Back in my grandfather's day people had an easy way to define your value to society. They asked what class you were in. Were you upper class, middle class, or lower class?
The class you were in defined your value to society. Class was inherited. It could be changed – that was the American dream. But generally you were what you were.
In my father's time this notion of value shifted. People asked, what do you make? This was not the same as the question of class. It was more meritocratic. But people who delivered value had the big paychecks, and those who didn't (even if they were English Lords) could be looked-down on.
There was a related question: where do you work? The economic value of a company also defined you. This was especially true in my own field of journalism. People who called you for The New York Times were high value, even if they made less than the editor of the Houston Business Journal.
In the open source world I see notions of value shifting again. This is especially true in the area of software, the subject we cover here.
Now the question is, what do you contribute? Those companies that contribute important code, under generous terms, are considered to be of high value. This is the demand placed on proprietary companies like Apple and Microsoft, a demand I should add both are responding to.
This new idea of value has a personal dimension as well. If you're a committer to an important open source project, you're a high value person. If you have made a major contribution, you're a high value person.
Richard Stallman is a high value person. Linus Torvalds is a high value person. Their paychecks don't reflect it, they remain in the middle class, but everyone who reads this knows their names and what they have contributed. We look up to them. We respect them.
Once you understand this notion of open source value your whole world may be rocked. This notion has definitely rocked the world of software. But it's also changing our perceptions of one another, our notions of who is and who isn't to be valued.
And I think it's the most important social change of our time.