Finland — the open-source society

In the icy, cellphone-mad birthplace of Linux, networks rule. It's a matter of survival.

Topics: Linux,

Finland -- the open-source society

Author’s Note: Writing an online book presents some unique challenges — and opportunities. With this installment, I decided to break with boring linear order and go straight to the first half of Chapter 6, rather than the expected Chapter 2. Why? Because three weeks ago I spent a week in Finland, the birthplace of Linux, and I wanted to write about it before the memories faded. And if I write it, why wait to publish it?

Back in the summer of 1993, I went to Finland for all my software needs. I never questioned why. I just knew that if I wanted a free copy of Tetris, or an image viewer for looking at jpegs* of Madonna, or an application that would make Chinese characters readable in my e-mail, I headed to Finland — or rather, to the Internet address “nic.funet.fi.” It was just another one of the lovable eccentricities of the old Internet. For some reason, one of the world’s largest repositories of freely redistributable software could be found in a small Northern European country previously most famous for sauna baths and Sibelius.

Today, Finland is famous for other reasons — notably, for being the original home of both Nokia, the world’s largest and most profitable manufacturer of mobile phones, and Linus Torvalds, the creator of Linux. Finland is also now widely hailed as one of the most “wired” nations on the planet (as judged by mobile phone and Internet usage). Once known mostly for exports of pulp and paper products from its vast forests, Finland now enjoys the unexpected honor of being acclaimed throughout Europe as a role model for the so-called Information Society.

Nokia receives the lion’s share of the credit. An aggressive, fast-growing, fully global company that makes Microsoft look like an old fuddy-duddy, Nokia is hiring new employees at the rate of 1,000 per month. The company so dominates the economy of Finland that a sudden drop in its stock price sends jitters through the entire nation. But which came first, the Nokia chicken or the Finnish egg? Is Nokia the reason that glued-to-their-phones Finns often seem like some strange new cyborg beast — homo mobilis telefonicus? Or does the much-touted Finnish openness to new technology explain Nokia’s surge to the forefront of the global economy?



Finland’s love affair with high technology runs deep. The closer you look, the less remarkable it seems that a 21-year-old undergraduate at the University of Helsinki cooked up some code that ended up throwing the entire software industry into turmoil. For Linux is far from Finland’s only contribution to Internet culture: To an extent way out of proportion to its size, Finland has bequeathed unto the Net a valuable and culturally rich set of essential tools.

In addition to the software library at nic.funet.fi, there is also the much beloved, albeit now somewhat archaic, Internet Relay Chat, or IRC* — one of the first popular open-source programs to enable real-time online conversations between globally dispersed Internet users. There’s also ssh,* a program hugely popular with hackers and geeks that helps ensure secure online transmission of data. And, perhaps most notoriously, there’s that Net icon of the early ’90s, Johan Helsingius’* “anon.penet.fi” anonymous remailer* — a tool that, until the Church of Scientology convinced Finnish authorities to shut it down, allowed the paranoid or privacy-conscious to post to newsgroups and send mail in complete, cryptographically protected anonymity. These contributions, and even Linux itself, may be just a drop in the bucket of the hundreds of thousands of software programs hackers have uploaded to the Net. But the Finns’ predilection for creating such tools reveals an acute understanding of the nature of a networked, open-source society.

Finland’s contributions to the Net pose a conundrum. When Finns asked me why I had come to their out-of-the-way nation, I gave them two reasons. The first was obvious — I had come to dig up background information on Linus Torvalds. So I visited the university where he first started hacking on Linux. I talked with people who had studied under Torvalds’ maternal grandfather, a well-known professor of statistics, and who were used to watching his father, a television reporter, deliver dispatches from the war in Chechnya. I even hung out in the neighborhood bar his mother is known to frequent.

And everywhere I went, people were eager to gossip. Did I know what his mother said about Linus’ love life in last Saturday’s afternoon newspaper? Was I aware that his parents had been members of the Communist Party? What did I think about the fact that in the late ’60s his student radical father, Nils Torvalds, had infuriated his other grandfather, a conservative newspaper editor, by posing on the cover of a magazine holding a machine gun? And could I please tell them how much Linus was worth? A hundred million? A billion?

