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The American Experiment

The United States prides itself on many things. The hackneyed list begins with apple pie and often includes military power. I understand people having pride in such lists, but I have to disagree that these are the best and most important characteristics of the American Experiment.

Experiment? Yes, that term applies very well. The Founding Fathers thought that what they were about was an experiment to see if the people could govern themselves. That was a radical notion in the late 1700s--particularly if one put it into practice.

Okay, one might criticize them for not including everyone. Whole classes of people were not permitted to participate in the democratic experiment. The list included women, slaves, Native Americans, men without property, etc. In fact, while the Fathers espoused democratic values and touted the worth of representative government, they excluded most of the people from participating in that process.

Nevertheless, they set in motion a process that over the next centuries did become more inclusive. While we can critique their lack of application of professed universal values and rights, they were intellectually honest to recognize that it was an experiment, and experimentation requires constant evaluation, updates, and even revolutionary change. The Civil War, 1861-1865, was really the Second American Revolution that made a very bloody down-payment on rights that it still took another century to move close to recognition. We are still traveling down that road to fruition.

You may know that I was trained as a historian, so these thoughts easily come to my mind--even when talking with information technologists. (What???) Last night, I attended a function at the headquarters of Research Triangle Park on Open Source All Things that made me think of our shared experiment.

For those out of the know, open source is a set of methods to create, modify, and use things together. It can involve software, data, knowledge, etc. that is free to use but may not be free. "Free" in this context connotes "liberty" and the term "libre" is often used to amplify the meaning, particularly for software. (Check out FLOSS--Free Libre Open Source Software. Thanks to Paul Jones for pointing me there.) It is fundamentally a community-based approach to developing technologies where the code is sharable and improvable by the community. But back to last night.

The program included several speakers, all limited to 5 minutes, to talk about their experience and enthusiasms regarding open source across many domains from software to policy to participation to science. It was a very nerdy event that assumed you had some appreciation and knowledge of the movement. And it is a movement with all the passions we bring to our lives together.

We heard about the emergence of the movement and many of its successful efforts (Paul Jones), how to be a civic geek (Reid Serozi), how to get started and join the movement (Jason Hibbets), the implications for open source in education (Eric Martindale), how open source helps in scientific inquiry (Karen Cranston), how open source can break down information silos in companies (Vincent Belanger), how open source tools continue to leap forward (Carlos Santana), the use of open source in addressing vexing public issues such as global water resources (Ray Idaszak). and where to join and participate in the public access and use of data at Triangle Open Data Day (Ian Henshaw).

It was quite a fire hose of information. The basic message throughout the presentations and discussion was the power of the people using the open source approach to determine their collective future. I don't know if the Founders would have appreciated all of it, but in a way they contributed to it.

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