BY: Jason Parker Quinton

What does the American military have in common with a teenage “indoor kid” who spends days at his computer? They both have an interest in open source hardware. They both develop machines, robots, and unmanned aircrafts through online communities.   

The open source idea, as applied to software, is essentially what makes the internet run. Imagine the internet as a Chinese Restaurant, the Linux operating system is the bed of sticky white rice, which servers around the world hit with hot downloads and saucy or spicy entrees of content.

Linux was, and continues to be developed in an open-source environment, with those who love it continually trying to make it better. As is Java, the software that makes your Android (phone) so smart and keeps your video streams from spilling the banks of your browser.   

Many of the Silicon Valley companies have managed to monetize this stuff; their staff go home and push the envelope as hobbyists. For example, Texas Instruments might sell you a circuit board, but they participate in dialogue with a community ranging from teenage innovators to professional engineers. This ethic keeps the parts for open source aircraft, art installations and robots relatively cheap. Not to mention, simpler to build.   

No longer does a developer need to ask, “May I do this, boss?” They now say: “It’s the weekend, I can do this, like a boss.” The parts have been commodified, but whatever is sold back into the community is intended to be modified.

The industry wants users to do their own thing. Imagine a world where an actual helicopter is like a LEGO helicopter. As hobby drone pioneer and Wired editor Chris Anderson, says: “By using LEGO, by using toys, by making it cheap, by making it open, being un-commercial, we are testing the boundaries of how to get robots and aerial imaging machinery into the skies, that allows everyone to do it, not just the big contractors.”  

If talk of drones is chillingly Blade Runner-ish, it should be noted that most big-time extrapolation from open-source concepts is happening at universities. The catch is that it has led to the creation of a military academic complex, where defense is funding research at clandestine (yet, private) institutions, and inadvertently reaping the benefit of the grassroots roboticist. This is happening and we have to blindly trust that they are used for good. Whereas, for civilians, the entire issue of legality of airspace is so shrouded in a grey, it’s been called a “Brave New World.”   

As Anderson said when asked about young Iranian kids participating in his online community: “Anybody who wants this technology can get it already, and I’d rather have them do it in public, in a community fashion, where we help and work with each other than not.”

If drones ever do get unsafe for us, the human resistance may very well be made up of hobbyists. Literally, weekend warriors who “neighbourhood watch” the skies.     

The more that this DIY punk rock computing ethic (which has been a thriving subculture in the catacombs of the internet since before dial up)  translates beyond code and into tangible things for the laypeople, the more a need arises for a financial solution. But if there’s one blanket statement that this diverse community can be snuggled in: it’s that they are smart. Smart enough to build it, smart enough to share, smart enough to do it as cheap as possible, as well as possible — and get paid if possible. Kickstarters abound, piggy banks get smashed, bar mitzvah cheques go to technology that the Israeli army will someday adopt; there is even an Open Source Bank that has a schema for return on investment.   

This ingenuity needed to raise funds dovetails into some fresh ideas for use. From the Tacocopter (yes, an aerial taco parachute delivery craft, since shelved due to illegality) to graffiti robots that are programmed to get up where users choose, and have been proposed to have open source programmable artwork (but we know how that ends ).

So where are we going? Harvard professor, and seer of the information age, Yochai Benkler speaks of a new “Social Production,” where the open source has created a new economic sector that is neither centralized nor regulated, but the bottom line is: “Social relationships and exchange more important than they have ever been.” Ideas, expertise and discourse are driving the bus into the brave new world.   

This development spells out in all caps that not only has the traditional introverted geek gained fame, money, sex appeal and power, but social skills. The internet provided the community, and as such the creative commons, but here’s the best part: they want to share it with you. A layperson can learn how to do this, buy some parts, go to the toy store and join the vanguard of a robotic revolution.   

Everything is coming up geek, until the machines become self-aware, turning on us, and the wedgie backlash against these “open sorcerers” begins.


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