Colonies of Cyanobacteria (Stromatolites) in Shark Bay, Australia
Open collaboration (aka open source) is nothing new, it is somewhere around 3.5 billion years old. If you know how to look with your designer’s mind, the products of open source design are all around you — you are one of them.
Life itself was built through open collaboration. For life as a whole and for humans as a species, open collaboration is an evolutionary strategy (or learning model) that allows for the flexible adaptation that enables life to persist through the constant bucks and throws of a chaotic cosmos.
Take oxygen in the atmosphere, for example. Somewhere around 3 billion years ago, during the Archean eon, some innovative bacterium shifted from using sunlight to split molecules of hydrogen sulfide gas, releasing sulfur as a byproduct, to splitting H2O and releasing oxygen as a byproduct. This was the first cyanobacterium. Through bacteria’s proclivity for open collaboration (horizontal gene transfer), oxygen-producing bacteria quickly blanketed the earth and formed the evolutionary foundation for respiring animals from which we evolved. Without the open source sharing of the genes for water-based photosynthesis, life might still be like one enormous fart network, a giant sphere of browning methane, rather than the symphony of sparrows, bumblebees, flowers, and blue babbling brooks we call home.
To this day, we are dependent on open collaboration in bacteria for our survival. 90% of cells in our bodies are microbes, many of which are bacteria (all are descendant from bacteria). The body of the earth still depends on that foundation of cyanobacteria for an atmosphere habitable for what we know as life.
Cultural exchange resembles the open collaboration of bacteria and is subject to the same malfunctions in learning and adaptation when open collaboration is inhibited. When we mess with open collaboration at the cultural level, we mess with the whole evolutionary structure down to its bacterial foundations. How could it work any other way when microbes make up a substantial portion of what we call the self? Antibiotic resistance in bacteria, and therefore with humans, is a perfect example of cultural ecology affecting bacterial ecology and bacterial ecology feeding back to affect a culture around “superbugs.”
We find the root superbugs, as with most modern products, in the emergence of agriculture. Apprehensions toward agricultural society’s tendency toward control and consolidation of power can be seen in the story of Genesis, the story of Gilgamesh, and in oral traditions long preceding the transcription of stories like these. In history class, this narrative is typically picked up quite a bit later with Enclosure in England followed by the Corn Laws. But we can witness the narrative playing out right now in the result of industrial agriculture’s chemical warfare approach to controlling food production.
Researchers have found that anti-biotic resistant genes pass readily between livestock-associated and human-associated bacteria, linking drug resistance in humans with agricultural populations. Once anti-biotic resistant genes are in the mix, they spread rapidly through global populations through bacterial open collaboration.
Open collaboration is an ecological principle and only narrowly conceived as a computer phenomenon, fad, or business innovation strategy. Open collaboration is an evolutionary imperative as ancient as life itself, one that can be witnessed all around us and in our own bodies.
As an ecological principle, open collaboration is a core aspect of ecological literacy. The ability to perceive open collaboration in process in the world around us and to incorporate it into our lives is a vital part of the development of a designer’s mind and of the foundation for an ecologically conscious citizenry.