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Feature: Open Source

Taoism of open source

By Chen Nan Yang on September 29, 2007 (1:00:00 PM)

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2,500 years ago, the Chinese philosopher Confucius asked Lao-tzu, the founder of Taoism, "What is Tao?" Lao-tzu opened his mouth but said nothing. Confucius left with a smile, but his students were puzzled. Confucius explained, "Lao-tzu has passed us the Tao. In his mouth, there are no teeth but only a tongue. The hard ones (teeth) died, but the soft one (the tongue) lives; the soft power is stronger than the hard power. That's the Tao!"

Open source is such a soft power. "Soft power is like water," Lao-tzu explained in his book, Tao Te Ching. A single water drop is powerless, but numerous water drops are torrential. Likewise, a single open source participant counts for little, but numerous participants make the open source community strong. Traditional software, on the other hand, is a hard power, like teeth. One big tooth can be strong (take Microsoft, for example), but teeth fall out as time goes by.

Soft power remains weaker than hard

Currently, traditional software remains more important in the software industry. According to Taoism, the reason may be time. Open source is still a new industry and needs to let more "water drops" in. Many good open source projects don't have enough supporters yet. For example, the 3-D rendering software YafRay had a difficult year in 2006 because "original developers did not have more time to collaborate actively in the YafRay development" (see "YafRay Next Generation"). Factors such as lack of development tools and piracy impede developers from getting into the open source industry.

According to a Taoism precept, continual water drops drill through a stone, while hard teeth break in front of the stone. If the water drops aren't enough to form a torrent, they may need more time to drill through the stone. Likewise, in the open source world, YafRay almost ended in 2006, but Mathias Wein (another big "water drop") stepped forward to continue YafRay development. YafRay 0.0.9 was released. If a good open source project has enough participants, it will work like a waterfall overturning rocks. If it doesn't have enough participants, it will continue on and finally drill through the "stone."

Making soft power stronger than hard power

Taoism suggests that humbleness can help turn soft power into hard power. The biggest body of water is the ocean. Lao-tzu said, "The ocean is immense because of its humbleness. It never refuses any tiny stream."

In February 2007, Linus Torvalds, the creator of Linux, had a flame war with GNOME. In Taoist opinion, the problem with GNOME is that it isn't humble enough to accept a "tiny stream."

The strength of open source comes from its numerous participants. However, two problems currently break this strength. The first is that some projects have open source code but aren't open to new participants. For example, GNOME never asks users to send patches when they have problems. Understandably, the overwhelming number of contributors might destroy the GNOME software. However, GNOME might consider managing the "tiny streams" better rather than refusing them.

The second problem is a lack of support and developer tools. Fortunately, this situation is changing. For example, AMD just announced a major strategic change in open source graphic processors support.

If the open source community can be humbler and lower its "water level" to welcome any tiny stream, it will gain enough strength to overcome the "hard power" of the traditional software industry.

In addition to humbleness, Taoism says that soft power can overcome hard power through the "natural way." Because open source software features open code, more programmers are able to view the code, create new functionality, and fix bugs. This follows the same natural way that science has developed over time. For example, people shared the "open source" of black powder from China in the 1860s, so Americans could improve it and use it to build the railroads connecting east and west coasts.

Taoist spirit for open source participants

Chuang-tzu, the greatest Taoist after Lao-tzu, once refused to hold a post as a minister in the government. He said to his king, "Do you see the sacred turtle in your temple? People put it on the altar and feted it with fruit, flowers, and meals. But finally, it lost its soul and had only a shell left. I would rather live in my natural way and walk in the mud happily than be a sacred and rich shell."

In "The GNU Operating System and the Free Software Movement", Richard Stallman explained why he didn't go to the temple of closed source software. He said, "The easy choice was to join the proprietary software world, signing nondisclosure agreements and promising not to help my fellow hacker.... I could have made money this way, and perhaps amused myself writing code. But I knew that at the end of my career, I would look back on years of building walls to divide people, and feel I had spent my life making the world a worse place."

This is the spirit of open source that I like.

Chen Nan Yang is a Chinese freelance journalist and former IT director in the Chinese government.

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Taoism of open source

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 219.95.152.84] on September 29, 2007 02:25 PM
excellent abstraction...
and well put

i hope the oss-related world is able to see from this angle because, in my opinion, that seeing of the underlying truth will carry the open source world further along.

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Re: Taoism of open source

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 72.236.163.214] on January 24, 2008 02:41 PM
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Taoism of open source

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 190.31.53.135] on September 29, 2007 04:05 PM
Although i think that the relationship between Taoism and the open source culture has far reaching implications and could be analyzed in depth, i'd like thank you for your interesting contribution. You have written a very original article. Thanks for sharing your refreshing view.

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Taoism of open source

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 70.68.30.24] on September 29, 2007 08:55 PM
Should I FLOSS?

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Re: Taoism of open source

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 64.129.99.138] on October 02, 2007 09:39 PM
Yes... Every day, you should. Otherwise you'll end up with code decay...

