May 15, 2009
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A year ago: open source

Occasionally, the “year ago” gizmo (bottom left corner of dredges up something useful that I had forgotten.

Today, it's “The Economic Motivation of Open Source Developers”, my take on Dirk Riehle’s optimistic essay. Riehle argues that open source, by driving down the price of software and increasing the interchangeability of developers, will benefit everybody. I was wary:

What Dirk fails to consider here is capital: who will ever build new software, or new software companies, if they can be so easily destroyed? The scenario demonstrates how open source can act as an agent of capital destruction; it's not clear what role it plays in renewing this resource.


The essay suggests that rational developers should rush to become committers to successful open source projects; once securely ensconced in that role, they can command a premium salary (even though they may no longer have time to do actual work for their employer!). But will this work? There can only be a few committers; this seems a recipe for building a software world with a few well-paid foremen (who don't actually do any work) and a lot of poorly-paid mechanics who spend their days writing production code and their nights struggling to please the foreman and aspiring to reach the airy heights of open source. This seems a recipe for recreating the worst aspects of the labor union, stripped of the notion (sometimes, arguably, a pretense) that the union represents its members. In this brave future, we’re all going to be Teamsters.

When I wrote this, the current depression was already under way. But we didn’t know that; at any rate, I didn’t know that. In today’s Boston Globe (and you never know these days whether tomorrow’s Boston Globe will be the last), there’s a story about a software engineer who, out of work for the better part of a year, has bought radio ads in the hope that some manager will hear about his expertise and hire him.

I fancy that he’s not telling prospective employers that he’ll be spending most of his time working on community software.