I'm impressed by the parallels between the ideals of the OpenSource movement and the philosopher KarlPopper's notion of the Open Society.

TheOpenSociety is Popper's political ideal. Its chief virtues being

  • Freedom of expression including freedom to criticise the powers that be
  • Piecemeal approaches to solving social problems rather than grand plans

Both stem from Popper's deep scepticism about the possibility of certainty. His epistemological position is roughly that philosophy has been misled for millenia by the illusion that we can divide knowledge into two kinds : that which is sufficiently justified to be considered certain, and that which is mere belief. If no such distinction is available, then rationality can not be, as it is sometimes defined, the ability to identify those well-justified sources, and to trust them only. Instead, for Popper, no source can be wholly trusted, and all must be approached with a sense of criticality. To be rational is to be sufficiently distrusting as to check and test what is presented to one as knowledge.

Now, of course, there is no end to such testing. We do not stop when we have finished, or when an item of knowledge is sufficiently justified. All we have is a sort of personal satisfaction : "these are the things I'm going to trust for the moment." But nothing should be beyond re-evaluation if circumstances suggest.

From this stance Popper recasts the role of political thinking. The traditional questions are "who should rule?" and "what is just?". But from his sceptical perspective, such questions can never be answered with certainty. Any political thinking of the line, "It is the X who should rule" or "Y is just" and which is primarily dedicated to handing power over to X, or to enshrining Y in the constitution, is fundamentally irrational unless, it is governed by a meta-commitment to these virtues themselves being open to challenge. It is this openness which is elevated to the most important virtue in Popper's political thinking.

Furthermore, once a society has absorbed this meta-commitment, then it is likely that pluralism, a multiplicity of piecemeal experiments as ways to achieve social justice, will result in the fastest acquistion of knowledge about what works. Hence there is a strong pragmatism associated with this political approach. Note though, that such piecemeal engineering is NOT a deducably certain virtue and shouldn't be mistaken for one, or elevated into irrational dogma. It is not impossible that a government must experiment on a whole state at once.

The key political question is not "who should rule?" but "how may bad rulers can be avoided and bad laws repealed" is sort of the same as the key question in software design is not "What should this software do?" but "How may bugs and inadequacies can be fixed, and how may new requirements can be identified and satisfied?"

It's a question of rejecting the software engineering stance (creating software is like building bridges) we all learned at college, and adopting a more organic approach based on rapid prototyping, trial and error. (SoftwareLessonsFromHowBuildingsLearn)

See also :

  • (Must) TimOReilly's OpenSource/ParadigmShift for fuller extension of open-source applied more generally.

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