LinuxCon: With open-source’s great power comes great responsibility

One of the biggest Linux events of the year opened with a look at the social role of the largest open-source project in history, as well as Linux’s potential place in the history books.

One of the biggest Linux events of the year opened with a look at the social role of the largest open-source project in history, as well as Linux’s potential place in the history books.

LinuxCon North America 2016 kicked off today in Toronto with keynotes from Linux Foundation director Jim Zemlin and Ainissa Ramirez, an author and former Bell Labs researcher who works to make technology accessible to the mainstream.

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As open-source in general transitions from creating replacements or alternatives to proprietary solutions into pushing the boundaries of technology forward on its own, said Zemlin, the focus for Linux must become more philanthropic.

“Linux proves that you can better yourself while bettering others at the same time,” he told the crowd. “It’s the greatest shared technology asset in history.”

It’s an asset with a big role to play in the future, according to Ramirez. Throughout history, she said, the interaction between people and the technology they create has always been a two-way street – humans create technology, and technology turns around and affects civilization in return.

“We create something, and then it recreates us. And it’s always a cycle, it’s always a process,” she said.

Technology can even change human beings in direct physical and mental ways, Ramirez points out. The use of fire to cook our food gave us the caloric boost we needed to help develop the large brains that set us apart from other early hominids. The telegraph changed the way we communicate, and not just in the obvious sense - the clipped, staccato style of writing necessitated by the telegraph shortened our sentences and took us from the age of Charles Dickens to Ernest Hemingway.

“This is why we need you now,” Ramirez told the crowd. “You already have the right mindset for how to look at technology – you share it. You’re open. You’re inclusive. You know that many, many minds make things better than one mind. Since we already know that technology is going to be the thing that’s driving democracy, in terms of society, you serve as democracy’s heroes.”

Linux, in Ramirez’s view, can be a platform to allow social change. Much like Gutenberg’s printing press made possible the pamphlets and mass dissemination of information necessary for the Protestant Reformation, Linux can democratize communication further.

“I want you to think about how impactful the work you’re doing is, “ said Ramirez. “Write technology that doesn’t mirror what’s going on right now … make it aspirational, for a better world.”

At a conference where many of the sessions and much of the activity is focused on the nuts-and-bolts of open-source technology, the keynotes were an intriguingly high-minded opening. Whether it signifies a broad shift in focus of the Linux community is unclear, but it demonstrates an undeniable awareness of technology’s broader role in the modern world.

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