The following was written as part of a class assignment, but I felt that it was appropriate for sharing here as well. Enjoy!
I’m going to let you in on a little secret: I believe in magic. Sure, back when we were kids, we all used to believe in magic. We’d pretend to have wands that could create things out of thin air, secret incantations that would set objects in motion, and amulets that would protect us from the dark arts of those out to harm us. Slowly we grew out of it. We learned that magic wasn’t real, we accepted that we couldn’t bend the world to our will by force of imagination alone. Instead we learned to use tools, plain, non-magical, very mundane tools. But there’s always that small, childish part of ourselves, the one that likes Harry Potter books and watches movies about times long ago and places far away, that part still wants to believe that magic exists. And sometimes, some of us, we find it again.
I was seventeen years old and already on my third job. I was working days making websites for local companies, lawyers and accountants mostly, and every so often a couple of guys who had this great idea that would revolutionize the world, they were going to be the next Yahoo. Yeah, back when Yahoo was who everyone aspired to be. I was also taking evening classes at the community college, where I had managed to learn a little bit of computer programming. It was pretty hard stuff. After two semesters I could barely make a functional calculator, let alone anything worth selling. At this time, Netscape was the falling star of web browsers, on its way to being replaced by the surprisingly long lived Internet Explorer. It had been king during its day, nobody could touch it, most of us still thought it was the best one around. We would cling to it for years longer than we rightfully should have. This was the kind of software I could only dream of making, maybe in 10 years, or 20, maybe, if I could ever learn that much.
While taking a break from building yet another real estate website, I was checking what little news was available on-line in 1998 and read that, in order to regain its lead, Netscape was going to be re-written, and that the new version was going to be open source. Open source? I had heard the term before. Some people would write some programs, and then give them away. Not just the programs, but the code that was used to build the programs, they just gave it away, for free. But Netscape? It was huge! It was big business. Netscape was, for a long time, the face of the World Wide Web. They couldn’t mean the same thing. They couldn’t be making their code available, not for free, not for me to download, to build, to make my own Netscape? I just had to check. So I pulled up their website, found the “Get the source code” button, and clicked it. Here I was, almost a legal adult, working a real job, going to school for a real degree, and right there, staring me in the face, was magic.
Not the code. The code itself was just as mundane and non-magical as any other tool. But the fact that I had it, that I could turn this mess of text into that program I had held in almost religious esteem, that I could sit there and just learn exactly how it was all done and, most of all, that with a few taps on my keyboard, I could change that program in ways that only I wanted, that was magic. I never did do much with that code, but it hardly mattered. My reality had been shattered, my eyes had been opened, and suddenly everywhere I looked I saw this same magic at work, where it had always been at work, unnoticed by me until now, and still unnoticed by everyone else who passed it on their way to their real jobs, or their real school, busy being real adults. But for me, sitting on my desk where I once had a computer, was now a box full of wonder, of ancient knowledge and infinite possibilities, just waiting to do whatever my imagination could dream up.
Like all good stories about magic, it had been there for a very long time. Some of the code was older than I was. And as I wandered this new world, I surrounded myself with as much magic as I could find. I didn’t understand most of it, but that was okay, because it teaches you. I would learn more in an hour of looking through the code of some project that I did in a semester’s worth of school. A day spent changing the code, breaking it and fixing it myself, taught more than a year of instruction.
And it was good too, my God was it good. Not all of it, but the important programs, the ones everybody used, the ones the hackers used, that was art. I learned this early on: the people who wrote open source software didn’t write it for me, they wrote it for themselves, and so they wrote it to be safe, stable, and powerful. They wanted perfection and they knew better than anyone else how to make it. And because it was open source, that meant everybody else had it too. Including me.
As I grew, as I learned, I realized that the real power that was gained wasn’t just in what you could do, but also in what others could not. They couldn’t make my programs do something I didn’t like. They couldn’t make my programs stop me from doing what I wanted. Even those that originally wrote the code couldn’t do that, because once I had a copy of it, I owned it. It was mine. It followed my commands, and nobody else’s. And when I owned everything on my computer, then for the first time I owned the computer itself.
It’s an interesting feeling, owning a computer. Most people think they own their computers because they paid for them. But then they have to run virus scanners, or pay for upgrades to their software, or buy new programs to let them use the hardware they already bought. Do you own your computer if it can tell you “no”, and there’s nothing you can do about it? I don’t think so. But when you own your computer, the only thing stopping you is the physical capabilities of the hardware. All it needs is the right instructions, the right key strokes, the right magical incantations to set it in motion, and it will do whatever you want.
But what did I want it to do? I am limited only by my own imagination, yet once you understand the vast potential your computer has, suddenly your own imagination starts to feel quite limited indeed. Luckily, I was never alone on this journey. As I made my way through this landscape I met others, like myself, the old and the young, hackers with decades of experience and amateurs like me, all learning together, working together, literally building this world a piece at a time out of nothing. I wasn’t limited to just my own imagination, I was able to benefit from the imaginations of thousands of developers and millions of users.
And yet, what are a million imaginations compared to the billions of minds on this earth? What amazing things can be created when they all know about this magic? Imagine a world where everybody owns their computer and can make it work exactly how they want. A world where you don’t have to pay a 3rd party to do business with someone. Where the things you can do at home are not artificially restricted by somebody hoping to make a little more money off of you. Where you can share your genius with friends, and they can share theirs back to you. This is why I am sharing my secret. This is why Free and Open Source software advocates want to talk to your about it. Because when you learn about this magic it doesn’t just make you more powerful, it makes the magic itself more potent.
So here it is: your very own magic wand. The Internet is your book of spells. Everything that you need is waiting for you. You mostly likely use some Open Source software already, whether you realize it or not. Why not take a look inside? It won’t cost you anything. You don’t need to understand what you see, just start playing with it. There are people who will teach you what to change and how, don’t be afraid to learn. Even the smallest actions on your part will benefit people across the globe. Mine have. Now show us what you can do.