one with the problem) to the furthermost point from the center of the endeavor.
All of these issues have lead to a lack of cultural diversity, shortcomings on approaches to the many interesting problems the world has to offer open source, and, simply put, many bad open source solutions.
We need to address this issue and fast. Open source is fast losing out in ‘user space.’ We need to turn the corner and understand quickly that the real strength that open source represents is when people solve their own problems. When the user brings insights into the problem that no one else has. When they are deeply involved in scratching their own itch. This is when great solutions evolve, as open source has already proven by the many amazing, innovative, world-beating solutions developers have created for themselves. But since we’ve mistakenly conflated ‘person with the problem’ with ‘developer’, we’ve missed the value of our own proposition.
What are we to do with this? The answer is simple: always have the people with the problem at the heart of the open source project. While the answer is simple, the implications are huge. They include the need to diversify participation on open source models, to push the developers out of the central roles they currently occupy in open source projects, to tear down technical meritocracy as the single determinant of value, and to experiment with new models of open source cultures.
This is why the Cabbage Tree Method exists. It’s a process designed to assist open source projects to develop world-beating, user-facing software. It’s also a process that changes the typical open source model substantially and advocates, by example, for a fresh approach to how open source projects are created, constituted, and operated.