But Linus wasn’t the whole story. I also sought the answer to a question I must have been subconsciously mulling over ever since I waited for that first software program from 10,000 miles away to creep across my 2400 baud modem in 1993. Why Finland? In the 21st century, there’s hardly a nation in the world that doesn’t want to be a role model for the information society. What made Finland so special? Was it an accident of history, the luck of the draw, or some more complex intersection of cultural evolution and the activist will of an entire people? More to the point, was it possible that the deep structure of Finnish civilization encourages an open-source way of life?

Harri K. Salminen points at a nondescript PC half hidden under a rack of shelves, practically invisible in a room full of much larger computers. It’s possible, says Salminen, pursing his lips in a geekily confident way that suggests total familiarity with the millions of dollars of hardware surrounding him, that the hard drive on this computer served the files I downloaded from nic.funet.fi seven years earlier. It’s not much to look at now — it isn’t even connected to the Net. Instead, an impressive array of state-of-the-art SGI Crays and DEC Alphas hum contentedly. In a high-tech country, this, the central server headquarters of the Center for Scientific Computing, is one of the highest-tech rooms — the root node of the Finnish Internet.

It’s also the room in which Linux was first made available to the general public, which makes it one of the original source points for open source — and as close as you can get to a holy shrine for free software. For years, says Salminen, the demand from outside Finland for downloads of free software from nic.funet.fi required the imposition of bandwidth transfer “speed limits” to keep the network usable for Finns. As I strolled among the computers, half-listening to Salminen, the chief “coordinator” for nic.funet.fi, I could almost see the world-spanning network, an infinitely tangled spider web of connectivity, spiraling out from this one node, delivering one of the Net’s most infectious packages of software to countless other nodes. I wondered what a real-time look at the scrolling log files of nic.funet.fi might have revealed back in August 1991, as hackers from all over the globe arrived, downloaded, left, and then used Linux and all the other free software tools that make up a Linux-based operating system to build their own nodes from which to spread the digital word. A room full of computers is hardly a romantic sight, but here, at Linux’s original launching point, I felt as physically close to the soul of the Internet as I had ever been.

Salminen seemed bemused at my sincere intensity. A typical Finn and a typical geek — fluent in six languages, an expert in C* and Perl* programming — he chewed over my questions as if he wasn’t quite sure they were worth asking. He had no problem providing the nuts and bolts of the history of the Internet in Finland: In 1988 Salminen was personally in charge of setting up the link between the FUNET network and the NSFNET backbone of the Internet, in conjunction with four other Scandinavian nations He could tell me exactly who had first uploaded Linux to nic.funet.fi — a student named Ari Lemmke — and on what date commercial sales of Internet connections began in Finland — 1993.

But why was Finland so wired? Why had Finns made so many contributions to the Internet? Why was the country so gaga over all forms of telecommunication — beginning with the phone?

There is no single answer. But there are some telling data points. First, the Finnish infatuation with the telephone is no new phenomenon, no mere byproduct of Nokia’s dramatic rise to prominence. Finns have been crazy about phones from practically the first moment they could get their hands on them. In 1896, Mrs. Alex-Tweedie, an English travel writer, noted that “Finland is full of phones.” Angel Ganivet, the Spanish consul in Finland in 1896-97, observed that phones were almost as common as kitchenware, and devoted an entire chapter of his book on Finland to the “excessive” interest Finns had in technology. It also has become an inordinately popular national obsession (at least among the telecom-literate people I interviewed) to mention at least once a day how there were more than 800 separate telephone companies in the country during the 1920s and ’30s.

Finland is a sparsely settled country — a little over 5 million people are sprinkled across a land mass 1,000 kilometers long from north to south. An attraction to phones is therefore an understandable outgrowth of local geography. But a historical misstep by the Russian tsar also played a crucial role. During the 19th century Finland was an “autonomous Grand Duchy” under the rule of the Russian Empire. (Prior to that, for seven centuries Finland had been ruled by its neighbor, Sweden.) Finland’s multitude of phone companies was a legacy of the Tsar’s decision to declare the telegraph a militarily essential device — and the telephone, on the other hand, little more than a toy.

