Kwanzaa is an African inspired end of year observance of the Nguzo Saba (seven guiding principles) celebrated from December 26 – January 1. On each day ceremonies take place to emphasize characteristics that represent the spirit of, and adherence to, that days principle. It occurred to me these seven principles beautifully characterize the spirit and essence of FOSS, and can be used to celebrate it too.
Kwanzaa (Swahili – first fruits of the harvest) started in the United States in 1966 as an African-american celebration of African cultural heritage. Its central feature is the observance of the Nguzo Saba (n-GOO-zo SAH-bah) and the daily communal festivities held to celebrate them.
As I write this, Kwanzaa has begun. As I reflect on its principles, I find they reflect the universal essence of the free and open source software (FOSS) movement. Thus, while celebrating Kwanzaa, I will also pay homage to the spirit of FOSS and to its community of developers, users, and helpers.
Without unity we are incoherent and fractured; with unity we are focused and strong. This is the first principle because without unity, a community will be ineffectual in manifesting its resources and strength. So too with FOSS. From the acknowledged need to standardize on open document formats (e.g. by OASIS), to efforts to standardize/unify the structure of GNU/Linux distributions (LSB), to even the unification efforts of the KDE/Gnome APIs, the FOSS community is increasingly coming together to unify its efforts to better harness its scattered resources, to strengthen its power, and enlarge its use.
A people cannot be free if they don't have their own sense of identity and control; so too with FOSS. FOSS doesn't exist to just imitate the offerings of commercial software, but to also devise new paradigms of thinking about problems, and implementations of solutions from this. FOSS gives people the means to solve problems, in their own language, on whatever hardware they have, to define their own identity, to control their circumstances. With FOSS, you can be as unique as you want to be by merely applying communally developed tools differently.
This principle may be seen as the epitome of the FOSS movement. Groups of previously unknown, unconnected, people coming together around an idea, via email, chat, file sharing, etc, and occasional conferences, to collectively work on producing software, and the infrastructure to project, promote, and protect it.
In indigenous African culture, this is not about the emphasis on the making of money but the sharing of resources (land and labor) for the betterment of the community. All must be able to eat if the community is to be strong and thrive. Here FOSS must expand its reach to overcome the paradigms of hoarding and control for individual/private gain. Some of the old guard understood this early (IBM, HP), some are beginning to “get it” (Sun, Dell), while others may resist it to their demise (Microsoft, SCO). FOSS epitomizes cooperation and the sharing of resources, acknowledging that if we all can eat we all can then thrive.
A life without purpose is a life not worth living. We all seek a meaning for existence and being. The FOSS movement has given millions of people around the world a reason for being, and doing. It has created one of the greatest concrete ways people can give of themselves for the greater good, needing only to bring whatever skills they have to the mix, to do whatever they are capable of doing. FOSS allows people to give, and receive much more in the end.
We all need an outlet for expression. With FOSS if you have an itch you can scratch it – no one can prevent you from at least trying. When you give people the tools and means to create, they will. From developers to users, FOSS is enabling people to contemplate new or different or better ways of making life easier, more efficient, more satisfying, or just more fun. As FOSS proliferates and touches the greater billions of humanity, we will surely see a flowering of creativity, in all fields of human activity, previously unknown by mankind.
Faith – the belief in things that are unseen, or not empirically established. Without faith there is no hope, and without hope there is no effort. Faith forms a philosophical base for FOSS. At its best, FOSS establishes that people can come together, overcoming innate differences, divisions, and deficiencies, and create things profoundly useful and life changing, with seemingly no structure, just on the belief of an idea. And that capacity to believe in things unseen, and then make them real, is the truest expression of faith.
So as 2006 ends, again, Happy Kwanzaa to FOSS – and please Debian, a little more umoja next year.