Three predictions for Free Software in the 2020s

From January to May 2020, I completed an independent study at the Rochester Institute of Technology on Business and Legal Aspects of Free/Open Source Software. This was the final credit for my completion of the Free and Open Source Software and Free Culture minor.

That semester, I traveled to different international FOSS conferences (before COVID-19), analyzed contemporary changes and trends in Free Software, and reflected on where I think we are going. I am sharing an edited version of my final report here, as a look into my “crystal ball” for what is coming to Free Software in the 2020s.

Preface

There are emerging challenges and changes to the Free Software status quo. Three pieces of context about me will help to understand my perspective.

First, I am a young adult who has contributed to Free Software for a third of my life. At fourteen, I landed my first Open Source contributions. In high school, I participated in Open Source communities with 100,000+ adolescents, teenagers, and young adults. Later, I led community-driven initiatives in Open Source projects older than me. Thus, these experiences are a significant part of my experience coming into the Free Software movement.

Second, I follow conversations about Open Source sustainability. I regularly collaborate with others who also care about Open Source sustainability. I participate in communities where Open Source sustainability is the key issue to address, like Sustain OSS and the CHAOSS Project.

Third, I am a white American male in my early 20s, which yields me certain privileges. I actively work to understand how my privilege constructs my worldview and experiences. I also acknowledge my freedom to participate in the global Free Software community is afforded to me in part by who I am. So, I acknowledge these biases in order to frame my perspective.

So, I propose three emerging trends in Free Software across the 2020s:

  1. Sustainability of Free Software is here to stay.
  2. Free Software will have its ethics interrogated.
  3. More young people will stay, or leave.

Free Software sustainability is here to stay.

Sustainability has subliminal buzzword status today, yet it will not fade from our vocabulary soon. Unlike other tech buzzwords from the last decade, I suspect sustainability is here to stay.

Sustainability is broad though. This analysis begins broadly and then narrows down the definition. To start, here is the Oxford Dictionary definition of sustainability:

sus·tain·a·bil·i·ty

The ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level.

Oxford U.S. dictionary

From this definition, I look at two sub-types of sustainability: software sustainability and Free Software sustainability. While they do overlap, software sustainability is what we build: the technology we make and its ability to last into the future. Free Software sustainability is who and how we build: the people who comprise the Free Software movement and how they work together and collaborate.

Now, sustainability is less overlooked than five or ten years ago. However, we still have competing definitions for what sustainability means. The dictionary defines sustainability as “the ability to maintain” but there are different ways sustainability is interpreted.

The maintainer and the corporation

For example, to an Open Source software maintainer, the “ability to maintain” might mean their ability to pay for their bills, live securely and safely in their day-to-day lives, or supporting a family. On the other hand, to a corporation that depends on Open Source software for their business, the “ability to maintain” might mean the ability to make new software releases at a specific cadence. It could be lines of code added and removed, or the number of commits made. Both perspectives are valid, but they imply different expectations of what maintenance requires.

On first consideration, these competing definitions make the landscape confusing. But surprisingly, this varied interpretation does not weaken sustainability; it strengthens it. It creates more opportunities to collaborate and work together in solving common problems in new, intersectional ways. Instead of focusing on common differences, it encourages seeing common problems first. While the definitions of sustainability might be different between an independent tech freelancer and an engineering manager in a Silicon Valley tech corp, both of these people could still work together on something that benefits both of them.

While I cannot predict what sustainability will mean to us in 2030, I am confident it will not mean the same as it is today. So, I am interested to both observe and participate in the shaping of the sustainability conversation in software and Free Software communities over the next decade.

Free Software will have its ethics interrogated.

Free Software emerged in the 1970s as a social movement in an act of defiance to a global market change, when software became a commodity. Activists stood together and asserted what they believed to be essential freedoms of all computer users. So, Software Freedom as a concept was born through the GNU Project in 1983.

Today, a similar storm is on our horizon. The world is shifting again. It is not just software that is a commodity. It is data and human futures. Free Software was a bold assertion of essential freedoms about software. But those in the 1980s did not know how the world would change nearly forty years later. Today, the plot has thickened. The world is more complex. Technology impacts our lives in ways we never imagined in 1983. Software Freedom may protect us in one aspect of our digital lives, but it fails us in other ways.

