The Co-Founder of the Apache Software Foundation is on a mission to bring the two communities together.
So much of the history of the Internet has been driven by open source software — and most people don’t even know it. Inspired by much of the same ethos as today’s blockchain movement, activist developers around the world have provided the backbone of public Internet protocols since before the world wide web was even conceived, and the Apache Software Foundation has been at the center of it all over the past three decades.
Co-Founded by ConsenSys Open Source Chef Jim Jagielski, alongside a whole host of brilliant software and IT engineers from all over the world, the ASF’s list of projects extends into the hundreds, and the open source community provides not only the code, but a moral and conceptual compass to the greater tech industry.
With the explosive growth of blockchain and cryptocurrency over the past few years, decentralized networks like Ethereum should have provided a whole new landscape for open source developers and thinkers to collaborate and continue the perennial quest to perfect human and technical systems, while providing a generational chance to redirect the history of the Internet towards its decentralized roots. Although many projects — including Linux’s HyperLedger consortium and the Enterprise Ethereum Alliance — are doing much to bring the nascent industry together, there is still much work to be done.
We spoke with Jim Jagielski about the parallels between the early days of the Internet and the blockchain movement, how open source and blockchain protocols are a perfect match, and how the two communities can better enmesh going forward….
How far back does the timeline of open source extend?
One of the things that brought me to ConsenSys was the parallels that i saw between the early, early days of the web and the blockchain movement. I’ve been involved with the Internet and open source since the mid ’80s. Even back before people were gravitating towards the world wide web, what made the Internet special was the very fact that there was all this technology available via open source. When you think about e-mail: Sendmail was an open source program. DNS was all done by BIND (Berkeley Internet Name Domain), which is an open source project. The foundations of the Internet were all built around open source.
I think that’s what made the Internet become very successful: If you were someone who just wanted to get started on the Internet, you didn’t need to worry about buying software. You could download open source software, play around with it, and it put you on a level playing field with anyone else who may have the money to plunk down money for a license.
It wasn’t until the world wide web took over that open source thinking became a power to be reckoned with. I think the fact that you had high quality software that was just as good as the commercial software was a big driver. There wasn’t really a commercial alternative for email or DNS or some of the basic foundational stuff. Later, commercial offerings for web servers emerged, but you also had the open source versions, like Apache HTTPd.
What are other similarities you see between the the development arc of the Internet and blockchain?
A lot of what we’re talking about with blockchain and Ethereum is this mindset that, as a grand experiment, the Internet did really well, but we lost sight of the importance of decentralization and democratization of information, data, authority, things like that. The way to avoid or make sure that’s not the case is to make it a fundamental part of the infrastructure itself, because past history has shown that left to their own devices, not everybody will do the right thing.
The early days of the Internet were really all about decentralization. The whole idea behind ARPAnet and stuff like that was to avoid any situation where — god forbid — there was a nuclear war and some sections were taken down, and thus the entire network would be taken down. That’s what ARPAnet was all about: to avoid these pockets of authority, power, knowledge — whatever you wanna call it, such that it was reliable, resilient, really decentralized.
For long period of time, the Internet did just that. It was this level playing field that everybody was able to use, leverage, commercialize, or commoditize, but there was no real leader or entities that controlled it. Somewhere along the way, the community lost sight of that, and were really willing to hand over huge swaths of data ownership, privacy concerns, to a handful of corporate and/or government entities which — really, at the end of the day — probably don’t have our best interests at heart.
That was one of the things that attracted me to ConsenSys and bringing the knowledge that i’ve learned about the early days of the web and how open source helped give that anarchist mentality. This was an opportunity to redo the web, but right. To really bring it back to its roots, to create an environment and foundation and infrastructure where decentralization isn’t just an ideal, but is built into the actual fabric of how we do things.
Do you see any problems forming in the way that the blockchain software landscape is developing?
When you look at big data, machine learning and AI, there’s a similarly parallel progression between the viability of open source softwares and communities. Blockchain was just the logical progression of that.
