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blog: Don Marti

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Open source, cognitive surplus, and precarity

19 March 2019

Someone once remarked (paraphrased) that as long as there has been a scene, there have been people complaining that it is no longer the true scene. (citation needed)

Of course the open source scene is changing, but how much of that is the unavoidable transformation that a healthy scene goes through, and how much is fundamental?

The Free Software movement as we know it started by capturing the tremendous cognitive surplus that was just there for the taking at universities and conventional, slothful corporations. Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, barriers to cooperation were transactional: licensing and communications technologies. Patches on a mailing list seem like a high-overhead collaboration method today, but by the standards of the time, diff(1), patch(1) and Free command-line tools were transformational. And of course the classic free software licenses are practically zero-overhead for participants with uncomplicated sharing or reciprocity goals.

So, all that cognitive surplus was just sitting there between classes or TPS Reports or whatever, and the software freedom scene was set up to capture it. Before long, Tim O'Reilly and friends branded it as a software business trend called Open Source, and the modern software business emerged.

Sounds great—why isn't it continuing to work like that? Two reasons.

Less cognitive surplus in the world

  • The kind of university experiences that include substantial cognitive surpluses are not widely available.

  • The work environment is better at capturing cognitive surplus.

Precarity is a thing. Compared to the early days of open source, the rent is too damn high.

Internet adoption by people with less "free" time

There's a whole "privilege" thread here, but the main point is that a lot of people who had a lot of free time got on the Internet and had the opportunity to participate in open source and other cognitive-surplus-capturing activities (such as MMORGs) a long time ago. New people joining are not coming in with the same economic and time advantages, even if they have access to the same creative and collaborative tools.

More competition to capture available cognitive surplus

Open source is no longer the only practical, low-overhead way to do collaborative projects. Now people can do

  • crowdfunding

  • gig sites

  • native app stores

  • software as a service

It's no longer a choice between low-overhead, low-incentivization (open source) or accepting high overhead if you want to get paid.

What next?

Open source advantages in transaction costs are still there, so there's no reason for open source to go away entirely, but people looking for open source contributors do have to realize that we're going to have to keep increasing the number of people who consider open source as a possible valuable use of their time (remuneration issues are blockers) or be stuck competing with more outlets for less already-unmonetized productive capacity.

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