EuroOSCON: Open Source Storytelling

I opened the first OSCON in Europe today and in my introductory remarks I talked about the Iliad, what we do at O’Reilly, open source, the “battle” with Microsoft, moving OSCON to Europe, and what it is to be human. In less than 15 minutes. The text of my remarks is below.

EuroOSCON Keynote
Nathan Torkington

Sing, O goddess, the anger of Achilles son of Peleus, that brought countless ills upon the Achaeans. Many a brave soul did it send hurrying down to Hades, and many a hero did it yield a prey to dogs and vultures, for so were the counsels of Jove fulfilled from the day on which the son of Atreus, king of men, and great Achilles, first fell out with one another.

So begins the Iliad, the first written piece of Western literature.  I recently began reading the Iliad in an attempt to understand what it is that we do at O’Reilly.

You might say to yourselves, looking around at this fine palace of a hotel, “who is this fool conference organizer who doesn’t know what it is that he does?”  But I maintain that it’s not as obvious as you hypothetically think.

Of course, my job is to select and schedule talks.  To build a program that reflects the biggest and best in open source.  To attract the smartest and most interesting people for a week of hardcore nerdery.  Absolutely nothing to do with a poem about the dusty seige of a city whose location was lost until the 19th century, with gods, swords, heroes, bloodshed, and the wine-dark sea.  Right?


The talks, the program, the event … they’re just the medium.  Other parts of O’Reilly work in web pages, in printed books, in training material.  We have to create these things to do our jobs.  But they’re no more what we do than the conference you’re at right now.

What we do is tell stories.  We look at the motivations, the technology, the market, the users, and construct our own epics.  Draw closer, friends, and listen to this story of OSCON:

Sing, O goddess, the anger of Linus of Torvalds, that brought countless ills upon the Microsoftians.  Many a brave soul did it send hurrying down to Redmond, and many a hero did it yield a prey to commoditization and cost-efficiencies, for so were the counsels of open source fulfilled from the day on which the son of Gates, king of men, and the great Linus, first fell out with one another.

Well, that’s one story.  That’s the story of Linux, already a creation myth in our culture.  The struggle between Microsoft and the legions of programmers that Linus and Richard Stallman brought across the Aegean in a thousand Sourceforge projects has been told many times in different forms, from Linus’s autobiography to the pages of magazines like BusinessWeek and Fortune.  Battle stories like the Iliad are fun.  Just ask Hollywood.

But that’s not actually the story of this conference.  For a start, painting Linus as Achilles implies he’ll die during the course of the battle from a heel injury (memo to Linus: Nike Airwalks).  And, of course, it took 10 years for the Trojan War to end.  Linux is more than 10 years old and Microsoft’s stock price is still very healthy, thankyouverymuch.

The Iliad is a story of conflict.  Everyone wants to sing the story of open source as a conflict between the forces of good and the forces of evil, Trojans and Greeks, Linux and Windows, but it’s not that simple.  For a start, open source isn’t really fighting Microsoft.  We’re competing for the same users, more like Gods competing for believers.  Hmm, it might be worth considering that none of the gods in the Iliad are still around.

The trouble with conflict stories is that we want resolution: if the Greeks are beseiging Troy, someone has to win and someone has to lose.  If open source is going head to head with Microsoft, open source had better win and Microsoft had better lose.  But in the 2800 years since the Iliad was written, we’ve lost the nuances of conflict stories.  Sure, Greece wins (sorry to ruin the ending) but in the story both sides are painted sympathetically and while one side wins and the other loses, neither is painted as all evil.  Hector and Achilles don’t battle to the death, King Priam doesn’t kill Menelaus, and Linus Torvalds won’t face Bill Gates on the battlefield, one to leave the bloodied victor and the other a corpse to be burnt on a funeral pyre.  In the open source world, we tend to tell the conflict story as though we’re all good and they’re all bad.  We lose sight of the fact that it’s really about individuals making their own choices.

