The Real Future of Open Source Technology

The Real Future of Open Source Technology

From the moment I first encountered open source technology, its ethos of collaboration and knowledge sharing resonated deeply within me. In the early days, before my college years, I found myself captivated by the endless possibilities it presented. The ability to peek behind the curtain, dissecting the inner workings of applications and systems, fueled my curiosity and ignited my passion for technology. Whether it was exploring the vibrant open source community, experimenting with Linux distributions, or contributing to the development of groundbreaking projects, open source became the guiding light that shaped my journey as a tech enthusiast.

Before College

I grew up poor — VERY poor. The words “open source” did not enter my vernacular until late into my college career. Despite this, the overall concepts surrounding open source technology were intimately familiar to me — when I pay for a product, I should own every facet of that product and to do with it as I wish at any point in time. This includes but is not limited to: technical manuals detailing every design parameter, how-to repair manuals, using it however I pleased with whomever I wished, component list detailing what vendors supplied what parts, and any other special technology required to operate said product.

To me, ownership meant I no longer needed the producer to use the thing they produced until the end of time. It also meant that just because there was a limited number of producers producing what most (if not everyone) needed to fundamentally survive, it does not mean you get special privileges to take advantage of others through predatory practices like price gouging and artificial supply shortages.

In my day-to-day life, open source technology played a major role, namely by having access to detailed service manuals that came standard with many household products, which allowed me to do my own repairs. Swapping broken food refrigerator compressors, replacing leaky water faucets with other faucet brands, resoldering burned-out components on analog radios, replacing car radios and electronic key fobs, recalibrating analog & digital clocks, replacing plastic cogs and metal dowel pins for old train sets and analog cameras, wiring new copper to a blown speaker system and stereo deck controller, to changing home plumbing valves out when they met their inevitable rusty demise. I never had to worry about whether I had all the necessary information to move forward with repairs, usage, or self-service of any kind — of course it was there. And why should I think any differently for something I paid for?

In fact, the only time it ever made sense to my 5 year-old brain to pay subscription fees were for public works — electricity, water, phone, internet, oil, and gas usage. This does not mean I agreed with the pricing structures of these public works, just that it made sense to pay a subscription fee based on ongoing usage, maintenance, and upgrading of the infrastructure that made these public works possible.

For a poor kid, it ultimately meant that I could learn to fix what little I owned in order to live another day, while simultaneously learning valuable life lessons about a cyclical economy. It taught me engineering principles like “Design for X”, higher complexity does not always mean “more better” with its opposite paradoxically also not being inherently true, quality principles of tolerance/conformity/grade, and the basics of the scientific method. And yet, being a 90s kid, even I could tell that the spirit of open source was beginning to falter, and fast. The bottom rung of society where people could truly still pick themselves right back up by their bootstraps was beginning to disappear.

University of Toronto creative commons photo

During College

I never did quite fit in at my alma mater. While the spirit of entrepreneurship and innovation was alive and well, it came with a certain aura of formality that expected creative genius in a polished and demure manner. Despite being a professional, demure and polished are far from what I and others that know me would use to describe my personality. I am more of a lightning in a bottle with a strong knack for stirring conflict by upsetting the status quo through asking critical questions.

Given all this, naturally, college was an uphill battle for me from start to finish. The primary cause of my distress was the forced adherence by faculty and curriculum to using awful data analysis tools for scientific computation, namely Excel and MATLAB. The issue at hand is not the exorbitant licensing fees to use said programs, since we as students received temporary 4-year licenses for fat client versions of each program included with our tuition costs.

The real problem is that technology companies, who would soon employ us as interns and one day as engineers, did not use these tools to run their business. Instead, they expected interns and engineers to use open source technologies to perform project work and day-to-day responsibilities — Python, GNUplot, R, C++, MySQL, C to name a few. They did so because their business ecosystem consisted of countless custom applications utilizing data originating from many diverse sources and they expected us to tap into this digital namespace to do our work without hand holding.

Why spend thousands teaching new employees how to implement Excel and MATLAB for every unique situation when you can simply empower them to teach themselves through public technical documentation, engage with communities to learn from the mistakes of others, and create resilient scalable solutions? Double jeopardy was at play here, because it meant my modern education was not preparing me to do the jobs of the present and future, while simultaneously punishing me for adopting open source technology to complete my school studies.

Demerits in grades were frequently handed out whenever homework assignments, group projects, and research were completed using anything except the pre-approved compute tools. Reports written in LaTeX instead of Microsoft Word? Bad. Charts plotted via GNUplot instead of being stored on their own Excel tab? Terrible. Creating your own data models for electrical components and circuit systems to simulate Monte Carlo analysis? Ostentatious. Creating Java applications to store and load frequently used equations on your calculator? Disgraceful.