Wary of the possibility that the Tsar might change his mind, the Finnish government chose to grant licenses to operate telephone companies to all applicants — in marked contrast to the practice of most other nations, who ensured that telephone operation was a tightly controlled state monopoly. The reasoning of the Finnish government was as follows: It would be much easier for the tsar to renege on his decision if all he had to do was simply close down or otherwise take control of one state enterprise, rather than hunt down hundreds of independent companies.

When you have 800 telephone companies in a country that, in the 1920s, only had a population of 2 million to 3 million people, you are forced to become expert in interconnection technologies. As a result, Finns understand networking.

I was reminded of this constantly during my week in Helsinki, in both small ways and large. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which was helping to coordinate my visit, (and which paid for my airfare to Finland) gave everyone I interviewed a copy of my schedule, so everyone knew who I had talked to already and who I would be talking to next — they even used me as a conduit for messages between each other. I was absorbed into their network as effortlessly as a well-configured Web server handles a newly arrived connection request.

In Finland, the mobile phone has evolved into much more than just a symbol of Nokia’s corporate power — it is now a vehicle for the etiquette of personal encounters. Examining a new acquaintance’s phone — for new features, for style or just for the heck of it — is as natural as shaking hands.

And provision of cutting-edge wireless services isn’t just future hype, it’s a cornerstone of the national economy. Near the end of my stay, I had dinner with Jarkko Oikarinen,* the inventor of IRC. He told me that that very day he had decided to quit his job as a programmer in the University of Oulu’s medical school in favor of joining a startup to work on wireless applications for mobile phones. I hardly blinked. Join the crowd, Jarkko. The question, in Finland, isn’t “who is doing the interesting work in wireless networking?” but rather “who isn’t?”

So that most telling stat about Finland — 5 million people, 4 million mobile phones — begins to make sense. But what about the Net? Where’s the built-in connection to programming?

Salminen shrugs. It’s the long winter, he says. Finland’s the northernmost country in Europe — nearly a third of the nation is within the Arctic Circle. There’s just not much else to do besides hack.

In Finland, all roads lead to winter. There are, in fact, no fewer than three winters in Finland: autumn winter, high winter and spring winter. I arrived in Helsinki at the end of March, smack in the middle of spring winter. During the week I visited, the temperature rarely rose above freezing; the bays and inlets that snake into and through Helsinki were clogged with ice, and remnants of high winter snow still survived in parks and by the sides of roads. But it was sunny, and people were cheerful — because in Finland, when the temperature gets as high as freezing, spring is at hand.

Finns dote on their winter; it is built in to the national psyche, a point of both pride and misery. Not for nothing is Finland the world leader in naval ice-breaking technology. Finns will sniff, slightly annoyed, if you dare even to question whether their winter really is appreciably worse than that of their Scandinavian neighbors. Most Swedes and Danes live further south, they note, while Norway’s long coastline is warmed by the Gulf Stream. It’s no accident that Finland invented the sauna — keeping warm is a national pastime.

Winter, says Risto Linturi,* explains everything about Finland.

Linturi is Finland’s leading candidate for national digital visionary, though at first listen he doesn’t sound much like the smooth snake-oil salesmen that pass for digital evangelists in the West. Instead, he creaks like a glacier, ponderously, crunching granite outcrops of speech into gravel as he moves forward, contemplating each newly spoken word as if it were some kind of bizarre mutation. Formerly the chief technology strategist for the Helsinki Telephone Company, Linturi is currently a venture capitalist whose company provides modest seed capital for high tech start-ups in Finland.

But a visionary he is: A voracious reader of science fiction (his favorite author is Robert Heinlein), he lives in a high tech “smart house” whose doors and appliances he can control with his mobile phone.

“As long as we have been living in Finland,” says Linturi, “we have been very interested in staying alive. And that is way more high tech than anyone today can realize.”

