Before my daughter enrolled in college I’d never heard of an Arduino. Since her high school robotics team leadership has now passed into more able hands, I figured that I’d go back to my naive days of not thinking about automated mechanical devices, devoting my gray matter to grayer matters. Still, over the past several weeks robots keep seeking me out. A spread in Delta’s in-flight magazine for July featured robots, as did an alumni magazine for August. Now the issue of Time for September has a story about robots. When my daughter sent me the Arduino video, by TED, I knew I’d better try to pay attention. Technology will change us, whether we want it to or not. It seems that from the first knapping of flint our destiny was set to manipulating our world and making it into something we create. Robots make us gods.
The real issue, however, in the TED video is that Arduino is open-source. Open-source means that the designs, instructions, and application of the device are voluntarily not held under copyright. Academics throughout the world are increasingly favoring open-source material—not just software and hardware, but the knowledge behind them. In my work at a for-profit (i.e. “commercial”) publisher, I know that open-source is a huge concern. It used to be that open-source, that is, free—information, was considered inferior. Like the early stages of recycled grocery bags. Arduino puts the lie to that supposition. An international team has made a device that is extremely flexible in application, and is giving it away. Many academic journals, traditional cash cows for the publishing industry, are now going open-source. Those of us who research and write don’t often do it for money—we just want our ideas shared. Commercial interests, however, are heavily vested in turning a profit from information. It is a clash of worldviews.
Never one of the great capitalists, I find open-source an intriguing concept. The problem is that those who think need to find a way to make a living in a society over-awed by spending. Universities charge tuition because professors have to be paid. Publishers charge a week’s wages for textbooks because editors have to be paid. Knowledge—the most valuable commodity people possess—fits uneasily with entrepreneurial ideals. This blog is open-source. Maybe that is why it has never garnered much attention, like a first-generation recycled paper bag. These same ideas, however, when presented in the context of university classrooms were subject to fees of thousands of dollars. Registration filled up every semester. The source is the same, a guy with a Ph.D. from a major research university making observations about how religion impacts each and every one of us, often in unexpected ways. Some things you can’t even give away. Well, if trends continue I shouldn’t be surprised if someday even this is taken over by a robot. Right, Mr. Čapek?