Los Angeles Times: Divine Inspiration From the Masses
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From the Los Angeles Times

Divine Inspiration From the Masses

Open-source programming's organizing principle has been embraced in medical research, engineering -- even religion.

By Charles Piller
Times Staff Writer

July 23, 2006

Behold, brethren. The "open source" movement, long championed by computer whizzes as a way to solve problems using the input of all, is increasingly being applied to other disciplines including literature, scientific research and religion.

Yes, religion. Yoism — a faith invented by a Massachusetts psychologist — shuns godly wisdom passed down by high priests. Instead, its holy text evolves online, written by the multitude of followers — much the same way volunteer programmers create open-source computer software by each contributing lines of code.

Adherents of Yoism — who count Bob Dylan, Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud among their saints — occupy the radical fringe of the open-source movement, which is quickly establishing itself as a new organizing principle for the 21st century.

Although an extreme example, Yoism shows how far beyond computer programming the open-source method has progressed. At its core, the process presumes the intelligence of crowds, and Yoans build their faith around the notion that, together, they take the place of divine inspiration.

The open-source movement's influences, though, are felt in increasingly mundane ways — such as when you read a Wikipedia entry or follow a blog or type a search query into Google.

"Open source" has no universally accepted definition. But most people agree that the method boils down to the idea that when you're trying to design a better mousetrap (or chocolate chip cookie or dogma), a meritocracy of ideas will trump a hierarchical system any day of the week.

Computer geeks were the first to embrace open-source techniques. Traditionally, software had been written by teams of programmers who distributed test versions to users, who in turn found "bugs" that the programmers would then try to fix. The "source code" — thousands or millions of lines of computer language that control how the program works — remained invisible to everyone but the programmers.

Then, Linus Torvalds, originator of the Linux computer operating system, opened the once-sacrosanct source code to programmers and users alike via the Internet in the early 1990s. Any computer whiz with a little spare time could find bugs or come up with new features, then implement the changes.

The open-source movement was born.

Linux was founded on a simple premise: The more contributors, the better the result — and mistakes or sabotage will inevitably be corrected by the vigilant army of volunteers.

After the success of Linux proved the its viability, the open-source method broadened and adapted into a wide-ranging social experiment embraced in such diverse efforts as scientific research, journalism and artwork.

Dr. Daniel Kriegman
To Dan Kriegman, who founded Yoism in 1994, an open-source framework offered the solution to an age-old challenge: how to make religion inclusive, open to change and responsive to collective wisdom.

"I don't think anyone has ever complained about something that didn't lead to some revision or clarification in the Book of Yo," said Kriegman, a 54-year-old psychologist in Chestnut Hill, Mass. "Every aware, conscious, sentient spirit is divine and has direct access to truth…. Open source embodies that. There is no authority."

Sourceforge.net, a Web-hosting service for open-source software developers, has 119,000 active projects. The approach has been applied to scores of fields, such as medical research, engineering and private investigation, challenging time-honored organizational theory.

For example, the Wikipedia free online encyclopedia consists of "wikis," collaborative essays that anyone can write or edit at will, without permission or consultation with other authors. As the Web's most popular research tool and 15th-most-visited brand, it drew about 27 million different visitors in June according to Nielsen/NetRatings.

Open-source methods work especially well in large projects that can be broken into small parts and benefit from many iterative changes.

Yet some open-source advocates believe the method can be applied to anything, including art and literature.

The phrase has become so ubiquitous that, at times, its use doesn't make sense. "Open-source beer" sounds like an ever-changing ale recipe; instead it's just a formula posted online, with "permission" for others to use and alter at will.

"Any new term, when it pops into the zeitgeist, is like a new star in the sky … that we can all use as a navigation point," said Paul Saffo, a director of the Institute for the Future in Menlo Park, Calif. "We exhaust the word's meaning but absorb the concept."

All of these efforts draw on the so-called wisdom of crowds, a notion popularized by New Yorker magazine writer James Surowiecki in his book by the same name. The idea is that groups are often smarter than the smartest people in them.

Crowds can indeed be wise — except when they're not. During the Dutch "tulipmania" of the 17th century, the price of a single popular bulb could be six times the average annual income in the nation. Crowds have been known to become Nazis, make runs on banks and frantically bid up dot-com stocks, then mercilessly drive them back down.

The weaknesses of the open-source approach are equally clear in many experiments.

In the six months since the founding of the first open-source fiction-writing website, users have suffered from collective writer's block. Glypho.com has about 100 active projects, many of which have been viewed hundreds of times. Just a handful of stories have advanced beyond the idea stage.

