This is the first column for Makery by Olivier Blondeau, author of the anthology “Libres enfants du savoir numérique” (Free Children of Digital Knowledge), prolific creator of digital communities and one of the artisans of the Citoyens Capteurs (citizen sensors) project. So it’s no surprise that he begins the series by reminding us of the principles of sharing in collaborative spaces.
Five years ago, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor exploded. I feverishly followed the adventure of Tokyo Hackerspace, Safecast and their DIY Geiger counter. With my political science background, I thought, this world of sensors, data, connected objects, hackerspaces and fablabs is completely disrupting society, politics and culture.
Since then, along with friends from Citoyens Capteurs, Fabelier, hackEns, more recently from Fablab Sorbonne Université (aka PMCLab) and even more recently from Paillasse Saône, we have been trying to understand this complex, often contradictory fablab movement, in order to apply it to education, knowledge, freedom and what we consider to be just causes—social, environmental, humanitarian and cultural. Because fablabs are about understanding and, above all, doing—building extraordinary machines for and with these ordinary people, which we all are.
This column will be a space to share encounters, projects that give us hope for the future, rants and raves, no doubt many, and the determination to link worlds that previously did not intersect.
The framework is set. We can now get to work and discuss a particular issue that caught my attention this week. A few days ago, Hackaday published an article titled CitizenWatt and the Power of Community. CitizenWatt is a project that I, along with many others, initiated. It’s not just a technical object, but an approach that encourages everyone to build their own sensor, in order to gage their household energy consumption.
I’ll no doubt come back to this topic, but the point is that some people commented that this project simply copied the British project Open Energy Monitor. It isn’t the first time I’ve heard this argument, and it’s totally justified. Technically, CitizenWatt is forked from OEM. We simplified OEM’s PCB, we adapted it for our own uses, reappropriated the code, modified a few lines, in particular to better guarantee user security and modify the communication protocol, which emitted a level of electromagnetic waves that exceeded our needs. And then we reshared our modifications.
Forking is not stealing, as long as you take care to republish and document your modifications. It’s the essence of the Internet and the spirit of the GNU-GPL licence that is currently trying to make itself known in Open Hardware.
When I first started getting involved with open software 15 years ago, forking was frowned upon. We preferred collaboration, community modeled after GNU Linux. We even contributed significantly to mythifying this notion of community. Forking was a gesture that almost made it happen. Today, it’s the essence of innovation. No doubt it’s better this way. No more “dictator”, even a benevolent one, as Eric S. Raymond wrote in The Cathedral and the Bazaar.
A young student from one of France’s most prestigious schools said to me one day: “My GitHub account has become more important to me than my degree.” Of course, this is an exaggeration. But there is some truth in that sentence. Publishing your work on GitHub means not only exposing your virtuosity to a potential recruiter, but also complying with very strict legal obligations, which cannot be ignored once you use open source code. Finally and above all, it means being acutely aware that knowledge cannot be advanced without being shared. This is a constant effort, a difficult choice to make, which everyone must impose on themselves, so great are the appetites of predators. But, I believe that it’s the only relevant choice to make, whatever the cost.
“Libres enfants du savoir numérique”, an anthology of open culture prepared by Olivier Blondeau and Florent Latrive, published by l’Eclat, 2000