Imagine a head of lettuce and a piece of software. Two products made by two people that are sold for money. Each product takes time and resources to produce.

But there’s a big difference. Once you eat the head of lettuce it’s gone. But when you buy the piece of software, the code that created it stays exactly the same. The code can be given to 1 person or a billion for the same amount of work.

 

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Back in the 90’s software developers started conversing around the issue of scale. If software and website code, aka source code, was open to the public, it enabled exponential collaboration. Interactive communities from around the world could enhance and adapt existing code, creating an ever growing technological ecosystem.

But there was tension around what to call it. One party argued for “free software” while the other party advocated for “open source.” This argument was not simply semantics. It illustrated a distinct difference in economic application of the theory.

The “free software” community believed that sharing source code should exist outside of the capitalist system, while the “open source” community believed the idea had true market relevance. They recognized that while the system did not maximize profits for the individual, it could serve as a catalyst for innovation. A person no longer needed to create a system from scratch but could build on the existing work of others. It provided a kind of communal efficiency that could never be achieved in the traditional capitalist market. It allowed people who would never meet, never talk, never see each other’s face to work together.

 

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In an economic system designed to maximize profit, agriculture has suffered from the problem of scale. A head of lettuce will always be eaten by about one to two people. So agriculture figured out ways to scale production with minimizing costs. While I’m not attempting to outline the history of industrial agriculture here, I can tell you what mass ag figured out: with only two inputs you can make anything grow big—nitrogen and water. It’s similar to giving a kid a bunch of Twinkies, they’ll get huge but not healthy. What this means is we are eating more food with less nutrients.

This system looks pretty good if you think all food is basically the same, or even more that big food is the sign of a good farmer. And this system has worked to feed a world that’s more than 7 billion people, which is no small feat. Seriously, props mass ag.

But eating is more than just not being hungry. 

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