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The open source impulse goes beyond software

A process for accepting (or rejecting) the help of an open source impulse is no protection against the danger that impulse can bring. And the impulse itself, which comes from a desire to do good, is increasingly powerful in our world.
Written by Dana Blankenhorn, Inactive on

The idea that people have an impulse to improve software that goes beyond the desire for personal profit should no longer be controversial.

Open source provides a process in which this impulse can be managed. The fact that this is also a transforming business model is a bonus.

But the impulse exists far beyond software. Managing it remains a problem.

Take Richard Ankrom, for instance.

Tired of a misleading sign over an LA freeway interchange, he designed and installed his own addition to it in 2001. (To the right is part of a series of time-lapse photos showing how he did it.)

The Ankrom sign lasted until 2008. When it was finally replaced, authorities accepted his "edit," although his handmade "5" was sent, unceremoniously and without notice, to an aluminum recycler.

Ankrom's open source impulse was positive. He created change. The government didn't have a process for managing his input, but in time the idea got through.

Amateur-driven change does not always have such a happy ending. Take the case of actress Jenny McCarthy.

Ms. McCarthy is convinced a vaccine caused his child's autism. There are processes for testing this, and there was even a published study claiming it.

But the study was debunked. It's just not true that the common Mumps, Measles and Rubella (MMR) vaccine causes autism. Yet millions of parents now refuse it, citing Ms. McCarthy, the number of measles cases is rising, and whenever scientists talk on TV aboutautism she is there,  with her "Mommy Doctorate" and line of best-selling books.

The point is a process for accepting (or rejecting) the help of an open source impulse is no protection against the danger that impulse can bring. And the impulse itself, which comes from a desire to do good, is increasingly powerful in our world.

The market can now reward amateurs to a greater degree than professionals. Google has over 71,000 hits on the topic "Jenny McCarthy autism expert" even though her claim that diet is a cure is bogus, even though her claim that vaccines cause autism is dangerous.

Meanwhile we lack a process for ruling on, and perhaps accepting, the contributions people like Mr. Ankrom can and do make to our living spaces. It's curious.

How do we harness the open source impulse, outside software, and mitigate the damage it can cause?

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