My Problems With The Open Source Ecology Project – Part 1

Open Source Ecology Is A Rad Project

If you haven’t checked out Open Source Ecology you really should. It is an extremely ambitious project to create and publish the designs for numerous industrial machines necessary to build a functional industrial society using available resources. I am IMMENSELY behind the theory of the project, but as always I find serious problems in the human elements involved which keeps me from contributing. As usual the details of this element are obfuscated by the project coordinators in such a way that it is almost impossible to get at the truth of the matter. Nonetheless tidbits can be found here and there online. I honestly feel that this kind of obfuscation is the single largest contributor to stagnation in Open Source in general. Without a log of what does and doesn’t work socially we cannot build on the expensive and valuable experiences of those that have been through the OS meat mill.

Why Do I Care?

Well, I’m the type of guy to build an open source tractor and I’m sick to death of having to play ‘investigative journalist’ just to find out if I’m going to waste my time building a known flawed design or not. I also refuse to develop on platforms that funnel assets to an individual that is aloof from the contributers. Just building an Open Source Ecology prototype assists in the creation of social capital, resources, and promotion for this project. I also have a distaste for Open Source dictators and the human wreckage that they cause in pursuit of fame, and all signs point to Marcin being exactly that.

Censorship? In MY Open Source Project?

After reading this blog post and comments (via, the pages are gone now) it seems pretty obvious that a long line of people that contributed to the Open Source Ecology project have been chewed up and spit out over the years. Further digging around here and here also hinted at the depth of revisionism (note the missing entries) that the Open Source Ecology project undergoes to maintain it’s appearance. This is all par-the-course for a startup that is funneling social capital without concern about the details of what it cost to acquire.

Centralizing Authority By Obfuscating Credit

It only took about a month for her to get to this.

It only took about a month for her to get to this. This is from the newly hired project manager’s work log.

The first sign that a project like this is down a bad road is the lack of crediting of collaborators. This is EXTREMELY common in these kinds of projects and is a conscious attempt to make sure that project authority is maintained by the founder and not made available to others. The closest I’ve come is this list at the bottom of the About page in the wiki, which only provides names without context and is confirmed to not be complete. This allows for a constantly changing cast of characters to come and go without the public being aware of it, which helps the founding members continue their fundraising and speaking without having to deal with questions about the human element involved. I’d like to hear more from people that have been involved, but I get the impression that lots of content has been deleted by administrators. I’ve been there, and NOTHING is as upsetting as seeing your identity stripped away from a project you contributed to (though not your work!) because your experiences represent a shortcoming of the project.

The Prison Of Positivity

The easiest path to take is to blame those with complaints and almost all open source projects like this take advantage of that. Contributors feel they cannot be open about concerns and problems they have because they fear that it will mar their reputations as ‘not team players’. They fear opportunities in the future will not be available so they peddle the cycle. This has created an entire culture of people, often coders and artists, that jump from project to project with nothing to show for it but a few entries on a resume earned not from their work but their participation in positive promotion. If you find yourself a cyber-sweatshop worker or treated like nameless grunt labor you should feel empowered to inform the community about it, not forced to cope with it in fear that the only thing you are going to get out of it will be jeopardized.

This comes out in the engineering side of this project as well.  Little to no documentation of the problems and failures of the designs used exist, which is arguably the most important thing to document. The Open Source Ecology project has wrangled with numerous issues of substandard parts from various sources that cause critical failures, especially (apparently) in the PowerCube module. This little tidbit about the poorly chosen engine in the PC came from a contributor that said they left the project in protest. She claims she left after building substandard CEB presses and selling them. It is almost impossible to find discussions about what fails and why, only that ‘a decision to change a part’ has been made. Way to defeat the purpose of open documentation, folks.

Props Vs Products

I participated in a ‘design sprint’ for Open Source Ecology a few weeks ago, which was supposed to be a design sprint for projects in the system. It was extremely obvious that most of the participants generally had no experience with 3d modeling or industrial design, but were all encouraged to create SOMETHING anyway. This sometimes devolved into “How to use SketchUp 101″ for creating for the wiki. This is absolutely not how you approach designing equipment to produce, this is how you fill out stub articles on a page and assisting the creation of graphs implying increased participation. It is very ‘corperate-culture’ to engineer the flooding of documents in order to give an illusion of productivity. It is extremely possible that these inadequate designs will be built anyway, they will make excellent props for photoshoots and tours.