One of the things that interests me is that, in general, all the other technology advances that we’re talking about previously, really had active, engaged, large open source communities surrounding them. I didn’t see a lot of that in the blockchain community. Certainly there are some open source components associated with it, but in general, the cryptocurrency, blockchain, Ethereum communities haven’t meshed with the open source communities out there. That was one of the things I could really help with, being the liaison between those two communities and really drive open source awareness and acceptance in the blockchain community.
Are phenomena like Facebook’s forays into cryptocurrency and JPMorgan Coin concerning from an open source perspective?
I think it is concerning. In general, what we’re seeing is that some aspects will be open source and transparent as far as the code and the protocol and standards are related. But a lot of that stuff isn’t. Considering the people who are making these moves, their past behavior is an indication of what their future actions will likely be. Just blindly or naively assuming that because they’re smart and did a ‘great’ job with social media, of course they’ll get cryptocurrency right. Well, people don’t really think that through all the way. I think there’s some concerns about letting people utilize this technology — which is really about avoiding middlemen and centralized intermediaries — i think that needs to be well understood by people out there.
And I think one of the best communities to be able to help drive that is the open source community. One of the reasons open source is so important is because it’s transparent — not only the code, but how the software is written, the bugs associated with it, what code is and isn’t approved. All of this dirty laundry is public and transparent. That’s why open source is much more secure, simply because people can look at it. With enough eyes, all bugs are shallow. Having an infrastructural tech based on open source code is the best way to ensure that it is robust, reliable, and also secure.
Is the encroachment of institutional forces on decentralized technology an inevitability?
I don’t think it’s inevitable! I think we need stewards, champions of Web3 and the decentralized web, to be much more vocal about the reasons why people want these ideals. That’s a communication that hasn’t been done a lot yet. It seems to be that there’s this association between blockchain and cryptocurrency. We have to fight that stigma and confusion. The blockchain and cryptocurrency community is very insular. There’s a lot of good talk and discussion going on inside that community, but a lot of that isn’t being shared externally. I think that by having projects code bases and communities that bridge the gap between the anarchist, crypto-blockchain community, and the infrastructural, open source development community, I think that could help create the channel.
What ConsenSys projects are taking an open source-inspired route?
Certainly, PegaSys and Pantheon is one of the bigger projects that we’ve open sourced. It’s an open source project under the ConsenSys umbrella. We just started moving Cava, which are the ConsenSys Java libraries for a whole bunch of Ethereum stuff. We’re donating that to the ASF, to Apache, and that will become an Apache Incubator Podling, which is what we call initial projects. That’ll be the first blockchain project ever within the ASF. I think that it’s a project being donated from ConsenSys is pretty noteworthy.
In the early days of the Internet, it would not have been as successful without a company like Sun behind it. Sun fully embraced the web, fully embraced open source. It enabled them to carry a lot of that stewardship. Once you get enough of a critical mass, you need someone to show the way forward, and help foster the thing. I think ConsenSys has a unique ability to leverage some of the regard and recognition in the blockchain community — if we could translate some of that to the open source community, we could be the spearhead as far as helping to drive that movement. I’ll be speaking at OSCON just about this.
When you look at some of these big, innovative technology bellwethers that have changed the complexion and complexity of the IT landscape, at their heart, they’ve been started at the ASF. I think having the ASF be an organization where there are a lot of fantastic open source projects that are all about blockchain and Ethereum is something that i’ve been trying to champion, not just at ConsenSys but everywhere.
Blockchain and open source seem like a perfect match. What can we do to foster that relationship?
If you’re not familiar with the early days of the web and how open source helped drive adoption and innovation, learn about it. There’s a lot that the open source community can do to help drive the development of blockchain. It’s a great way to ramp up evangelization and awareness of blockchain, and it’s a great way of pulling in developers from outside the blockchain community who might have that fix or innovative patch that addresses some serious issues. The open source community is ready, willing, and able to help the blockchain community. And if there’s anything I can personally do to help out, don’t hesitate to reach out and ping me on Twitter or email.
Disclaimer: The views expressed by the author above do not necessarily represent the views of Consensys AG. ConsenSys is a decentralized community with ConsenSys Media being a platform for members to freely express their diverse ideas and perspectives. To learn more about ConsenSys and Ethereum, please visit our website.
Jim Jagielski on Why Open Source and Blockchain Must Unite was originally published in ConsenSys Media on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.