Ethical Source?

Perhaps this is best understood by looking at the attitude towards the Ethical Source movement by those in the Free Software world. There are a wide range of views and opinions. It is difficult to build common consensus and understanding across these groups. Yet, somehow, we cannot move past this conversation. It persists.

One famous example is the Java programming language license that forbid its use in nuclear submarines. For this reason, Free Software activists did not consider Java as Open Source until Sun Microsystems and subsequently Oracle were challenged. To some, freedom meant the ability to do anything—with no limitations—to the original work. For others still, freedom means the freedom of all people. The “freedom to use” is a controversial freedom in respect to certain ways we use software.

Join, or Die.

Is there a consensus today in the Free Software or Ethical Source worlds about how we address the ethical issues of our field? No. There is not. Inside each movement, there are disagreements and differences on what is the most effective way to accomplish collective goals of building a more fair and just world. Depending on our unique perspectives and backgrounds, we have different views on the methods and means of how we address issues of ethical and unethical uses of software. I am doubtful there is a common definition of what ethical and unethical means in the narrow context of software. We have not yet clearly agreed on those definitions in global and transnational legal and judiciary systems.

It is not clear to me which way the winds will blow in the 2020s. But what is clear is that the storm is coming. Either the Free Software movement will fragment on different definitions of Freedom, or it will collectively converge around a new set of values updated to the ways the world changed so far in the 21st century (or even just 2020 alone).

One path weakens us all, amid global political shifts reminiscent of 20th century nationalist politics. The other path unifies us and builds common power together for the things we can change. I just hope the Free Software movement chooses right.

Free Software will see more young people stay, or leave.

Free Software will either be more inclusive of young people and new ideas, or it will see these young people move on to something else and fragment the movement.

In my own life, there were decisions and opportunities to influence the building of my digital life. But it was a paradox of choice, whether I wanted this digital life or not. It was simply the reality of the world I grew up in.

I am a millennial. The world changed around me as a child, as I grew into this new hyper-connected digital era. I owned my first computer at four years old. My home had a (dial-up) Internet connection when I was six. In grade school, I built a community site and online forum for my class. In high school, I participated in and moderated international online communities. These experiences collectively informed my worldview as someone who grew up on the budding World Wide Web.

“The world the children made.”

Millennials were the first generation to inherit the new always-online world built by the generation before. This is true for many others my age or younger who are transitioning into global citizens. This is no small part enabled by the constant-connectivity of the Internet mixed with different social and environmental circumstances we are born into. Young people are coming, and it is an open question whether Free Software will include them. Or if it will only include a select few who subscribe to the same pre-existing value system.

It is difficult to articulate this well, but I think Free Software will face a challenge of inclusivity for my generation. Either it will encourage and foster the next generation of Free Software activists to assert and protect our basic freedoms of computers, or it will isolate and push those people away from being a part of this movement.

Will others my age, or younger, emerge as leaders in their own right in the Free Software movement? Or will young people start something new that is more welcoming and empowering to them as individuals?

What now?

Just like the Free Software activists of the 1980s and 1990s, I cannot predict precisely how the world will change. But I think it is valuable to step back from the hustle and bustle of daily life to think constructively about where we are going. We can fall into a routine of living our life comfortably because it is easy, but our comforts can cover our consciousness unless we evaluate our own views and biases for what they are.

I cannot know for sure where we are going, but I am committed to the belief that there are essential freedoms that we, as human beings, have in the context of the systems and digital worlds we create together. It is to this core belief that I bind myself, and I am excited as much as I am nervous for what changes are to come in this next decade of Free Software.


This blog post was originally written for an independent study at the Rochester Institute of Technology as a supplement for IGME-583 Legal and Business Aspect of FOSS. Special thanks goes to my faculty advisor, D. Joe, for supervising this independent study and being a sounding box for ideas, perspectives, and thoughts.

Original photo by AbsolutVision on Unsplash. Modified by J.W. Flory for this blog post. Special thanks to Wilfried Hounyo, Mike Nolan, and Olivia Gallucci for reviewing.

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