the world is not a zero sum game

When I used to teach computer science and shared with my students how an open-source software is born and developed, many of them would ask me, why would anyone want to start an open-source project?

Open source projects are kind of a big deal, to say the least. The React JavaScript library, the software at the very foundation of what Facebook is built on top of, was made open-source by Facebook. Google has made a similar decision with Chromium, an open-source sister of Chrome and Chrome OS.

My students’ question stems from the perception that it seems counter-intuitive for a company to share their secret sauce (the code that they developed) with the world. But they fail to see the upside of sharing and accepting contributions from engineers all over the world by turning a project open source to improve on it, and allowing creative people in all walks of life to come up unique and useful applications making use of the technology.

There is no question that Google and Facebook both have its share of brilliant engineers, but there is great power in the collective knowledge of the entire world that even the most successful companies stand to benefit from. It just takes stepping back from the myopic views (such as “me and this one rival”, or “our sales for the next quarter”), and observing the broad, long-term effects of improved software and universal access.

Do you think it’s an accident that Wikipedia today gives you much better information on most topics compared to other encyclopedias? It turns out that 7 billion prospective volunteers collectively make a much better expert than a few hundred well-paid professionals. By the same token, the quality of a software is naturally improved by allowing the world to make contributions to the code. In this technology-driven world, better software means a better world.

One key thing to recognize here is that economic rewards in this world has not been, is not, and will not be, a simple game with winners at the cost of losers. The early hunter-gatherers who would share their hunt for the goodwill of their neighbors were onto something. Today, access to information benefits everyone, even the person who was the source of that information.

A great example of that is one of Google’s early data-processing models called “MapReduce”. Google used it to index the world-wide web, which was the foundation of how Google search worked in its early days. You would think that such secret should be kept within Google, but Google saw what it could mean to share the knowledge. So they published a paper, outlining MapReduce’s inner workings.

Out of that paper, arose a project called Apache Hadoop. It is an open-source collection of data-processing software. It allowed everyone (even small startups with little money) to perform analysis of big data. This has led to the explosion of applications that make use of data in just the last ten years. We now take it for granted that weather and traffic can be predicted more accurately than ever before, your photos can automatically organize themselves based on factors like where it was taken or who is in it, everyone can get customized movie recommendations as if they’re curated by someone who knows the deep intricacies of your personality, and doctors can diagnose diseases more accurately. Data analysis even exists in surprising areas where you would not expect it. I was very surprised to learn recently that farmers can predict the best time to milk a cow simply by letting a cow wear a pedometer and letting a data-processing software analyze the output from the pedometer. With the right technology in the hands of the right people, maybe the day when we’ll be able to predict earthquakes in advance isn’t so far away.

Tomorrow at Google, we are celebrating the company’s 20th birthday. It is a celebration of the innovations of the past, as well as the future that is to come. Yet as we speak, we are in the midst of a trade-war led by some misguided people. The future that I dream of is an open one, a world in which both physical goods and knowledge flow freely across boundaries. This world is not a zero sum game.

Published by

Shin Adachi

I am a pianist and composer based in Los Angeles.