Open Source Software and Christian Thought

By Crisman, Karl-Dieter | Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, March 2015 | Go to article overview

Open Source Software and Christian Thought


Crisman, Karl-Dieter, Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith


With ubiquitous computing power, the practice of science has changed dramatically--as has the range of ethical issues Christians must respond to concerning privacy, computing access, and whether to enhance human abilities. (1) This article surveys, and suggests, responses of the Christian faith tradition, in particular, to the idea of open source software (OSS). Open source refers to the way software is developed. It not only has implications for how we do science, but also has deep resonance with a number of core values in Christianity.

Especially with respect to creativity and freedom, the position taken here is that OSS better expresses a Christian approach. However, it is also not a panacea or a unique way to "write or use software Christianly," and such a survey cannot possibly be comprehensive. The intention here is to open the door to further discussion of the issues involved. As Redeemer University computer scientist Derek Schuurman says in his recent book, Shaping a Digital World, technology really is not value-neutral; (2) tools and methodologies Christians use in science have potential to reflect our beliefs as much as the questions we choose to address.

Open Source Software

The source code of a program is the original instructions to the computer, written by programmers. Usually this code is in a higher-level human-readable language such as C++, Java, and Python. By contrast, the software itself is usually a binary file--one only the computer can really read and interpret. This sets up a fundamental distinction:

   Open source software is software whose source code may be modified
   and redistributed. The source code of proprietary software may
   typically not be modified or redistributed without express consent.

We will delve later into further important distinctions, but the right to redistribute the source code is the most fundamental operating difference. One reason this is confusing is that, although nearly all OSS has no immediate acquisition cost, it is not the same as no-cost "freeware."

Consider the Firefox web browser or LibreOffice office suite; (3) these are OSS, but there are no-cost or loss-leader equivalents which are not. On the other end, many of us (whether we know it or not) use the Linux operating system kernel in embedded devices, in Android phones, or in company/university backends--in the latter case, with expensive service contracts. Similarly, the OSS Apache and nginx web servers, invisible to the end-user, dominate that market. (4) One may not even be aware that one's software is open source.

In science, the ideas of open access (for example, PLOS), open wikis, and open standards are more familiar, and we will spend some time on current technical science-related arguments regarding OSS shortly. But open source is only related to these, not identical to them, and to truly understand this (as well as the theology), a small amount of the history of OSS is necessary.

A Brief History

Many programmers of open source consider it (accurately) to be a movement, or even a philosophy. This view stems from a change in the role of programmers over the decades as software, not hardware, became the more marketable product. Political scientist Steven Weber characterizes this transition in his Success of Open Source, "The narrative of the programmer is ... of the craftsperson from whom control and autonomy were taken away." (5)

Steven Levy's book Hackers tells this story (which is almost a mythology by now) in far more detail. (6) To oversimplify, it says that programmers from the 1950s to the 1970s, whether working in garages or on huge IBM mainframes, could be artisans who shared ideas and code, while today they are fungible resources. Whether this narrative is always true is less important than that it can feel true--that one may wish to see innovations built upon, not endlessly reinvented.

The mechanism asserting this control over a program is the copyright license. …

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