It was all just so very confusing, especially to such a young, impressionable mind. Here was a university, an institution perceived by the public for instilling critical thinking and open discourse through rigorous application of the scientific method, actively undermining the very things that foster growth. But by the same token, here lay tech companies, openly expecting their workforce to adopt open source technologies all the while refusing to substantially contribute to the growth of the very thing that propelled them forward. Caught between this paradox, a sort of perpetual limbo of a rock and a hard place, what is a young aspiring engineer to do?

Shortly After College and Present Day

The era of “you will own nothing and like it” was well in full effect by the time I graduated. With the rise of digital subscriptions came the permanent eradication of common products one could buy once and use for a lifetime — textbooks, movies, software, in-car navigation, and more.

It used to be the case that most senior design projects from decades past included highly detailed breakdowns of the exact parts, design specs, process recipes, vendors, process equipment, equations/algorithms used, how said algorithms were used, and the software tools they used to arrive at their conclusions. The same held true for older research papers. Fast forward today and sharing such knowledge was now deemed heresy. Sure, there was the fact that anyone reading such technical material would eventually reverse engineer these answers, but the norm shifted to make it a sadistically cruel game of cat and mouse.

I am very fortunate to grow up as the last generation where analog media was mainstream. It taught me to critically think about the rippling effects digitization had in all facets of life, beyond the narrow scope of simply making a sale. Furthermore, I owe a big debt of gratitude to my socioeconomic background, inculcating insight that most of my fellow engineering colleagues could not see or refused to see.

There are certain truisms everyone needs to be aware of about the tech industry and my hope is they shock you back into reality.

  1. Most automation engineers actively support planned obsolescence, monolithic 3rd party ownership of a customer’s entire automation stack, and perpetuate wrongful information to mislead customers and aspiring engineers.

  2. Virtue signaling, crocodile tears, and pandering false support for open source technology while actively undermining it behind the scenes. This happens both by individual engineers and entire corporations, large and small in size.

  3. Successful automation professionals of the future will be the ones that openly release design specs, how-to repair manuals, individual components list, parts supplier, user training documents, customer feedback about said product/service, places no restrictions on hardware interoperability, does not force patches/updates, and actively engage with open-source communities. The same applies to companies.

You can witness this behavior for yourself by browsing any forum fighting for universal rights like right-to-repair, attending a STEM course as a guest in your local university, or shadowing an automation professional doing systems integration work. Naturally, this leads to many questions. How do we successfully monetize and profit from this phenomenon called open source technology? Whose responsibility is it to innovate and maintain this knowledgebase? Just how exactly do we agree on who foots the bill for this cost?

The answer is glaringly straightforward but not simple — either we all actively work to hold public critical discourse on the matter of open source technology or we all collectively suffer the consequences of further entrenched lackluster proprietary technology that causes more problems than it fixes.

the 3 types of networks centralized distributed and decentralized

The Future of Open Source Technology Is Bright

It is easy to allow your mind to fall prey to the trap of “doom and gloom” that the media so fondly portrays.

Objectively speaking, there is a growing vocal minority of scientists and critical thinkers who are fed up with business as usual. Many new business ventures have successfully taken hold disrupting outdated monolithic predecessors by providing products and services that get better over time. They let the user own and manage their own data, provide all technical documentation knowledge base publicly, insist on significantly lower fees to do business with, respond to customer feedback more quickly, and innovate on a continuous and consistent basis.

Furthermore, if you actually look at corporate 10k reports for public companies, you will see that with every passing year, fewer customers are buying and/or renewing ERP software from proprietary giants. These monoliths have tried and failed to make up this revenue through “business intelligence” software apps (SAP Fiori apps, Power Platform & PowerBI by Microsoft, Oracle apps) and ultimately failed. Putting lipstick on the proverbial pig is not a feasible and sustainable solution. In a time where everyone, including automation giants, needs to do more with less, frivolous spending on products and services that have failed to deliver for decades just simply does not compute.

Add to this the fact that consumers are growing smarter every day at exponential rates thanks to the lowered barrier to entry from open source technologies like ChatGPT, cloud computing, and microcontrollers.

Open source technology is the future and it is inevitable. We can either choose to hold critical public discourse in good faith on how to best engage with it or collectively suffer the consequences of a more tightly monopolized world.

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DISCLAIMER: I am not sponsored or influenced in any way, shape, or form by the companies and products mentioned. This is my own original content, with image credits given as appropriate and necessary.

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