Posted by: Sarah Lacy on June 1, 2006
What do organic food and open source software have in common? It’s not a lame riddle—believe it or not, they share quite a bit. On a flight back to San Francisco this weekend, I was catching up on past magazine reading, when I was struck by an article in the May 15 issue of the New Yorker, called “Paradise Sold,” about the coming of age of the Organic Food industry. The premise being, now that organic food has become a big national business with big chains like Whole Foods pushing it, has it sold its idealistic, hippy soul?
You could have substituted “organic food” with “open source software” and basically hit on the tug of war going on within the open source world now that bankers, venture capitalists and mainstream entrepreneurs are flooding in.
Whenever I write about the advancement of open source I get a smattering of emails complaining that the movement is getting tainted by too many commercial interests. They're wary of the true motives of Sun Microsystems, Oracle Corp-- even the oft-noted friend to open source IBM. Most leaders of the open source world--including Linus Torvalds himself-- don't go that far. But it has always seemed to me there's a delicate balance between prizing the ethos of the open source collaborative spirit and setting up a corporate entity that will always have a stronger fiduciary duty to shareholders. It all goes well when a market is hot, but what if this supposed open source bubble crashes and companies have to pick their allegiances?
The New Yorker article was ultimately arguing the same point. Organic used to imply you were buying from your local farmer. The article contrasted that with Earthbound Farm, a $450 million company that grows organic vegetables. It doesn't use pesticides or chemicals and even its tractors use biodiesel fuel. But because it's a national company it uses the same polluting supply chain of any other food grower. Companies like these, while still fitting under the organic description, have embraced capitalism.
Still, I came away cutting companies like Earthbound Farm some slack. There's such thing as the greater good and at some point cost and convenience have to factor in for the most people possible to get better--if not perfect--food. I'd rather eat meat not injected with hormones and lettuce not grown amid pesticides. Maybe I can't pluck it right from the farm, maybe the free range chickens only walk around 30 minutes a day, but Whole Foods or Trader Joes seems a heck of a lot better than the alternative.
So maybe I've been too harsh on the commercialization of open source? If it's better--not perfect-- software does that make up for the necessary change in motives that accompanies big business?