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Celebrating the Open Source Ethos of Algoraves

Headlined by live coders, the music events exemplify the freedom that open source software promises

Almost every article written about algoraves references them as music events for nerds, despite the ascension of tech and its hardware in global culture. But dig into algoraves just a little and you’ll uncover the DNA of our digital lives.

That claim sounds hyperbolic, but what we’re really talking about here is the open source movement and what it stands for: freedom, creativity, community, openness. That’s because algoraves are events featuring music and visuals generated from algorithms manipulated by live coders using open source software (OSS). And, like many OSS users, they’re passionate about open source and how it empowers not just them, but others.

Given our deep roots in the open source content management system Drupal, we at Acquia are natural fans of algoraves, and on this, the 10-year anniversary of their founding, we celebrate them by remembering their history and the developments that led to their creation.

The Role of Open Source

We have to start with the definition of open source. Originally linked to software, it’s a way of developing code that can be accessed by anyone. The source code, which has no upfront cost,  can be studied, altered, or distributed in whatever way a user desires. This freedom means communities, not lone programmers or teams at large corporations, develop OSS.

Some even say that the history of open source is the history of the Internet. Paul Baran, co-inventor of packet switching, a pivotal technology that enables worldwide data communications, has recalled the early days of computer network development in open source terms: “We all wanted to help one another. There was no competition, really, on most things. It was a total open flow of information.”

Kelsey Hightower, a technologist at Google and an advocate of open source, echoed the same values in a 2018 tweet:

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Screenshot of tweet about open source software from Google technologist Kelsey Hightower

Algoraves Embody Open Source Values

Today, “open source” applies to more than just software. The phrase is used to describe decentralized methods of collaborating and problem-solving, often addressing issues across industries and communities. (Occupy Wall Street, for example, has been called an open source protest.) Speaking to MixMag in 2017, algoraver Renick Bell praised the opportunities that OSS affords and the political dimensions of open source: “Being able to change the guts of the tool can fundamentally change the tool and therefore the range of possibilities. Exposing process is part of the solution to our societies’ problems.”

Watch R Tyler & subfeels Livecoding Performance @ Algowave Algorave on YouTube.

The exposure he describes is literal. Algoraves often project the screens of live coders so attendees can watch the code that’s generating the music or visuals they hear or see at the performance space or club. “Live coders are basically performing by writing computer programs live on stage, while the programs are generating their art,” Alex McClean, one of the originators of live coding and algoraves, told Dazed in 2013, one year after the first algorave.

The public display of live coding is part of algoraves’ appeal, Abhinay Khoparzi contends. In 2019, the live coder told music magazine A Humming Heart, “The fact that we all use free, open source software gets people more interested because we are not showing off gear that no one has access to. They can go home, download the software onto their computer, and get started being creative as long as they have access to even a 10–13-year-old computer.”

Open source software flattens hierarchies, then, and encourages sustainability by not requiring the latest devices or even advanced degrees in computer programming. “You don’t necessarily need to have a 10-year long education in some school of music or a solid background in coding or engineering to be able to get to some interesting results,” live coder Sarah Bahr told A Humming Heart.

DJ_Dave can attest to that. The live coder took one class on the subject in college, where she learned how to use Sonic Pi but didn’t take a music career seriously until she was invited to play an algorave. “It might be in the algorave manifesto, or it might just be a general community rule, but when putting on live shows, you’re not allowed to exclude anyone at all. Literally anyone who wants to perform gets to perform regardless of their experience level, regardless of the type of music they make or the equipment they use,” she told Magnetic Magazine this spring.

“Live coders are quite an inclusive and transparent community,” said Alexandra Cárdenas, who performed at the Acquia algorave at the 2022 DrupalCon Prague, in MixMag. That receptivity flies in the face of closed communities and systems that reinforce disenfranchising limits on who gets to perform and with what tools. 

Cárdenas, who was first exposed to live coding in Mexico City, touts the sociopolitical freedom that open source and live coding offer, particularly “in such a troubled country with so much discrimination against women and with such racial and other social issues. It opens a safe space to create.”

“It’s very unlikely — nearly impossible — for the tools we’re using to be bought out and restricted behind some sort of paywall,” algoraver Antonio Roberts told MixMag.

Drupal and Acquia co-founder Dries Buytaert agrees. “Proprietary software — you’re limited to whatever the creators, you know, have thought about that,” he said at DrupalCon in Portland earlier this year. “But with open source, there’s literally no limitation as to what you can do with it because if you have this crazy, creative idea, you can go ahead and implement it because you have access to the source code, so open source is truly the ultimate creative freedom tool."

Watch AlgoRave artists headline Acquia's DrupalCon after party on YouTube.

Honoring Algoraves, Live Coding, and Open Source

The tenets that algoraves uphold — freedom, creativity, community, openness — are the very values underlying open source and are among Acquia’s core beliefs. We invite you to celebrate them with us at DrupalCon in Prague, where you can experience an algorave firsthand, as well as sign up for a discounted certification program for Drupal and Acquia products.

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