About 10,000 years ago, settlers in the Fertile Crescent and in China started developing tools that would allow the birth of agriculture. During the following few 1,000 years, those new born farmers started to go West, colonizing adjacent territories and finally all Western Europe.
Recent genetic studies like that of Bryan Sakes have shown that contrary to anthropologists’ beliefs two decades ago, this arrival of Neolithic farmers didn’t sweep off European Mesolithic hunter gatherers through an irrepressible wave of advance. Not only aboriginal nomads weren’t wiped off by farmers but instead, both populations nicely merged over time (the reason for this slow and passive diffusion of agriculture is discussed in an extraordinary book from Jared Diamond Gun, Germs and Steel ). Today, only 20% of the current European genome can be tracked down to the original Near-Eastern farmers’ migrations.
Western societies are still largely based on agriculture tradition and on its latest avatar the industrial society. Farmers have won the language battle and Indo-European-based languages are spoken pretty much all over Europe. Yet, resistance is not futile: Finnish, Estonian, Lapp and Hungarian can be tracked down to Uralic languages used before the arrival of farmers. Basques’ Euskara is another example –albeit still largely a mystery- of language which is not derived from the Indo-European, the farmers’ family of languages.
A question comes to mind: since most of the Western world consists of both people of farmer and nomad origins, have corresponding behaviors been diluted into the apparently homogeneous society we know today or have they each built their own niches, their own sub-cultures, where fundamental forces are still at play?
Could it be that major societal changes today are still powered by a “farmer vs. nomad” dialectic?
At this point you might ask; right, all of this is fine and dandy but how does this relate to open source? Well, think about it. What comes to mind when evoking the open source movement?
- Community-oriented development made of small, closely-knitted groups, themselves made of individuals gathered from all over the world and working together outside of traditional hierarchical structures.
- A strong stance on intellectual property (e.g. the GNU GPL)
If the first trait is quite obvious an important one, a less obvious difference between farmers and nomads, lies in their relationship to property.
For a nomad, property does not need to exist as such. Not because of some Marxist ideology but because very practically this is a concept irrelevant to small cooperative groups and bands who are always moving around and for which pretty much all individuals must gather their own food. In such group, everybody is a polymath of sort and must have multiple skills to survive. High specialization is out of the question. Solidarity is the main social glue which doesn’t need to be explicitly enforced nor taught: leaving the group equates to dying.
For a society of farmers, agriculture allows to produce more food that what is required for each individual to survive. This allows for other specialized groups to appear that don’t directly participate to the production. The crux is that if there is food surplus then societies have to find a way to manage this surplus (production, distribution, protection etc.). Furthermore, since the surplus allows for much larger group to settle at the same location, new social structures need to take over. As a result, specialized casts were borne which are still largely shaping our societies today:
- Energy & Distribution: producers and merchants
- Defense & Conquest: soldiers and police
- Social structure: politics and clergy
Managing this production surplus lead to a system where ownership and property are at the source of the social organization.
Open source and implicitly the GPL (well explicitly but not everybody realizes it) question the very nature of property and ownership. If you’re skeptical, think about this: why are open source proponents almost always anti-DRM, always among the first ones to advocate for a free distribution of music, games and movies?
Note that the point here is to offer a new set of glasses to look at the world, not to make a political statement. Besides, asking people about the nature of property usually transcends traditional barriers. In the US for instance, it’s almost impossible to infer people’s opinion just by knowing whether they are Republicans, Democrats or Libertarians. How property must be controlled or by whom, is subjected to political debates but the very nature of property seems to trigger such a very personal, emotional response that opinions largely elude partisan cleavages.
Historically farmers and nomads might have co-habited, it does not mean they liked each other. Indeed, each side has its share of extreme behaviors.
• Farmer communities have a natural tendency to recruit slaves out of wandering nomads.
• Nomad bands have a natural tendency to pillage farmer villages.
Now, take the opposition between proprietary and open source software. The modern, open source version of the two previous points would be:
• Proprietary software companies have a strong tendency to exploit open source developers
• Open source developers are mercilessly reverse engineering proprietary software
See the Farmers vs. Nomads mentality at work?
What’s even more interesting is that the advent of the Internet gives –for the first time in 10,000 years- the high grounds to the nomads.
On the Internet, the traditional roles of the 3 main casts doesn’t apply: production and distribution are not in the hands of a few specialists anymore (anybody can produce a video mashup, publish a blog or contribute to Wikipedia), defense and conquest are becoming moot (what is left to be defended if no surplus can be identified, let alone managed) and traditional hierarchies are making room to the emergence of self-organized structures.
Yet, this is a tenuous and fragile advantage. Internet runs on electricity that is produced by coal, oil or enriched uranium. Hardware is still largely produced by proprietary companies relying on metal, plastic and other electronic components: overall, the playing field of nomads is still strongly dependent on farmers' production.
And yet again, the open source community is uniquely positioned to decrease this dependency, not only by breaking our dependence on proprietary software but also by actively promoting important co-factors like Net neutrality, free circulation of information or low-energy-consumption devices.
But more importantly, the open source community has a unique opportunity to demonstrate to the world that complex productions and sophisticated decisions can made be much more efficiently through the self-organized cooperation of numerous small groups.
Paradoxically, the battle for food, energy and low-impact industries is still at the center of this future. But this is not a battle of farmers versus nomads anymore: we will always need farmers and we will always need nomads; only this time, this is up to the nomads to lead the way. If they succeed our society will be able to transition towards a new age, a new way to live (in peace) together. Finally, the only really unknown parameter is that of time:
Can nomads bring us the hope of a self-organized hyper-democracy before the collapse of the post-industrial world as we know it?