This Is Part One Of A Series

I plan on trying to contact as many past contributors as possible from Open Source Ecology to get more information about the realities inside this project, and I will be posting more as time goes on. If you have information about this project, or any other project like this, feel free to get in touch with of us.

17 thoughts on “My Problems With The Open Source Ecology Project – Part 1

  1. Doesn’t he has ethical cooperation agreement for the new comers and the people working their?
    If he mentioned there he must obeyed then its people pb whom outreach him & he must not use the term OS , instead Marcin Source Ecology!
    To be fair if one doesn’t like to work with Marcin just stay away and if other groups can handle the same topic better, so go a head and provide better alternatives

  2. So after a little bit of digging through the site I found out that there is no anonymously available repository where I can download an fork the project, they don’t use a standardized cad interface, and from what I can tell they don’t use revision control. Good luck to them!

  3. Disclosure- I personally LOVE the visions that such projects gift us with. Coming from such a True Believer status- that we can “Terraform this World” in ecologically sane fashions is why I give a damn.

    You’ve laid out well stated and valid points. I have not played in their sandbox a fraction of what I would have due to one of their project facilities being Gatekeeper Fail Incarnate. Not cherishing folks who cannot wield a shovel or write checks is rather unlovable conduct.

    Disrespecting folks online by Deletion Retconning seems to be a drearily consistent behavior or am I misreading all this?

    I once felt that such fails were and are an inherent friction of “Meritocracy’s Gatekeepers” when accountability is lacking. I now see that i was and am insufficiently pessimistic. ANY documentation that does not have a robust impartial changelog is slimed by perceptual association.

    Maybe a “write forever” changelog archival brotherhood can deter revisionists? My logic is based on sad reality of these epic fails being more common as ethics get jettisoned. Or just deprecated as childish fictions?

    History’s altered these days by whoever can Retcon changes into being The Only Accessible Version and then it gets more sinister. Creating a belief of such rewritten history as being NOT rewritten is how Gatekeepers camouflage these stunts from more frequent exposure.

    OSEP has a “Reputation Hygiene” crisis that offers unprecedented potential for the Open Source movement as a whole. It can start with establishing ethics rules for participant conduct. And yes- the project “Gatekeepers” are *WHY* it’s become an imperative pass/fail ethics issue to many of us.

  4. Ryan, would you be interested in starting to design an electric tractor around advanced, low-cost, safe, powerful batteries?

  5. Seconded on rebirthing the Electric Tractor concept.

    I’d in grade school- made a “Proof-of-Concept” scale model of how batteries need not move with the tractor. We routinely power mining gear on improbably huge lengths of cable and often they use gantry arms as cable management. My “what If” postulated forklift sized or larger battery banks- Edison Cells? at a central pivot to cable linked machines. Charging being whatever works including a windmill as example. Or a stationary gasifier genset. Any local prime mover @ the pivot seems viable.

    A wothe’ell hacking of a toy center pivot irrigation rig to power a toy cable remote tractor showed scaling up was logical. We’ve now got tech like VFDs and lightweight HV steppers that can exploit the “up volts= down size” rules for cabling. The simplistic safetyhack being robotic= no humans in the danger zone till lockout/tag out interlocks are proved as safed. SWER to the pivot point also seemed a likely working strategy.

    • I like this as it resonates with an agricultural robot I’m itching to build. It came up after viewing some interesting videos on automated circle farming (AgroKruh). The insight I has was that an overlapping hexagonal grid array of circles would mean you could have one robot latch on to successive posts and efficiently cover an entire farm plot this way. You could even route power and communications this way with cables, or store water/electricity/tools at node points. Because it’s an automated system, there are a lot of other possibilities for land management.

  6. I guess I was there in the winter of 2008 before Marcin got any publicity via TED. I was a young idealistic idiot at the time. I was searching for alternative solutions and let myself get seduced into the idea that I could quit my engineering gig job and head to factor e to make a living doing open source product development there. More less squatted in a smoke filled dirt hut and ate road kill deer there for a winter. Managed to construct a terrible CEB shop addition to the greenhouse. Failed at developing the steam engine system I had come there for. Ran out of personal funds and drifted back into normal society.