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Taoism of open source

Posted by: Day on September 30, 2007 12:00 PM
Fantastic! You show me a deep association between Taoism and Open Source. Nowhere isn't Taoism and Taoism is everywhere. That's it. Those considered weaker is actually stronger, like water. May Open Source have a bright future, and I believe it is destiny!
[Modified by: Day on September 30, 2007 12:02 PM]

[Modified by: Day on September 30, 2007 12:18 PM]

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Taoism of open source

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 85.18.14.7] on September 30, 2007 12:59 PM
Great articles!
There's a slim line between this kind of philosophy and the one tha came from open source movement. This line cross fields like phylosophy, arts, tecnologies and more, creating an intellectual-interconnection that have a global matrix.
I'm italian, and i've been influenced by greek's ancient phylosophists like Eraclito or Epicuro. Try to read their works (wrote in the same period that Lao-Tzu wrotes Tao Te Ching!!)...you can find the same matrix.
And that's why i practice Tai Chi, read Eraclito and Lao-tzu, use open source!!
You and i had taken the same way, from different parts of the world, to walk togheter.
Another world is possible!

Marco

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Re: Taoism of open source

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 59.101.26.218] on September 30, 2007 11:45 PM
Good one Marco!

In English "Eraclito" is known as "Heraclitus", and "Epicuro" is known as "Epicurus".
You can find more here:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heraclitus
and
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epicurus

PS - Another vote for linux.com to use nl2br! Be faithful to users line breaks !^)

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Taoism of open source

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 71.222.1.154] on September 30, 2007 03:10 PM
Insightful article, but the line about ". . . black powder from China in the 1860s . . ." doesn't make a lot of sense.

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Re: Taoism of open source

Posted by: David A. Harding on September 30, 2007 04:34 PM
I had the same difficulty with that line. On consideration, I believe Mr. Chen is saying black powder, a form of gunpowder that originated in China, was used for blasting through mountanious terrain in construction of the American railroad system. More information on black powder may be found on Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gunpowder#Black_powder

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Re: Taoism of open source

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 218.198.238.250] on October 03, 2007 06:54 AM
i agree ,how can he say in such a way ?
i support his opinion,it's really a good idea ,i think he may be suitable to be a guide or a advisor ,
i 非常喜欢老子和庄子,他们代表了我们中华民族的另一个面,开源我也喜欢,也代表了一种精神和方式,作者写的太好了,

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Taoism of open source

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 85.243.25.243] on October 01, 2007 05:54 PM

Mr. Chen Nan Yang's attempt to make an analogy between philosophy and software engineering fails in a single oblivious point: “Open Source” is a “development methodology” [¹]. Perhaps we should refer to the FREE SOFTWARE philosophy instead: <a href="http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/philosophy.html" title="Philosophy of the GNU Project">http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/philosophy.html</a>



[¹] — <a href="http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/free-software-for-freedom.html" title="Why “Free Software” is better than “Open Source”">http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/free-software-for-freedom.html</a>

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Re: Taoism of open source

Posted by: David A. Harding on October 02, 2007 04:37 PM
I don't think Mr. Chen makes in clear in the article about when he's refering to an open development model and when he's refering to free software philosophy. I think that might teach you something about the nature of the Tao: the Tao Te Ching is written in metaphorical style which embraces duality, the idea that two (or more) contradictory things can exist together (think Ying and Yang). The idea that free software gives its users the right to use it for any purpose, study it, change it, and share it and, by doing so, becomes high-quality open source software is very Taoist.

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Taoism of open source

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 125.91.153.120] on October 02, 2007 01:51 AM
good comment!

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Thanks, David

Posted by: Chen Nan Yang on October 02, 2007 02:29 AM
You really get the point!

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Thanks, Marco

Posted by: Chen Nan Yang on October 02, 2007 02:29 AM
I love Greek and Roman history and culture too. All roads lead to Rome. Walk together!

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Re: Thanks, Marco

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 80.126.34.227] on October 02, 2007 06:33 PM
Yes,
It's a good article.
Fun about water.

Greetings Arthur
www.arthurx.org

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Taoism of open source

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 24.117.198.163] on October 02, 2007 07:23 PM

The fact is open source will over time will become the standard, as it represents a form of natural selection that more efficiently prunes, edits and maintains a code base. Compared to a big business approach thats causes software to grow , get bloated and eventually useless due to its own complexity... Perfectly demonstrated by Windows. I think read somewhere where even M$ representatives believe Vista will be M$'s last last major Operating system release of this style of development approach due to the cost and inability to efficiently change its own code base. What will be kewl is when researchers develop natural selection methods where software will write software. Probably not too far fetched in 20 years time.

As a Taoist (A Personal Tao : http://www.personaltao.com) and as a programmer for 20 years. This article did make made me laugh. I find it interesting how many programmers find resonance in Taoist concepts.

peace

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Taoism of open source

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 24.1.48.176] on October 04, 2007 02:29 AM
well done.

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Taoism of open source

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Taoism of open source

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 80.32.3.41] on January 26, 2008 11:25 AM
Tao has nothing to do with open source. This article and its comparations sux XD

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