Linturi says that the key to surviving Finland’s long, dark winter is the efficient optimization of information. How many cows do you intend to keep alive through the long dark months? At what point do you kill the cows you won’t keep alive in order to maximize your remaining food stocks? How will you then keep the meat from spoiling? How much time do you devote to chopping wood? What are the most energy efficient techniques for insulation and cooking?

Finland was no home to Vikings, observes Linturi, raging across the rest of Europe in search of easy plunder. Death came not from war, but from winter.

“You did not get killed because you could not defend yourself,” says Linturi. “You got killed because you could not supply yourself.”

As proof, Linturi points to Finnish folk tales. In the Kalevala, a compendium of myths and legends assembled by budding Finnish nationalists in the 19th century, you find no helmeted Valkyries or hammer-swinging Thunder Gods. Instead, Finnish folk tales, asserts Linturi, revere the “lore master.” The protagonists of the Kalevala are Ilmarinen, the smith, and Vdindmvinen, the lore singer. The antagonist is Louhi, the black witch of the North.

“All of these heroes [and villains] are characters whose main capability is information — storing or utilizing information,” says Linturi. “To survive through the winter in a country like Finland, you don’t need heroes and you don’t need power. You need information. You need lore.”

The image of the lore master instantly conjures up a vision quite at home in the world of programming — that bearded, long-haired, Unix guru who is equally comfortable in the midst of reams of C code or a game of “Dungeons & Dragons.” Programming is all about lore, and all about optimization. Indeed, one of the criticisms of Linux and other open-source/free software programs is that they do not represent innovation, i.e. the creation of something wholly new, but merely optimization, the tuning of something old.

But there’s another, more significant correspondence between the survival lore of ancient Finns and the nature of information in the digital era. Survival lore doesn’t automatically lend itself to a proprietary model of information acquisition. In other words, unlike warrior lore, survival lore does not diminish in value if other people acquire it. You might want to keep a better design for a longbow or sword to yourself or your clan, hoping to gain an arms-race advantage over your competitors. But you gain relatively little by keeping to yourself a better food preparation technique or algorithm* for calculating the proper ratio of wood-chopping to hay-gathering to livestock-slaughtering. Quite the contrary: If you share your winter survival optimization techniques with others, they may well be more likely to share their information with you.

Not for nothing has Finland been dubbed “a nation of cooperators.” The term is not always interpreted favorably — centuries of existence as a buffer state between East and West have forced Finland to always watch its step, particularly in the Cold War era, when conservative Americans dismissed Finland as a Soviet lackey, while the equally suspicious Russians glared at every Finnish gesture of accommodation with the capitalist world. In such a historical context, Finns have excelled politically at offending no one, or “kissing both asses,” as one young hacker put it. But cooperation does not automatically imply quisling-style collaboration. A talent for cooperation is also an implicit recognition that in numbers, there is strength — that collective action can achieve mighty things.

The same sense of cooperation feeds into Finland’s pride at being a successful welfare state, although in this it is not significantly different from other Scandinavian nations. But the fact that Finns are generally willing to pay the high taxes necessary to provide free child care, health care and schooling (through the university level) certainly hasn’t hurt the development of a high technology infrastructure. Torvalds himself notes that Finland simply isn’t as cut-throatishly competitive a society as the United States — there’s more of a sense that everyone benefits from a comprehensive safety net.

“You must visit Marshall Mannerheim’s grave,” Marja Erola told me. Erola, a program manager at TEKES, the National Technology Agency of the Finnish government, gazed at me with a quintessentially Finnish stare, at once direct and earnest. “It will help you to understand Finnish society.”

I followed her advice. My last day in Helsinki, as the sun was setting and the ice that had thawed during the day was just beginning to harden again, I walked from my hotel across the peninsula straddled by Helsinki to the western side, adjoining the Gulf of Finland. There, amid stately rows of fir and birch, a large graveyard stretches along the shoreline. It is a cemetery intended to be visited and very much alive — more a park than a place of death. As I strolled along the manicured graves, contemplating the Finnish and Swedish family names, I spotted couples walking hand in hand, or staring out at the sea.