    I have kept tabs on the project though. There has been progress, and as far as I can see living conditions and compensation have improved. Sounds like Marcin’s personality of total project control and consistent overestimation of his abilities has not improved though and the personal sagas continue….

  7. Yes, I’ve visited as well. I came for a weekend to volunteer, also excited about the concept. I’m no noob when it comes to the tough early days of projects or to intentional communities (which the location itself kind of is) – so my head wasn’t completely in the clouds. I’m also a reasonably experienced fabricator and maker and I’ve seen both normal and effective spaces and projects as well as dysfunctional ones.

    That being said, I was not exactly impressed. Most of what was said in this article I also found true, though I only stayed for a day so I have limited experience. The biggest points which I find disappointing… no, more like unfortunate since I have no basis to be ‘disappointed’ in Marcin’s efforts, is that he’s spent so much time reinventing the wheel and has made so little effort to identify existing methods. So many of his tools already had ‘open source’ versions dating from the 70s, especially the green building pieces, but it didn’t appear that he took a lot of that into account. Is there improvement to be made on those original designs – absolutely! But that’s not what he was doing – he was reinventing the wheel.

    Now, I can totally appreciate wanting to learn by doing, and there is personal value to reinventing the wheel – it helps you personally better understand the wheel. But if the goal is a practical one, like creating working, low cost, open source designs, then reinventing the wheel isn’t the right way to go. And if the actual goal is for Marcin to go on a personal journey of learning and exploration, that’s ok too – but that should be explicitely stated as the goal of the project.

    I also want to say I really appreciate the author for writing this, because frankly no one likes to be debbie downer. But it’s also unfair for so many people to put so much time into projects which are doing in the wrong direction, because to achieve the true goals of open source ecology we’re going to need a LOT of well placed effort.

  8. Pingback: P2P Foundation's blog » Blog Archive » A maker/hacker community’s critique of Open Source Ecology

  9. I spent about 4 months total at FeF (and was the one you quoted about the CEB press). I’d be happy to answer any questions you have.

    You’ll be happy to know that there is an article coming out in the New Yorker soon about OSE. The author interviewed me a couple months ago, and seems to be doing a lot of the digging that you are doing.

  10. Pingback: Open source : revue de web | Contrepoints

  11. Great insight Ryan- I spent the summer of 2010 there providing video/photo documentation and have been back to help on a short term basis. I would be happy to give my perspective and answer any questions you had. I do think the social conditions are improving and (as I think we all agree) would very much like to see this project succeed. If the social issues are not addressed and corrected it will disparage the very community this endeavor relies upon.

  12. I spent 7 weeks there as an intern from Berea College. I am currently writing an analysis on OSE and many of the issues related to the promise vs delivery dichotomy. I would be happy to answer any questions you had, although I see that many others are also jumping at the bit to give their piece about the goings on at this organization.

  13. Hey I spent about 5 days at Factor e Farm during the summer of 2011 and then a month during the fall of this year and I think a lot of people are being pretty unfair. Yes it is a bit harsh out there in the middle of no where Missouri but so what?? He’s trying to open source the means of production, it’s kind of a big deal. Yes, Marcin overestimates his abilities, but he’s also an insanely hard worker and just because most people can’t keep up with him is no reason to bash on what he’s trying to accomplish. Yes maybe he has been dictatorial in how the machines at FeF are designed and built (I’ve never actually witnessed this but it seems to be a common complaint) isn’t that his prerogative since he bought the friggin farm. If other people want to utilize different designs they’re free to add those to wiki and the design tree and test out their model. Marcin may be many things but if you present him with hard evidence that your way is better he’s no fool, he’ll accept it happily. Same goes for the complaint that he is reinventing the wheel. If you know of a better design that’s already out there for a particular machine why haven’t you added it to the wiki?!?

    I dunno, I think it’s an awesome project, I’ve been a contributing True Fan for years, I certainly plan on going back to volunteer at some point, and I’ve enjoyed seeing the project progress. While I was there I helped build a CEB press, a Microhouse, and a backhoe, by far one of the coolest projects I’ve ever been involved with.

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