And wikis, the most prolific open-source product outside software, often falls victim to egalitarian openness. Wikipedia entries are uneven in accuracy and quality. Some have been exposed as frauds.

Last year, when attempting to mark the 10th anniversary of WikiWikiWeb, a history of computer programming ideas that was the world's first wiki, its creators realized that they had lost track of the project's exact age because its history page had been vandalized.

Open-source advocates shrug off missteps as growing pains.

The approach is broadening rapidly, due to its embrace by such diverse organizations as IBM Corp. and Al Qaeda. The fluid, adaptive terrorist group uses the Internet to develop expertise and tactics among self-selected, self-directed cells.

"We don't think about Al Qaeda as open-source. But it is," Saffo said. "If the creature doesn't have a head, there's no way to kill it."

The germ of open-source creation has inspired human endeavors for millenniums.

"Legends in many cases are products of collaborative authorships," said Thomas W. Malone, a management professor at MIT. "Generations of refining the themes gets down to some kind of primal level that must contribute to their success."

Scientific knowledge also has open-source qualities. Experts work in decentralized collaboration to advance mutual understanding. The stock market is an open system for investors.

Yet pure open-source creation — contemporaneous, cooperative production by an ad hoc network of peers — dates only to the mid-1990s, when Torvalds, then a graduate student in Helsinki, Finland, opened the source code for Linux.

Linux proved the ideal test case for creation by collaborators who were equals. It emerged as Internet access was exploding, providing a way to share a copy that volunteers had more or less equal ability to sculpt.

In 2001, Wikipedia was launched on similar principles with the modest goal of building the ultimate compendium of knowledge. It advanced the open-source approach for the non-geek masses. More than 1 million people have registered to help expand the site, although anyone can edit and add without registration.

The vast online reference now has more than 3.8 million articles in about 200 languages.

"As an organizational phenomenon, it is amazing. As an encyclopedia, it sure is useful," Malone said. In Wikipedia, the warts of open-source collaboration are also writ large. Its many problems stem from a determination to eschew hierarchy and offer wide personal discretion on the assumption that a multitude of editors will catch inevitable errors. One frequent result has been "revert wars" — disputes over content in which changes are made and undone, back and forth, by battling contributors.

Wikipedia administrators have temporarily limited or blocked editing on hundreds of pages to cool off conflicts on such topics as "Transvestic fetishism," "Mao" and "Dick Cheney."

Blogger Jason Scott analyzed the history of the "swastika" entry and learned how the Wikipedia process can run amok. Few of the more than 1,500 largely combative and pseudonymous edits demonstrated relevant scholarship.

With Linux, Torvalds maintains control over the central software "kernel." Underneath him are other decision makers.

Not so with Wikipedia. A high school physics student's musings on Einstein's theory of relativity can weigh equally with those of a Nobel laureate. In addition to producing clunky prose and inaccuracies, this tends to inflate the relative importance of obscure topics or popular culture. For example, the article on the entertainer Madonna runs to nearly 7,800 words; "Theory of relativity" gets fewer than 1,200.

Larry Sanger, a former Wikipedia employee often credited with the original idea for the project, called the online reference work an extraordinarily successful experiment. But he quit to escape its cult of equality.

Sanger recently launched Digital Universe, an online project that will include reference works written by volunteers but edited by experts, according to his plans. "The Wiki is just one prototype," he said. "Think of the principle."

Indeed, a profusion of open-source offshoots shows that wikis are just the start.

Volunteer scientists set up a network to discover new drugs for tropical diseases, a compute-intensive process well suited to open collaboration.

The South Korean start-up OhmyNews has enlisted more than 40,000 volunteer reporters who scout hundreds of topics for a nominal fee. It has attracted a sizable readership.

Citizen journalism, like other open-source ventures, has been criticized as a business model that relies on free labor or poorly paid amateurs who erode quality and destroy jobs.

Yet its successes have been indisputable. The blogosphere has altered the political landscape and uncovered serious lapses by traditional media.

The open-source frontier is religion. That's where Yoism comes in.

But is it really a religion? Chester L. Gillis, chairman of Georgetown University's theology department, is skeptical. Yoism, he says, embraces a transitory view of reality that contradicts traditional concepts of religion based on belief in fundamental truths.

"There's an authoritative source in religion that [Yoism] lacks. It doesn't talk about revelation from the divine," he said. "Any religion that hopes to survive is essentially conservative — it conserves elements of the faith. This one lacks that."

But Yoans have an answer for Gillis. As it is written in the Book of Yo, "There always exists the possibility of one day discovering that all our current truths are indeed wrong."
Photo by Josh Reynolds





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