I prefer to use a different story, the Odyssey, Homer’s other surviving work.  This is the story of Odysseus’s trip home after the Trojan War.  The poor bugger just wants to get back to his wife (such a hottie that half of Greece is apparently queueing at her door–the difference between her and Helen of Troy is that Helen opened the door).  Ulysses has more setbacks on his trip than those of you who flew to get here.  Around the world.  On United.  Excepting those of you who had a Cyclops as a checkin agent or were turned into swine by cabin attendants, of course.

Our conflict story missed something.  Did you notice that users weren’t mentioned in the open source Iliad?  It’s all about Linux and Microsoft locked in titanic struggle.  I prefer to focus on the user and their struggle to find the right software for their needs.  The user plays the role of Odysseus, trying to get to great software.  The Odyssey is actually two stories in one: it’s Odysseus returning from the war, but it’s also the quest of his son Telemachus to find Odysseus.  Telemachus, Odysseus’s son, is open source.  The way I see it, open source is the offspring of the user: trying to find the user and to help the user find great software.

Through the course of EuroOSCON, we’ll describe the perils of software, of proprietary lockin and incompatible file formats.  We’ll describe how the user can navigate past the siren song of software salesmen and between the Scylla and Charybdis of pretty software that doesn’t work and functional software that’s so ugly you can’t make it work.  We’ll anticipate the happy reunion of user and open source.

The Ulysses story is the wider story of OSCON, too: we’re trying to make OSCON global instead of US-bound, we’ve been on a journey from Portland to Amsterdam.  There are many obstacles we’ve faced (and there are many more we’re yet to face, no doubt).  We’re glad to have you along for the ride as sailors on our boat.  Don’t think too hard about that, or you’ll remember that some of the sailors died.  I can say that in nearly ten years of conferences, we’ve had never had anyone eaten by a Cyclops.  Still, it’s only the second day of the conference.  Plenty of time to go.

This story of OSCON is still being written.  As Americans (and in this shirt I consider myself an honorary American) we’re new to Europe and we want to learn how to tell stories here.  We believe open source is worthy of great stories, great hotels, great food, great people.  Every good storyteller listens to their audience, though.  Stories are shaped in response to the reactions of the audience, and we want to know your reactions.  Allison Randal, conference co-chair, and I will be listening to your reactions, as will all the O’Reilly staff.  What does open source want?  A Mediterranean vacation?  Should we have the conference in Italy next year, or in Amsterdam?  We’ll be listening and shaping our future stories based on what we hear.

So this conference is a story.  We need stories.  We
, people, humanity, need stories.  Where no story exists, we create one to fill the void.  Another great master of Western Literature, Terry Pratchett, describes man as homo narrans, the storyteller.  The myths and epics we create give us models and lessons for life.  We need heroes to lead us into battle.  We need battles to define “us” from “the other”.  We need gods to help us, and to blame when we fail.  We need to hear of battles that were won, quests that were fulfilled, wrongs that were avenged.  These things show us how to live our lives, show us that our daily struggles to find food or fix bugs aren’t in vain, that we’re soldiers on the Trojan battlefield or sailors beset by boulder-throwing giants but that we are also part of a larger story, a story that will be told through the ages forever.

Because we are part of a larger story, the story of open source.  Free and open source software has rewritten the rule book on how we create software.  It has created new business models, and forced smug monopolists to scramble to catch up and compete.  It has restored power to the user, built democratic software institutions, and created software economies for countries that previous had none.  It’s a hell of a story, one that will be sung through the ages.  And we here all have a role.  Some will have entire chapters of the story devoted to their deeds (Larry, Rasmus, I’m looking at you), others will be soldiers on the battlefield (take heart, soldiers: as I’m learning, nobody in the Iliad goes unnamed).

This story is not yet over.  There’s more story to be written, just as there’s more code to be written.  I hope you’ll stay for all three days of sessions, enjoy yourselves (even Odysseus had wine on his trip), and help us see how it ends.  Thank you.