At the western-most edge the cemetery opens up into a broad field, broken up by arcing lines of graves. Each grave is marked by a 1-foot-square marble plaque lying flat on the ground. The graves are for soldiers who died in World War II fighting the Soviets. It’s a bleak and bloody reminder of the last century.

In the center of a field stands the tomb of C.G.E. Mannerheim, aka Marshall Mannerheim, the general who led the wartime defense of Finland. Elected president of Finland shortly after the war, Mannerheim is considered one of Finland’s greatest heroes. His tomb, amid the men he led, is much larger than those of his soldiers, but the only real difference is in scale: it too, is another flat, square, solid block of marble.

Marja Erola told me that Mannerheim’s insistence on being buried among his men was both proof and symbol of what she termed the relative “lack of hierarchy” in Finnish society. It’s a cultural trait the Finns are inordinately proud of. Finland is a phenomenally homogeneous nation, both in terms of ethnicity and class; the only significant minority is Swedish-speaking Finns, who comprise about 6 percent of the population (and whose number include Linus Torvalds — although as one Finnish free software hacker told me, “He’s still a good guy, even if he is a Swedish-speaker”).

The absence of hierarchy is partially explained by the legacy of Swedish rule — for centuries the Swedes provided most of what passed for an aristocracy, while the Finns were nearly all one class of quasi-peasants. Another explanation points to the individualist ethic of those Finnish peasants — the Ostrobothnian lumberjack, for example, carving his livelihood out of the forest, owing fealty to no lord, is an icon of independence.

Whatever its origin, a disrespect for hierarchical divisions has now been enshrined as a Finnish value. And no Finnish entity demonstrates the power of that trait better than Nokia, the company with the nicest coat racks in all of Helsinki.

Imagine a country where all the new buildings built in the previous year are offices for one corporation; where all the computer science graduates are hired to work at that same corporation, and where half the gross national product is produced by that one corporation. That’s only a slightly exaggerated vision of the role played by Nokia in Finland.

Not all Finns are overjoyed by Nokia’s overwhelming presence in Finnish life. Nokia’s corporate motto is “connecting people.” But to entrepreneurs unable to hire quality engineering talent for their own firms, and computer science department chairs worried about the fact that all their students are focusing on research areas related to wireless communications, the more accurate slogan is “collecting people.” And to employees who work ever-longer hours, struggling to maintain a competitive edge against fearsome rivals like Motorola, Ericsson and Siemens, the bitter joke is that Nokia is actually in the business of “disconnecting families.”

It’s tough to stay ahead in the global economy; long hours are part of the price. But Nokia executives are convinced that their company has other advantages. One of the cherished tropes of Nokian corporate folklore is the idea that any lower-level employee can pull out his or her mobile phone and dial up the boss, all the way up to the CEO. If the CEO doesn’t answer, no problem: you are then empowered to make your own decisions, to act upon your own initiative. This corporate mind-set is codified in Nokia’s own internal communication practices. At Nokia, says Erkki Ormala, a director of technology policy, “We don’t ask who is your boss, we ask to whom you are reporting.”

Ormala is my last interview in Helsinki, in a plush conference room at Nokia House, Nokia’s 4-year-old headquarters, a dazzlingly blue building coated in a sheath of sparkling glass. Finland is good at meetings — I’ve been in a great many conference rooms during my week and I’ve almost always been impressed. The coffee is always fresh, a variety of pastries and sweet breads are invariably laid out on the table, the lightest of taps on an intercom button summons help near-instantaneously. But Nokia was in a class by itself: The plate glass windows looking out at the bay offer the most sublime view, the catered lunch is the tastiest, the electronic conferencing equipment is the most state-of-the-art.

Nokia House even has the nicest coat racks! In Finland, spacious coat racks are an integral part of the architecture of every building I visit. At larger corporations, they occupy a considerable amount of real estate adjoining the reception area. Finnish design esthetics are famous for pleasingly matching up form and function — by the time I hang up my coat at Nokia, I’m not surprised to notice that the coat hangers are the coolest I’ve ever seen — angled bars of steel that wouldn’t look out of place as construction elements in a nuclear power plant.

