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Divine Inspiration From the Masses

Open-source programming's organizing principle has been embraced in medical research, engineering -- even religion

July 23, 2006|Charles Piller | Times Staff Writer

Behold, brethren. The "open source" movement, long championed by computer whizzes as a way to solve problems using the input of all, is increasingly being applied to other disciplines including literature, scientific research and religion.

Yes, religion. Yoism -- a faith invented by a Massachusetts psychologist -- shuns godly wisdom passed down by high priests. Instead, its holy text evolves online, written by the multitude of followers -- much the same way volunteer programmers create open-source computer software by each contributing lines of code.

Adherents of Yoism -- who count Bob Dylan, Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud among their saints -- occupy the radical fringe of the open-source movement, which is quickly establishing itself as a new organizing principle for the 21st century.

Although an extreme example, Yoism shows how far beyond computer programming the open-source method has progressed. At its core, the process presumes the intelligence of crowds, and Yoans build their faith around the notion that, together, they take the place of divine inspiration.

The open-source movement's influences, though, are felt in increasingly mundane ways -- such as when you read a Wikipedia entry or follow a blog or type a search query into Google.

"Open source" has no universally accepted definition. But most people agree that the method boils down to the idea that when you're trying to design a better mousetrap (or chocolate chip cookie or dogma), a meritocracy of ideas will trump a hierarchical system any day of the week.

Computer geeks were the first to embrace open-source techniques. Traditionally, software had been written by teams of programmers who distributed test versions to users, who in turn found "bugs" that the programmers would then try to fix. The "source code" -- thousands or millions of lines of computer language that control how the program works -- remained invisible to everyone but the programmers.

Then, Linus Torvalds, originator of the Linux computer operating system, opened the once-sacrosanct source code to programmers and users alike via the Internet in the early 1990s. Any computer whiz with a little spare time could find bugs or come up with new features, then implement the changes.

The open-source movement was born.

Linux was founded on a simple premise: The more contributors, the better the result -- and mistakes or sabotage will inevitably be corrected by the vigilant army of volunteers.

After the success of Linux proved the its viability, the open-source method broadened and adapted into a wide-ranging social experiment embraced in such diverse efforts as scientific research, journalism and artwork.

To Dan Kriegman, who founded Yoism in 1994, an open-source framework offered the solution to an age-old challenge: how to make religion inclusive, open to change and responsive to collective wisdom.

"I don't think anyone has ever complained about something that didn't lead to some revision or clarification in the Book of Yo," said Kriegman, a 54-year-old psychologist in Chestnut Hill, Mass. "Every aware, conscious, sentient spirit is divine and has direct access to truth.... Open source embodies that. There is no authority."

Sourceforge.net, a Web-hosting service for open-source software developers, has 119,000 active projects. The approach has been applied to scores of fields, such as medical research, engineering and private investigation, challenging time-honored organizational theory.

For example, the Wikipedia free online encyclopedia consists of "wikis," collaborative essays that anyone can write or edit at will, without permission or consultation with other authors. As the Web's most popular research tool and 15th-most-visited brand, it drew about 27 million different visitors in June according to Nielsen/NetRatings.

Open-source methods work especially well in large projects that can be broken into small parts and benefit from many iterative changes.

Yet some open-source advocates believe the method can be applied to anything, including art and literature.

The phrase has become so ubiquitous that, at times, its use doesn't make sense. "Open-source beer" sounds like an ever-changing ale recipe; instead it's just a formula posted online, with "permission" for others to use and alter at will.

"Any new term, when it pops into the zeitgeist, is like a new star in the sky ... that we can all use as a navigation point," said Paul Saffo, a director of the Institute for the Future in Menlo Park, Calif. "We exhaust the word's meaning but absorb the concept."

All of these efforts draw on the so-called wisdom of crowds, a notion popularized by New Yorker magazine writer James Surowiecki in his book by the same name. The idea is that groups are often smarter than the smartest people in them.

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