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The Perks and Pains of Trying to Live an Open-Source Lifestyle

A man in Berlin spent a year applying the tenets of open source software to his lifestyle. It was a bumpy 12 months.
Image via Sam Muirhead/Vimeo.

Sam Muirhead admits that his plan to live an "open-source lifestyle" for one year sounds a bit like a recreation of Super Size Me for privileged techies. But he assures me it's nothing like that—or it's at least a more nuanced undertaking.

Rather than holding himself to a strict regimen, Muirhead sought to see how much of his daily routine he could square with open-source philosophy in 12 months. That is, he would re-imagine work projects, rethink spending habits, and re-prioritize mundane tasks most Westerners take for granted to reflect the four pillars of openness:


  • The freedom to run the program, for any purpose.
  • The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish.
  • The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor.
  • The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others.

Muirhead, a Kiwi living in Berlin, launched an Indiegogo campaign last year that netted him a modest $6,700. His "Year of Open Source" project began in August 2012 and wrapped last month.

What makes the project intriguing is that Muirhead, a videographer, is more Average Joe than Linux poster child. He studied German history and audio engineering in school and worked on episodes of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers and infomercials in New Zealand before coming to Berlin. You don't have to know who Linus Torvalds is to appreciate his journey or share his revelations along the way.

"I can't code. I can't solder. I'm a Mac user," Muirhead says in his pitch video. "I love technology but, like most people, I've never played an active role in its development."

He started simply. The backing music in the pitch video, for example, was culled from Creative Commons. But within days of posting, some open activists ripped him for the non-commercial Creative Commons license on his video—it wasn't as open as open could be. It was the first in a sequence of surprises and growing pains.

I caught up with Muirhead at a snazzy coffee shop in central Berlin this month to get a recap of the past year.


MOTHERBOARD: Before this project you didn't have much experience with open source software or the maker community. Where did the idea come from? 

Sam Muirhead: I didn't think about software at all, but open source is a fascinating concept. I was more interested in open source hardware and projects like Wikipedia. If you're spending all your life gathering knowledge and creating work, why should it die with you?

If everyone were to share their knowledge and work to be built upon, there would be a lot less time and money and effort wasted in duplicating effort. It seemed to me a basic concept that could make sense in the real world. You can't apply the systems, licenses and development of free software to the real world verbatim, and I'm not trying to say that that would work. I just think we can see competitors not as competitors but as collaborators on certain things.

What have you learned and how have you changed during this past year?

In my work as a videographer there's an ever-growing list of gear and tools that I would like to get my hands on to make my work easier and my videos higher quality. A year or two ago I would simply look through the options on the market and buy whichever gear was closest to my needs and budget. Video is a relatively niche market, so products like camera rigs tend to be very expensive.

Now, I realize there are other options. I properly think about what my needs are rather than just buying whatever everyone else is getting. I weigh up the option of buying a ready-made solution against making or customizing my own gear.


For something like a camera rig, you can download a 3D model from Thingiverse and 3D print the parts, and combine them with standard hardware-store pieces. It doesn't take a degree in mechanical engineering, it's usually inexpensive, and you can create exactly the gear you need for your situation.

For my work I'm continuing with free software and creative commons licensing, using CC-BY-SA music and other content in my videos, and finding ways to develop and adapt open hardware in the video field.

The project has stopped my automatic reflex of trying to solve problems by buying a product. There's a lot of resources out there but they're not necessarily right there in front of you in the window shop.

What are you trying to get across with this project?

What I wanted to get across is that everyone can have a little bit more say in the projects and products around them. It shouldn't be so defined as: "These people are makers and these people are consumers."

If more people are making more of their own products, using free software, traveling with ride-sharing, or hospitality sites like BeWelcome, then yes, it usually costs them a bit more time than just buying everything, booking a flight and a hotel. But it also means they spend less money, and therefore can free up time by working less. They even have time to contribute to the development of open source systems and tools. As these systems improve, and other options develop, it becomes easier and quicker for more people to use them.


Right now, using most open source and peer-to-peer systems is only viable for people who have the time to invest, some technical knowledge, or the necessity. People don't have access to proprietary options. But as it develops this will change. Some options are already very well developed—look at free software. It doesn't quite cut it in video post-production, so there are few of us using it in this field and I don't recommend it to many people.

"I learned all that I needed to create a parametric boxer short design."

What materials or products did you create or modify using open source information?

I experimented with making an open-hardware smartphone, a hacked knitting machine, a camera slider, open-design furniture, and some other things. Some projects were more fruitful than others. I also made my own soap and toothpaste, which was an interesting process to learn what's inside, but there's not much room for open-source innovation. People tend to be pretty happy with standard toothpaste.

I spent much of the year struggling to get my open hardware OpenPhoenux phone to work, which was pretty disappointing. Though the people behind the project are very dedicated, the smartphone market is a difficult area to break into as a small player and there are a lot of things that can go wrong. So I've abandoned that project and instead I'm switching to the Fairphone, which is an initiative to create the most fair, sustainable, and open smartphone possible, and they seem to be on track to make a big impact as well as a great phone.


You were successful with the clothing. What is it about textile manufacturing that we need to rethink?

With clothing, I could see a lot more opportunity for open source development. There's not much culture of copyrighting clothing, it's more a culture of copying. But it's not done out in the open. People don't share their designs. I wanted to find a way to share clothing designs that made it easy for people to replicate and adapt it for their own purposes.

I wanted a design that anyone can adapt to their own body, so with the help of friends—a tailor, a math nerd and a programmer—I learned all that I needed to create a parametric boxer short design. You enter your waist measurement, it adjusts the design to fit. There is expensive proprietary parametric software available for industry, but to me it makes more sense to use it for personal customization.

The underwear is the best underwear that I have. The quality is much better because I was able to choose the material and had a good teacher showing me how to sew it and I spent six hours learning how to do it. Though it doesn't make economic sense. I spent half a day making underwear when you can buy a five-pack at H&M for 12 euros.

But you've got to think about it in a different way. Don't value that six hours in the same way you'd value it as time you'd sell to an employer. You're developing a life skill, you're connected to the products around you, and it's an act of leisure rather than an act of work.

Given your experience, how sustainable or viable is living an open source life in Berlin? Do you think these kinds of projects could be pulled off in other cities?

In Berlin there is a lot of opportunity to tap into this community. And I wasn't in a situation where I had to work in a factory for 80 hours a week so I could experiment a little bit.

A fully open source life is not yet possible or sustainable, but that's not what I was trying to achieve. I realized that a lot of open-source hardware development is still in its infancy. It's been around for a decade, more or less, and that is nothing compared to how long it takes other industries to come up. Right now there aren't tools or resources available that allow people to easy grab an open-source option.

In terms of allowing a non-technical person to create their own customized products, there aren't many projects that go the whole distance—from the materials, design, the cutting and manufacturing and all that. It's still a niche group of people. Maybe in five or 10 years, when there are more options and development in this area, it'll be easier for non-technical people who don't live in creative cities like Berlin, and don't have a whole lot of free time, to still get involved in open-source hardware and open design.