Like his company’s coat hangers, Ormala’s presentation is flawless. He has a ready, polished answer to every question except one: When I ask him whether Nokia’s emphasis on open standards for communications technologies is an example of a more progressive approach to flourishing in today’s global information economy than Microsoft’s strategy of controlling standards, he quickly pleads no comment. In today’s world, Microsoft and Nokia are both competitors and cooperators. In Finland, the Internet is already integral to every new model mobile phone — the software that runs that Net-to-phone interface will be the battleground of the next generation of operating systems and wireless hardware.

Listening to Ormala field my questions in an English that is more precise than my own, it’s easy to see how Nokia has made such huge strides over the past half decade. But when Ormala quantifies some of his company’s growth, telling me that the corporation is hiring 1,000 employees a month, that the average age of all Nokia’s employees is a little over 30, and their average tenure with the company is just under three years, I boggle. Ormala himself has only been with the company for a year, after stints in the Finnish government and as chairman of an OECD working group on innovation and technology.

How is it possible for a company hiring 1,000 20-somethings a month to even pretend to itself that it is effectively managing its own growth? Nokia, I say to Ormala, sounds like a runaway train. But Ormala just smiles.

“Necessity has created the need to learn how to integrate people,” says Ormala. “I was integrated in a process where I learned to know the organization and the organization learned to know me.”

There is no better way to compete in a fast-moving, global economy than by decentralizing operations and depending on local initiative. Nokia, says Ormala, is better suited than most companies to succeed in this economy because of its anti-hierarchical culture. One of the reasons Nokia is growing so fast, he suggests, is precisely because of that decentralization — more than half of Nokia’s employees work outside of Finland, responding to local conditions as they see fit.

As I listen to Ormala, I am struck by the similarities between Nokia and Linux. Although both have a clear center, Nokia’s CEO Jorma Ollila and Linux’s Linus, both also depend on subordinates to be able to solve their own problems — apply their own patches, as it were, to the bugs that turn up in their everyday activities. Both are fundamentally global enterprises, taking advantage of advanced telecommunication structures to create new ways of doing business — or creating code. And both operate according to values that may well be rooted in the deep structure of Finnish culture.

Lack of rigid hierarchy, respect for the value of shared information, an
openness to new technology: what do all these qualities have in common? They
nicely complement the task of flourishing in a networked environment. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether Finnish folk tales or Swedish rule or long winters really constitute some kind of deep cultural programming. Finns aren’t automatons, required by their history to act in specific ways. What is indisputable is that Finns have convinced themselves that they like to play with new gadgets and distrust hierarchies. And that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. In a world where new things tumble out one after another in an ever-accelerating rush, having convinced yourself that you thrive on newness is an amazing tactical advantage.

Of course, all these qualities require one more magic ingredient to make them meld perfectly together — self-confidence. And intriguingly, although from my perspective Finland seemed to be overflowing with confidence, many Finns told me that the country had actually long suffered from a serious self-esteem problem.

In Helsinki, Russia is never far away, physically or psychologically. The apartment building in which Linus Torvalds grew up is on a street named St. Petersburg — that Russian city founded by Peter the Great was once (before WW II) only about 25 kilometers distant from the southeastern border of Finland. The old Russian embassy, a huge, classically designed building with an imposing stone-carved hammer-and-sickle presiding over all who come near, is just a few blocks away.

Torvalds’ own parents were both members of the Finnish Communist Party. It’s one of the amusing paradoxes of free software: Linus Torvalds, a paragon of pragmatism, currently working in the heart of Silicon Valley for a highly capitalized start-up that epitomizes the way business is done in the free market global economy, grew up in atmosphere drenched in socialist practice and rhetoric.

Neither of Torvalds’ parents are communists any longer; both are journalists, his father for television and radio, his mother as a translator. And it certainly wasn’t out of the ordinary for upper-middle class Finns to be communists in the 1960s. At the time, at least as far as the West was concerned, Finland was clearly part of the Soviet sphere of influence; in Finland itself, there was always a nagging worry as to whether the country would be the next Hungary or Czechoslovakia — doomed to watch Soviet tanks roll through the capital city. Finns, who as far back as the 19th century had a reputation for stoic resignation, kept quiet and worried about their image.

