Announcing the date of the FOSS revolution: 2032!

By Rick Jelliffe
April 24, 2009

In the spirit of Bishop Ussher, I am prepared to announce the date the Free and Open Source Software revolution will be complete: it is the year 2032!

Here is my rationale: in that year, everyone who was 21 (and at college, impressionable and spongelike) or older at the time of the release of the first GCC compiler will have reached retirement age (assuming 45 year working life starting at 22). There won't be anyone who hadn't studied or worked without the availability of first-class free or open source compilers.

So why is retirement important? It is because I suspect that if FOSS can present itself in a form that is convenient and fun for retirees to take up as a hobby, it will have access to an incredible reserve army of unemployed talent and knowledge. It may be that imaginative breakthroughs are the forte of the young, and the youth has more capacity for memorizing things, but by 2032 the kinds of software skills needed (unless they change dramatically) will be old skills, not new ones.

Now, I know 1987 is somewhat arbitrary: if you are thinking we had open source before GCC: what about emacs, what about X Windows, what about BSD, etc. then you are of course entirely right. (If you send me a flame about it, you are entirely right and a complete bore, however.) And a 45 year working life is also arbitrary: we all may be have to work for 60 years by then, indeed, we may all love to work that long. (Or we may all be eking out a subsistence growing broad beans on our window boxes, envious of the breadbasket wealth of the Yakut, the Eskimo, and the owners of the Antarctic rainforests (largely us Australians, hurray!))

But regardless of dates, I think the time will come when the sheer numbers of sedentary, programming savvy, underemployed, volunteer-minded retirees will require different organization of FOSS projects. It is a growing resource, and we need some research into how to organize our software, our projects, our communications and even our libraries and interfaces to cope with elderly contributors. Instead of SETI@home, we need a GERI@home project. If degenerative mental diseases get better treatments, then it will be more common to find retirees still able to contribute even 25 years after retirement. Of course, they may all be bored then.

And it may be that the skillsets and patience of the elderly might be just what is needed to address the long-standing administrative and QC issues that are the bane of FOSS. And I am intrigued by the possibility that retirees may allow the balance to be tipped away from corporate-dominated FOSS back to artisan/craftsman domination; call me an old hippy (I am not that old, actually, old punk perhaps but not really) but the issue of how to re-democratize FOSS so that we can have a thriving non-market society (as well as efficient markets, why are the two remotely incompatible?) is really important.

The thing that stimulated this thought was Mark Pilgrim's petulant dummy spit about the nasty font foundaries: open source fonts won't compete with closed source unless they have had the same attention and work by experts. And that won't happen unless the FOSS community can harness a lot more talent and energy than it currently can. My suggestion for a resource sitting waiting: retirees.

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