Risto Linturi likes to tell a joke — “A Finn, a Russian, and an American go to the zoo, and see a huge elephant. The American thinks, ‘I could sell this elephant for a lot of money.’ The Russian thinks, ‘This elephant could feed a lot of people.’ But the Finn wonders, ‘What does the elephant think about me?’”

By the end of my stay in Finland, the Finns were asking me as many questions as I asked them. I got the feeling, sometimes, that I was the elephant. They would rather know what I thought about them than explain themselves to me. But when I told them that the country struck me as a pretty happy place, that everyone was exuding self-confidence from every pore, they acted surprised. Hannu Puttonen, a filmmaker working on a documentary about Linux, was positively perplexed — Finland, he said, has always seen itself as the “sad country.” Even the very first page of the Kalevala refers to the Finnish homeland as “the luckless lands of the North.”

Perhaps my impressions were skewed, he suggested, by my selection of interview subjects among the movers and shakers in Finland’s information society. Nokia scientists and computer programmers were bound to be complacent, given their current success. But the country still has an unemployment rate of almost 10 percent, noted Puttonen, and memories of a deep recession at the beginning of the 1990s are still sharp.

That recession was caused, in large part, by the end of the Cold War and the breakup of the Soviet Union, which until the early 1990s accounted for 25 percent of Finland’s exports. Ever since then, Finland appears to be exhaling a huge sigh of relief — relief that may be easier to see from the outside looking in.

Mato Valtonen is an aging rocker who now runs a company called WAPit, which specializes in wireless application services for mobile phones. Until quite recently, Valtonen was the lead singer and front man for the Leningrad Cowboys, a Finnish rock band with a reputation for punk/postmodern troublemaking. In 1993, Valtonen recalled, the Leningrad Cowboys hired Russia’s Red Army Choir to go on tour with them, performing American pop songs. At an outdoor concert in central Helsinki, where 200,000 people attempted to force themselves into a space that could fit only 70,000, one could hear, says Valtonen, the sound of Finland relaxing. The sight of the Red Army Choir singing Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” suggested that Russian tanks were no longer threatening the border.

Two years later, Finland beat Sweden in the ice hockey world championships. (Remember 1980 — when the Americans beat the Soviets during the Lake Placid Olympics? Multiply that by about a thousand orders of magnitude. Sweden ruled Finland for 700 years! Naked men were dancing on top of police cars in downtown Helsinki!) Esa Tihala, director of e-business at ICL, a one-time computer manufacturer moving rapidly into Web-only e-commerce solutions, cited that moment as another psychological breakthrough point. “We never had won anything, before,” said Tihala, his face glowing. “We didn’t think we could win anything.”

But now Finland is winning everything. Red Army Choirs, ice hockey champions, mobile phone megacorporations and open source avatars — Finland’s psyche is in pretty good shape. Of course, the global economy is nothing if not fickle. When stock prices drop on the NASDAQ exchange, stock markets all over the world react in kind, not excepting Finland.

But Finland in the 21st century is far from luckless. In today’s world, you’ve got to find your niche, your one thing that you do better than anyone else. Finland’s niche turns out to be the network. Not a bad gig, if you can get it.

And not a bad way to explain the power of Linux, either. When Linus Torvalds stands up in front of tens of thousands of people at a major computer industry convention, he projects an aura of untouchable self-confidence and yet at the same time an eminently approachable openness. And why shouldn’t he? He hails from a nation of cooperators who revere the power of information — of lore — in their myths and legends, who seem to be born knowing how to take advantage of the unique potential of the network. He comes from a land where open-source attitudes are as natural as the frozen lakes and endless Arctic nights.

The people who do best in a networked world have a great deal in common with
the people who devote themselves to open-source software: they distrust
rigid hierarchies, they thrive on shared information and they are eager to
try new things — new methodologies, new software, new gadgets, new ways of
doing business. It turns out to be no mystery, after all, that something like Linux and someone like Linus Torvalds have emerged from the “sad country” of the North. It was an inevitability.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 26
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>